Chicken (Tortilla) Soup for the Soul

Gathering with those near and dear is a cherished ritual. Sharing a meal while doing so is even better. Fitting a meal into our day creates focus, peace and intention. Eating is how we fuel our bodies and our minds to keep us going. So, why do we rush? Creating pockets of time in our days, or weeks or months to share in the ritual of a home cooked meal is doable, and worth it.

In our house, we try to make a sit down dinner around the table sans TV, phones or other distractions a daily thing. Sure, schedules conflict and things come up. We just roll with it the best we can. When it happens, though, that period of time is never regretted. The day’s goings-on are shared, and upcoming events are discussed. Sometimes silence happens, and that’s okay. That allows for that song playing on Pandora we hum along with to be heard a little more. Some times it is birds, coyotes in the distance or the giggle of the neighborhood children. We share. We listen. We pay attention to the food.

Making Tortilla Soup

One particular night we had the luxury of being treated to another beautifully prepared meal by a dear friend. She trained as a chef and dietician, bringing those skills home to her now growing family. How lucky are they? How lucky are we?? She served up a chicken tortilla soup with a buffet of garnish and that’s how we’ve been doing it in our house ever since. It is soothing, warming and filling. Husband approved. I like to think of this being a bit of comfort food connected to our Santa Barbara roots. I share it with guests and family at our kitchen table, just as we enjoyed that evening. I’m passing it on to you, now, so that you may join in the ritual.

Meals bring people together and create community. I like that. They can define a culture. The foods we identify with can either help us or hurt us, too. There are benefits to meals as tasty as this; you just have to know which lens to look through.

Cultures all over the globe have utilized food to aid in the healing of their bodies. Chicken soup has long been touted as a remedy for a cold. Herbal medicine utilizes various items we consider food to treat aches and pains to fertility issues. Even something as simple as chamomile tea is beneficial for sleep and relaxation. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has its own way of doing this.

TCM applies various characteristics to foods, both plant and animal. These attributes include the seasons, how it affects the building blocks of the body via movement or creating more (qi, blood, yin and yang) and what is referred to as “taste and temperature”. This information provides guidelines for an acupuncturist and/or herbalist to know which foods or herbs are beneficial or aggravating for patients according to their symptoms. For instance, foods that are cooling or hot (think mint vs. chili peppers) would be recommended at different times. Mint just sounds better in the summer or with a sore throat as opposed to a cold rainy day, doesn’t it? Similarly, fruits and vegetables have a peak season, which tells us when it is best to be eating them. Watermelon in the summer? Yes please. Not to mention the added benefit of items being cheaper in their season. Bonus.

Foods are also said to affect various organs or parts of the body specifically. Now, by this I do not literally mean your spleen or lungs or kidneys. I am speaking of the energetic organ system utilized by TCM practitioners when evaluating and treating patients. So, please, do not tell your physician I told you to eat carrots because your spleen would like it. I can see the eye rolls from here.

(Checking in. Are you still with me? Do you need a sip of water? Stretch? Pretty neat stuff though, right? I like to think so. Ok, let’s keep going.)

So, what about this soup? Glad you asked. TCM principles can be applied here as well. Overall, the veggies, broth and chicken create a nourishing dish for the body. Warm dishes, especially soups, are easier for the digestive tract to absorb with less effort. Your spleen will thank you. Majority of the vegetables are said to tonify, or nourish qi and blood. Think of these as necessary building blocks for the body. Specifically, the spices, chilies, peppers, onion and garlic are very warming. Just think about how these literally taste spicy and can make us sweat (or cry). The strong flavors of these items are also great for moving qi and blood to prevent stagnation. You can’t just pile on the new qi and blood, you’ve got to move it too or things get clogged up and become painful. The beauty of this recipe is in the balance, though. The tomatoes and remaining veggies for the garnish are cooling, so as to protect the body from overheating. Radishes, garlic and cilantro aid in digestion. Don’t want you feeling bloated afterward, now, do we?

chicken tortilla soup
(photo: Kelly Brisson for FoodandWine)

This soup is perfect for a chilly, cool day. Raining or snowing? Perfect. It would also be great for those with not such a great appetite, poor circulation, feeling sluggish or cold all of the time. For those that tend to run warm, are short tempered or have red eyes, though, double up on the cooling garnish (avocado, cabbage, limes) and avoid extra spice or warmth (onion, seasoned tortillas, more jalapenos). We don’t want to add more fuel to the fire.

Now it’s your turn. Invite a few others to gather around the table for a bowl of soup. Chat about the combinations and flavors chosen by each other’s garnish choices. Share a memory or grateful moment of the day. Make the meal yours. Experimentation encouraged. As always, remember to play with your food!

Chicken Tortilla Soup

4 filling portions/Adapted from Foodandwine


  • Oil of preference
  • 2 chicken breasts (3-4 cups prepared)
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 bell pepper (red, yellow or orange recommended)
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 1-2 jalapeños (optional, deseeded for less heat)
  • 1 Tbls. paprika
  • 2 tsp. cumin
  • 1 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1 tsp. chili powder
  • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1 28oz can of crushed tomatoes
  • 4 cups chicken stock, store bought or homemade
  • Salt & Pepper (optional)

Garnish (optional)

  • 1-2 corn tortillas per serving
  • paprika, garlic powder, cumin, salt
  • Avocados – chopped
  • Radishes – quartered and thinly sliced
  • Onion – chopped
  • Cabbage – shredded
  • Cilantro – chopped
  • Jalapeños – diced
  • Limes – quartered
  • Queso fresco – crumbled

1. Chop veggies: garlic, onion, bell pepper, carrots, celery, jalapenos.

2. On medium heat, warm 2 Tbls. oil in a stock pot (6 qt minimum). Add chopped veggies and sauté until they  become soft and onion is translucent.

3. While veggies cook, prepare chicken and reserve.

Option 1: boil chicken in a small pot until fork tender, cooked thoroughly, and shred

Option 2: chop raw breasts in to ½ inch pieces

4.  Add seasonings to veggies and stir. Warm until fragrant.

5. Deglaze pot with chicken stock. Stir in tomatoes. Salt & pepper to taste.

6. Once warm, use an immersion blender to puree everything in the stock pot. Or puree in small batches in a   blender and return to the pot. Caution: very hot which can expand the lid. This can make quite a mess if the lid isn’t tight.

7. Add chicken to soup. Bring to simmer and stir occasionally while preparing garnish. If using cubed, raw chicken breast cook until breast is cooked through (3-5 mins.).

8. Turn oven to broil. Stack corn tortillas. Cut in to ¼ inch strips, then in half. Drizzle with oil. Sprinkle with seasonings: paprika, garlic powder, cumin, salt. Toss to coat. Spread on baking sheet. Broil until begin to crisp, about 1-2 mins. Stir and broil 1-2 mins more. Keep an eye and nose on these. They burn quickly!

9. Prepare other garnish items of your choosing.

10. Serve and enjoy. Recommended: tortilla strips in bowl, soup, garnish with items of choice.


  • Vegetarian: Omit chicken. Swap vegetable stock for chicken stock. Add 28 oz. can beans if desired.
  • Left over pork or chicken, shredded or cubed is perfect.
  • Soup freezes well, especially in portions.

Hours – (by appointment)

  • Monday 9:00am – 5:00pm
  • Tuesday 2:00pm – 6:00pm
  • Saturday 9:00am – 2:00pm
  • House-calls also available


5266 Hollister Ave., Suite 214 – Building B
Santa Barbara, CA 93111
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