Chicken and Tomatillo Soup

This image courtesy of Joseph DeLeo

One thing I miss about living in California is going out for inexpensive and wonderful Mexican food. I suppose a lot of it wasn’t totally authentic, but I’ll never forget the chicken enchiladas with green tomatillo sauce and sour cream. I think I’ve managed to capture the same tart flavor in this soup.

NotesWhen a chicken is “quartered,” it is actually cut up into more than four pieces. In addition to the two half-breasts and two thighs with the drumsticks attached, there is also the back and the two wings. Thus the chicken is really cut into seven pieces instead of four. The back contains so little meat that it’s best used for making broth or cut in half or thirds and added to the sauté pan with the rest of the chicken to keep the bottom of the pan covered (to prevent it from burning in those areas left uncovered) or to augment the flavor of an eventual soup. The wings, while meatier, can be used in the same way. In most soup recipes calling for quartered chicken, I recommend removing the meat from the bone after the chicken has cooked to make the soup easier to eat. However, in some cases, you may want to leave the chicken on the bone and cut the quartered chicken into smaller pieces to make sure every serving of soup has a piece of chicken in it. You can convert four pieces into six simply by cutting the drumsticks away from the rest of the thighs and you can cut the half-breasts in half again so that you end up with eight pieces in addition to the wings and back. To quarter a chicken, pull any large chunks of fat out of the inside of the chicken (I discard them but they can be rendered and used as cooking fat). Turn the chicken breastside down and pull away a wing. Cut the wing oft where it joins the body. Repeat with the second wing. Fold the wing tips under the thickest part of the wing, forming a kind of triangle, so the wings hold their shape during cooking. Turn the chicken over and pull one of the thighs forward. Cut into the loose skin between the thigh and breast, cutting toward the thigh (so enough skin is left to cover the breast) and then slide the knife down to the joint where the thigh joins the back. Fold the thigh back away from the chicken and snap the ball out of the joint, dislocating the thigh. Slide the knife—I use a medium chef’s knife—along the back, following its contours so you leave any meat attached to the thigh instead of the back, and detach the thigh from the back. Repeat with the second thigh. Cut the back away from the double breast by holding the chicken on end so the larger opening is facing upward. With a large chef’s knife, cut through the rib cage all the way down to the bottom and open up the chicken, separating the back from the breast. Cut the back away from the double breast. Cut the double breast in half by resting it, skin side down, on a cutting board and forcing a knife into the bone in the middle of the two halves. Pull the knife toward you while pressing down. Turn the breast around and repeat in the other direction to separate the two halves. You should now have two thighs (with drumsticks), the back, two wings, and two half-breasts.

Makes6 servings



Total Timeunder 1 hour

OccasionCasual Dinner Party, game day

Recipe Courseappetizer, main course

Dietary Considerationegg-free, gluten-free, low carb, peanut free, soy free, tree nut free

Equipmentfood mill

Mealdinner, lunch

Taste and Texturecheesy, creamy, garlicky, herby, meaty, savory, spiced, tart

Type of Dishchicken soup


  • 1 4-pound chicken, quartered
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
  • 1 medium-size onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 pound fresh tomatillos, papery husk removed, coarsely chopped, or 2 cups drained canned tomatillos, coarsely chopped
  • 2 jalapeño chilies, seeded and finely chopped
  • 3 cups chicken broth or water
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro leaves
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Sour cream
  • Grated Monterey Jack or Cheddar cheese


  1. SEASON the chicken with salt and pepper, then brown it on both sides in the butter or olive oil over high heat in a sauté pan just large enough to hold it in a single layer. When the chicken is well browned, after about 8 minutes on the skin side and 10 minutes on the flesh side, take it out of the pan and lightly sauté the onion and garlic in the fat left in the pan. (If the fat has burned, pour it out and add 2 tablespoons fresh oil or butter.)

  2. RETURN the chicken to the pan along with the tomatillos, jalapeños, and broth. Cover the pan and simmer gently until the chicken is done—it will be firm to the touch—about 15 minutes.

  3. TAKE the pan off the heat, remove the chicken, and let it cool for 10 minutes. Remove and discard the skin, pull off the chicken meat, cut it into bite-size pieces, and discard the bones. Skim off any fat or froth that has floated to the top of the soup.

  4. WORK the ingredients in the pan through a food mill with a medium disk or puree them in a blender and strain through a medium-mesh strainer.

  5. COMBINE the pureed tomatillos with the cilantro and chicken. Thin the soup with a little broth or water if it’s too thick. Season with salt and pepper, or cayenne if it needs more heat. Serve sour cream, grated cheese, or both.

    SUGGESTIONS AND VARIATIONS I sometimes add a cup of corn kernels to Mexican soups because they go well with almost any Mexican ingredient. Just add the corn kernels along with the tomatillos and puree the mixture together.

  6. Shelled and toasted pumpkin seeds (½ cup pureed in a blender with a little of the soup, added before straining) are also a typically Mexican touch; they’ll give the soup a distinctive flavor and also make it considerably thicker.

  7. You may also want to experiment with adding dried chilies (see Ingredients chapter) to the soup shortly before serving.


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