April 20

Red, Hot, and Easy: Low Carb Tortilla Soup

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Some of you may be aware, although many may not, that back a number of years ago, Mike and I made a family foray into the restaurant business. We purchased the area franchise rights to a concept out of Dallas, called ZuZu Handmade Mexican Food, which we were to own with our sons. The plan was that we would provide the capital, they the industry and expertise.

ZuZu%20Logo.jpg Though the boys worked like dogs and the food was delicious, for a variety of reasons, the concept failed to thrive and not just in our case, but in virtually every franchise that was bought outside the Dallas area, save for the ones in St. Louis, MO. Chief among the reasons were that although the preparation of the delicious, made-from-scratch food was labor intensive and the top quality ingredients were costly, the prices-to-the-consumer set by the franchiser were more in line with a Taco Bell, meaning that the resultant margins were shaved razor thin. One tiny misstep and you were in the red.

(If you’re in St. Louis or Dallas and get a chance to visit one of the few stores that are still open, pop by and enjoy the fresh salsa bar and some really authentic, inexpensive food from the interior of Mexico. The food is fabulous, though not low carb, so if you go, go armed with a couple of your own low carb tortillas and enjoy the salsa, salad, and a Chile Relleno or the Pollo Asado, if they’re still doing it.)

And after a couple of years of struggle and 16+ hour days for low pay, the kids had had enough; we all cut our losses and moved on. Our eldest son moved on to marriage and law school, our middle son went west to pursue his movie making dreams in Hollywood, and our youngest son, who had already headed off to college, kept on doing his thing at the College of Santa Fe, relieved that he’d never again be called upon to bus tables at the restaurant when he came home during breaks from school.

Owning a restaurant always seemed like a romantic notion: the sea of contented diners, eating delicious food in the peaceful dining room.

The hard reality (at least in our experience) is that whatever is going on out front in the dining room, behind the swinging door, the work is grueling and often thankless, the margins are slim, and the help notoriously unreliable. You have to absolutely love the restaurant biz to withstand the hours, the pressure, and the never-ending grind.

Mike had it right when on the night of our grand opening, at about 11:30 pm when, after everything was finally cleaned up and they could sit down at last and have a beer, our eldest son remarked, “Well, Dad, we’ve finally got us a ZuZu.”

Mike sighed and shook his head and said,”No, son, it’s got us.”

And that’s the truth of it. Once you’re open in a restaurant, you’re open and the work just never quits. It’s like Sisyphus in Greek mythology. Cursed by the gods for his treachery, he labored all day each day to push a giant boulder up a steep hill only to have it roll down to the bottom just when he neared the top, so that he’d have to begin all over again.

I anyone reading this ever hears me say I’d like to open another restaurant, slap me hard until I recant!

I am deeply grateful, however, that there are people in the world who love the restaurant biz and do it well, so that I can go to fabulous restaurants and enjoy good food and impeccable service in a beautiful, peaceful dining room and never ever again have to go behind the swinging door to the “back” of the house, where all is often chaos.

The ZuZu experience had its virtues, though. For one, we all know how to cook some really excellent fresh and flavorful Mexican recipes, one of which was for a luscious tortilla soup, which I’ve been craving since my recent bout with upper respiratory misery has left my taste buds sort of wanting some spice. The original soup recipe was made with lots of real corn tortillas, homemade chicken broth, and lots of fresh roasted peppers and spice. In the intervening years I’ve tinkered with that original recipe to make a lower carb, easier version, which, if I do say so myself, is delicious.

And, in plenty of time for Cinco de Mayo, here it is:

Tortilla Soup
Serves 4

Ingredients for the soup

2 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)
1/2 pound spicy breakfast sausage
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon coarse sea salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional to desired heat level
2 cloves garlic, minced finely
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 small fresh pasilla (or poblano) chile pepper, seeded and diced
1 (4-ounce) can fire roasted diced green chiles, mild or hot
1 (14-ounce) can fire roasted diced canned tomatoes
1 quart chicken broth
2 small low carb flour tortillas, cut into ½” strips

For the garnish
1 small low carb flour tortilla
½ teaspoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon fine salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, minced
4 teaspoons Mexican cream or sour cream

1.) Preheat oven to 325 degrees for baking the garnish tortillas.
2.) In a soup pot on the stovetop, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat, add the pork sausage, breaking it up with a spoon; season with the cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper, and cayenne, and brown. Remove the cooked sausage from the pan and drain in a bowl lined with paper towels to the side, covered with foil to retain the heat.
3.) Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pan, add garlic, onion, and fresh chile pepper and sauté over medium heat until the onion is translucent and the peppers softened.
4.) Add the tomatoes and their juice, the canned chile peppers, and the broth, stirring to combine.
5.) Add the strips of soft tortilla, stirring well to distribute them throughout; increase heat to bring soup to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low and let simmer for 15-20 minutes.
6.) Meanwhile, prepare the garnish. Combine all the spices in a small bowl and mix well.
7.) Brush the garnish tortilla with the olive oil, sprinkle lightly with the spice mixture, and cut into ¼” to ½” strips.
8.) Separate the strips, place on a wire rack in the hot oven, and bake for about 10 to15 minutes or until crisp.
9.) Puree the hot soup with an immersion blender. (Alternatively, transfer soup to a blender or food processor and process until mostly smooth. If using a blender, proceed very carefully, holding the blender lid on with a folded kitchen towel to prevent eruption. Puree in two batches if necessary to avoid overfilling the blender jar.)
10.) (If using alternate method, return the pureed soup to the pan). Add the cooked sausage to the soup, and stir to combine and reheat thoroughly.
11.) Ladle the soup into four bowls, garnish each with the chopped fresh cilantro, a squiggle of Mexican Creme or dollop of sour cream and a ‘haystack’ of baked spicy tortilla strips.

Protein per serving: 14 grams
Effective carb per serving: 12 grams

You could drop the carb content a bit by omitting the 2 tortillas that thicken the soup; the taste would be generally the same, but the consistency would be different and it wouldn’t be tortilla soup! Enjoy!


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  1. Looks yummy! I slow-simmer a chicken every week for quick chicken meals and lots of mineral-dense broth. This recipe will be perfect for the my next chicken. And I love anything with sausage in it, so it’s a double bonus! Thanks for posting the recipe. Anna

    COMMENT from MD EADES: It really is delicious and the nice thing is that, like many soups or stews, it gets better as you reheat the leftovers. Might even be worth making a double batch!

  2. I did make it this week, although with a few modifications to fit what I had available. I didn’t have sausage, but I did have boneless chicken thighs. I also had a couple containers of broth from making carnitas in the freezer that I needed to use up, already seasoned with cumin, etc. (so I reversed the pork & chicken ingredients). I didn’t have any chilis available (& 8 yo son doesn’t like spicy food yet anyway), but I did have a new flavorful but not spicy Double Roasted Salsa from Trader Joe’s. I had some créme fraiche and avocado for garnish. I’m sure it wasn’t as good as your version but it was a big hit with my family, even the sometimes finicky son. I added soft low carb tortilla strips at the last minute to his bowl for “noodles” and to cool it down. So it is a very flexible recipe! Thanks!

  3. Just wandered onto your blog. I was reading about the Zuzu place your family owned, and your comment about the prices. I googled the one in Austin (note, I’ve never been to Texas, never eaten at a Zuzu, and have no idea about local pricing), and the prices are hardly anywhere in line with a Taco Bell. The burritos run around $6.00, give or take. That’s a pretty good deal for a big burrito, but honestly in line with the prices seen here in Metro Atlanta at places like Willy’s and Moe’s, and pretty close to the prices of the authentic Mexican restaurants in this area.

    I know running a restaurant is a thankless business. My ex-wife was the office manager for a restaurant, and when they did a financial analysis on their break-even point, they found that they had to charge about $6 for a burger and fries just to cover the labor and expenses.

    Anyway..sorry to nitpick, just wanted to point out that a $6 burrito isn’t quite like the $1.99 Taco Bell burrito.

    COMMENT from MD EADES:  Our ZuZu experience was more than 10 years ago, now, and back then, while the prices were a shade higher than a Taco Bell, the Zuzu prices weren’t nearly as high as they are now and the Taco Bell prices weren’t as low. Having run a restaurant, I have no idea how McDonald’s and Taco Bell can serve as much food as they serve for under $2 nowadays.  The rule of thumb we learned is that your food costs can’t be more than 25% of your ‘drawer’.  That metric, applied to Taco Bell, would mean that somehow they have to get their food cost on those burritos down to $0.50, which just doesn’t seem possible for actual beef.

    Despite the real, made from scratch, high cost ingredients we used, there was virtually nothing on the ZuZu menu back then that was as high as $6. For instance, we served a made from scratch flan for $2.49 that was as big as and better than any sit down Mexican or Spanish restaurant’s flan I’ve ever had for $6 to $9.

  4. Sigh. I SUUUUUURE do miss seeing Mary Dan’s posts in this blog….. 😉

    I have fun reading Dr. Mike’s blog but miss the “woman’s perspective” on things here!

    You ever gonna come back?! Purty please???

    COMMENT from MD EADES:  Thanks, but although I don’t post as often as he does (after all somebody has to do something besides blog in this family!) I try to post fairly regularly.

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