Spicy chicken tortilla soup, so much better than from a can

Chicken tortilla soup prepared by students at Cristo Rey high school.

The kitchen counter at Cristo Rey High School was laden with spices, herbs, vegetables, chicken, and beans; the cutting boards and knives were lined up and ready. The students in cooking class were asked whether they had ever made soup at home.

“You mean, from a can?” asked Essence Battle.

“The soups from Wawa are really good,” put in another.

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Dashaun Dunmeyer  stirs the chicken tortilla soup  as Malachi Campbell (center) and Essence Battle  read a recipe.

Their responses were typical of most American families. My personal childhood favorite was Campbell’s tomato — which I then served to my own kids (with grilled cheese) on many a school night. That is, before I caught on to how easy it is to make soup fresh.

And that is exactly the goal of the My Daughter’s Kitchen program: to convince these kids (and maybe their parents, too) that, without much trouble, they can make soup that will taste better and be healthier than what they would get from a can or a corner store. And it will cost less, too.

Our lesson this week was chicken tortilla soup, topped with strips of tortillas and a sprinkling of cheese. It was to be served with baked tortilla chips and guacamole, not only to round out the meal and make use of the extra tortillas, but, truth be told, to win over the kids who weren’t too excited about the soup. Because who doesn’t like tortilla chips?

But even still, there were skeptics, at Cristo Rey, and at some of the 39 other urban schools around the region where 200 students are enrolled in cooking classes this fall. In Camden, the volunteer teachers at Urban Promise reported that their students were not enthused; at Sacred Heart, the students said they were not accustomed to making soup from scratch. At Visitation Blessed Virgin Mary in Kensington, the students were certain the soup wouldn’t be spicy enough.

But a fter six weeks of following recipes and improving their chopping, measuring, and sauteing skills, the students have learned — borrowing from the 76ers here — to trust the process. Or, if not to trust the process, then at least  to enjoy it. The students are always excited to chop and grate and especially to smash the garlic before mincing.

The only job that doesn’t meet with enthusiasm? Chopping onions. At Cayuga Elementary in North Philadelphia last week, the cutting of the onions was such an “eye-watering challenge” said volunteer Suzanne Rady, that her students wrote about it at length in their journals.

Yet they always soldier on, learning another life lesson: that although  some jobs are not terribly fun, they need to get done.

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The ingredients for chicken tortilla soup are layered to build flavor.

The basic concept of how to build flavor in a soup is demonstrated in this recipe: the chicken thighs are sauteed first, then the vegetables are sauteed in the juices of the chicken before the cumin, chili, and garlic powder are added.

And as the fragrance of the sauteed vegetables and spices wafted from the stove, “excitement began to grow with their appetites,” reported Maureen Dodson, one of the volunteers from Urban Promise. “That smells so good!” said Ignacio Garcia, one of her students.

Students at Wissahickon Charter Awbury had tasted the chicken broth right from the box, reported volunteer Ellen Scolnic. “They were amazed at how it changed color and became much more flavorful as the soup cooked,” she wrote.

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Students place tortilla slices on a sheet for baking.

At Wiggins Elementary in Camden, teachers Edith Bobb and Susan Lore gave a lesson in home economics. They bought a bag of tortilla chips for $1.20 out of the school vending machine and counted 12 chips. Meanwhile, a $1.39 bag of fresh tortillas from the grocery produced two full trays of baked chips, or several dozen. “Our tortilla chips were easy to make, less money and better for us,”  Bobb wrote. “A valuable lesson learned.”

Perhaps the most memorable lesson for the young cooks, however, was what a delicious soup they were capable of producing.

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Tamara Powell (from left), Olivia Rivera, Dashaun Dunmeyer, and Najah Fleming taste the chicken tortilla soup on the stove top.

At Visitation, where students feared the soup would lack spice, volunteer Maria Brown wrote: “The finished product allayed apprehension and provided some zesty, sharply spiced slurping.

“This was a true lovefest!” wrote Susan Munafo, the volunteer at William Loesche Elementary. “Everybody loved everything. Evidence: no leftovers!”

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Tamara Powell (from left), Olivia Rivera, Hannah Gonzalez, and Najah Fleming serve themselves chicken tortilla soup and guacamole and chips.

The same was true at Cristo Rey. Every drop of soup was spooned out of the pot; every last tortilla chip was eaten. The guacamole dish was scraped clean.

“We should replace the chefs here at school,” said student Malachi Campbell, feeling quite proud of the results. “I would make this soup at home and my family would enjoy it,” he wrote in his journal. “It was one of the best soups I have ever tasted.”

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The guacamole, chips and soup, ready for eating.

Guacamole with Corn Chips

6 serving(s)

Najah Fleming (left) and Hannah Gonzalez (right) sample the baked tortilla chips.


For the chips:

6 or 7 corn tortillas

Olive oil or vegetable oil spray


For the guacamole:

Two ripe avocados, halved and pitted

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste

1 large ripe plum tomato, seeded and chopped

1 tablespoon chopped onion (reserved from

chicken tortilla soup recipe)

Salt and pepper to taste

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Optional: Cilantro, if using, left over from chicken tortilla soup


1. Preheat oven to 350⁰ F and lightly oil or spray two baking sheets. Lightly brush or spray the corn tortillas with oil on one side and stack them on top of one another. Using a sharp knife, cut the corn tortillas into wedges. Place the wedges with the unoiled side down on the oiled baking sheets, taking care to avoid overlapping, and leaving enough space so the chips can get crispy. Sprinkle a pinch of salt evenly across all the chips.

2. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, continuously checking and rotating in the oven, if needed, to ensure the chips aren’t getting too dark. (If you are using a convection oven, start checking after 5 minutes.) The chips are finished when the edges are crispy and slightly lifted from the tray.

3. Remove chips from the oven and let cool for 2 to 3 minutes, allowing them to become crisp. Test one to ensure that it’s crispy. If it’s still too chewy, put them back in the oven for an extra couple of minutes.

4. Meanwhile, scoop the avocados into a bowl. Add the lemon juice and mash the avocados coarsely. With a fork, gently mix in the tomato, onion, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and cilantro, if using.


Per serving: 226 calories, 17 grams fat, no cholesterol, 45 milligrams sodium, 406 milligrams potassium, 20 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams dietary fiber, 3 grams sugar, 3 grams protein

Chicken Tortilla Soup

Makes 6-8 servings

Essence Battle (left), Najah Fleming (center), and Hannah Gonzalez (right) shred the chicken after it cooked with the tortilla soup, before returning it to the pot.


1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs

1½ teaspoons cumin

1 teaspoon chili powder

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 medium onion, diced (1 tablespoon reserved for guacamole)

1 green bell pepper, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1  14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, plain or with Italian seasoning

32 ounces low-sodium chicken stock

1  15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed

Salt and pepper, to taste

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes or more, if desired

3 corn tortillas, cut into strips

Optional garnishes:

Grated Monterey jack cheese

Cilantro (if using, add some chopped cilantro to your guacamole)


1. Heat olive oil in a stockpot on medium-high heat. Saute whole chicken thighs until brown on both sides. While the chicken is cooking, mix cumin, chili pepper, garlic powder, and salt to add to the vegetables. Add onions, green pepper, and minced garlic and stir to combine. Stir in the spice mix and cook for about 5 minutes until the vegetables and spices are fragrant.

2. Add canned tomatoes, chicken stock, and black beans. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Simmer for 30 minutes, uncovered. Add water if the soup seems too thick.

3. Remove chicken thighs and shred using two forks before returning to the soup. Taste to check seasonings, adding more if needed.

4. About 2 minutes before serving, add corn tortilla strips and stir to combine. To serve, ladle into bowls, then top with your choice of garnish, if desired.

5. Serve with a side of homemade chips and guacamole.

Per serving: 251 calories, 7 grams fat, 50 milligrams cholesterol, 248 milligrams sodium, 535 milligrams potassium, 23 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams fiber, 4 grams sugar, 24 grams protein