Sunday, May 4, 2008

Grocery store cashiers will wonder what you're doing with all those dried peppers

Among the great sauces of the world, I do believe mole might be one of the finest -- if not the finest. While the world "mole" technically refers to many sauces found in Mexican cuisine, the mole of which I speak is formally called "mole poblano" -- an intoxicating blend of chile peppers, spices, sesame, almonds and Mexican chocolate, among many other varying ingredients. In English mole poblano is often shortened to just "mole," which is how I encounter it on most Mexican restaurant menus. So the mole I'm talking about when I talk about mole, which is often, is mole poblano.

Good. With that out of the way, let me sing mole's praises. There is so much I could say about this glorious sauce. I could talk about Martha, one of the many exchange students who lived with my family when I was growing up. She was from Oaxaca -- the Mexican state that, next to the state of Puebla, is a sort of ground zero for mole preparation -- and she was a riot. Once, in the grocery store, she spied a pyramid of mangoes in the produce section and inquired of my mother, quite gravely and purposefully, as though the fate of the world hinged on the answer, "Can we buy the mango?" Though I don't recall discussing mole with Martha, I am relatively certain that it was a part of her diet at home.

I could talk about my dad, who constantly refers to mole as "chocolate sauce," as if I am slathering my enchilada with Magic Shell.

I could talk about Rick Bayless, chef, restaurateur and foremost expert on Mexican cuisine, whose recipe follows. Rick's two Chicago restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, are amazing. If all the restaurants that I love were stacked on top of each other like some sort of culinary pyramid, Frontera Grill would be the summit. I am not exaggerating. Not a bit. When I lived in Chicago, a night at Frontera Grill was a treat indeed. It was worth the wait in line to sample Rick's fare, which brings authentic Mexican dishes to the heart of Cook County, Illinois. Once my mom, sister and I were sitting in the bar area, enjoying brunch, when Mr. Bayless himself emerged from the kitchen and sat down at a high top for what seemed to be a business meeting. Mom, who is not shy, decided that she could not go on if she did not introduce herself to Rick. Sister and I implored her not to interrupt his certainly important meeting. Our pleading fell on deaf ears as Mom pushed back from the table and strutted over to the chef to tell him how much she loved his food. Though Sister and I hid in shame behind our chilequiles, Rick was very gracious. If he was annoyed, he did not show it at all. This "incident" is and will always be known as That One Time Mom Stalked Rick Bayless.

(I have a story about Rick's brother, Skip, too. He used to be a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune. However, this story has nothing at all to do about food and instead pertains to my husband's career and the Chicago Cubs, so, I shall leave well enough alone. I choose to revel in the glory of only one Bayless brother, and it is not Skip.)

Or I could talk about the mole you can buy in a jar in the supermarket, which is tasty to be sure but comes packaged in a glass jar with a crimped metal lid that is nearly impossible to open safely. Yes, using pre-packaged mole is a good way to enjoy the delicious flavor without the time and effort required to make the sauce from scratch. It is also a good way to injure yourself, as you attempt in vain to uncrimp the metal lid and free the mole within. I once shattered the glass rim of the jar doing this, then spent the rest of the evening picking teeny shards of glass out of my bare foot rather than supping on scrumptious enchiladas with mole. If you make mole yourself, you greatly reduce the chances of blood loss and extreme frustration.

Though I seem to have done a lot of talking already, what I would really like to talk about is the mole itself. For a sauce that looks so rustic and unassuming, its uniform brown color masks a world of subtle, delicate, amazing flavors. It's a little spicy. A little sweet. A little bitter. A little nutty. A little chocolatey. But not milk chocolatey; rather, Mexican chocolatey -- the essence of good dark chocolate mixed with the singular aroma and flavor of cinnamon. Mole elevates chicken or turkey (or whatever you choose to smother with it) to a rarefied place indeed. My favorite mole application is over cheese enchiladas spiked with black olives and scallions. The gooey cheese and substantial corn tortillas, punctuated by the occasional fresh crunch of the scallion, provide a magnificent delivery system for the wonderful sauce. But don't stop at enchiladas: there are many delicious ways to enjoy mole.

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel it's important to state that making mole from scratch is not the simplest, or quickest, or cheapest endeavor. The sauce is complex and requires a range of ingredients, some of which are potentially difficult to find. (I am spoiled by the West Point Market, which carries most of the components needed for mole, but if you are not so lucky as to be near a gourmet market you can always find those more challenging ingredients online.)

Mole takes time. Rick Bayless advocates allowing four days to make the dish, which even I find excessive. It's much more reasonable to shave that time in half: do the prep work and frying the night before you want to serve it, then the flavors can meld overnight and the sauce can be pureed and cooked the next day. That way, you are not crazy and chained to the stove on the day you wish to serve the mole. So, yes, one must sacrifice a chunk of time to the process, but I can think of few greater sacrifices than to give a day or two in the service of great homemade mole. Think of it as an adventure: grocery store cashiers will wonder what you're doing with all those dried peppers. Friends and family will be duly impressed by your ambitious undertaking. Oh, and of course, there is the delicious result.

Finally, mole can be on the expensive side -- unless you have a good source for bulk dried chiles. For a dish that is so common in Mexico, that is so frequently made by people of modest means, it is somewhat ironic that the ingredients are expensive to the home cook in the U.S. The dish requires a lot of dried chiles, which are not necessarily cheap. But think of it as an investment. You are expanding your culinary repertoire in new and exciting ways -- and it's not like you're making mole every night, or even every week, or even every month.

That said, May is a good month to make mole. So celebrate Cinco de Mayo -- a holiday which, at its core, celebrates the 1862 Battle of Puebla -- with a homemade batch of Puebla's own mole poblano. ¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!


Adapted from Authentic Mexican, by Rick Bayless

In his infinite wisdom (and it is indeed infinite), Rick says, "Even with all the huge mounds of prepared mole pastes available in the Puebla market, many of cooks still insist on preparing their own from scratch....It's a remarkable dish. And it's worth the effort."

He also mentions that mole poblano should always be served as part of a fiesta or celebration. Rick suggests three beverages to serve as accompaniments: a dry red wine such as Zinfandel, malty Dos Equis beer or limeade. Sign me up.

A few more notes: Rick states that the variety of chiles is the most important component of this dish; it's more critical than the chocolate. So if you can't find Mexican chocolate, substitute 2 T. unsweetened cocoa. Then go focus your energies on procuring the right chiles. Also, if you are planning on making this recipe over two days, complete the following steps the night before: roast the tomato; seed and stem the chiles; toast the seeds; fry the chiles but do not reconstitute them; and fry the almonds, raisins, onions, garlic, corn tortilla and bread. Cover the chiles with plastic wrap and leave them at room temperature. Cover the tomato mixture with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The next day, reconstitute the chiles and resume the recipe at the pureeing steps.

The chiles:

About 8 oz. dried chiles mulatos

About 2 1/2 oz. dried chiles anchos

About 2 oz. dried chiles pasillas

1 canned chile chipotle, seeded

The nuts, seeds, flavorings and thickeners:

1/4 c. sesame seeds, plus a little more for garnish

1/2 t. coriander seeds

1/2 c. vegetable oil, plus more as needed

Heaping 1/3 c. (2 oz.) unskinned almonds

1/3 c. raisins

1/2 medium onion, sliced

2 cloves garlic, peeled

1 corn tortilla, stale or dried out

2 slices firm white bread, stale or dried out

1 large ripe tomato, roasted, cored and peeled OR 3/4 of a 15-oz. can of tomatoes, well-drained

The spices:

About 2 oz. Mexican chocolate, roughly chopped

10 black peppercorns

4 cloves

1/2 t. aniseed

1-inch cinnamon stick

To finish the dish:

1/4 c. vegetable oil

About 2 1/2 quarts poultry broth, preferably turkey

About 2 t. kosher salt

1/2 c. to 1 c. sugar

Set up the ingredients. "As with any recipe calling for [23] different ingredients, half the battle is won by getting yourself properly set up." So true, Mr. Bayless. So true.

Roast the tomato. Place a piece of aluminum foil in a dry skillet or on a dry griddle, then place the tomato on the foil over medium heat. Turn it occasionally for about 15 minutes, depending on the size and ripeness, until the flesh is soft and the skin is blackened and blistered. Cool, peel away the skin and cut out the core. (If you choose to use canned tomatoes, skip this step.)

Stem, seed and devein the dried chiles, reserving 2 t. of the seeds. Tear the chiles into flat pieces. This is probably the most time-consuming step of the whole endeavor. I find it easiest to pull the stems off the chiles gently but firmly -- cutting them if they are stubborn and/or brittle. Then tear the pepper in half and brush/pick off the seeds. If you see any dried veins, pull them off. But it's possible that you won't be able to get a handle on all the veins; that's OK, just leave them there. A word to the wise: wash your hands well before you touch your face, or pet the dog, or blow your nose. Because they're dried, it's easy to forget that these chiles pack some heat. Seed the chipotle and set it aside.

Measure the sesame seeds, coriander seeds, almonds and raisins into separate mounds or small dishes. Set aside. Slice the onion and peel the garlic cloves; set aside. Lay out the corn tortilla and bread.

Place the tomato in a large bowl and break it up using your hands. Add the chopped chocolate to the tomato. Pulverize the black peppercorns, cloves, aniseed and cinnamon stick using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. Add the ground spices to the tomato and chocolate mixture.

Toast the seeds. In a medium-sized dry skillet placed over medium heat, toast the reserved 2 t. of chile seeds, sesame seeds and coriander seeds, one at a time, stirring each until lightly browned. Add each batch of toasted seeds to the tomato mixture.

Fry and reconstitute the chiles. Measure 1/4 c. of the vegetable oil into a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, fry the chile pieces a few at a time for several seconds per side, until they develop a nut-brown color. This happens quickly, so you'll have to work fast. Add more vegetable oil if the pan gets too dry. Take care not to burn the chiles! Remove them to a large bowl, draining as much oil as possible back into the skillet. Cover the chiles in the bowl with boiling water, weight them down with a plate to keep them submerged and soak them for at least 1 hour. After the hour has elapsed, drain the chiles and add the chipotle to them.

This step is smoky and pungent; make sure the stove's exhaust fan is on!

Fry the almonds, raisins, onion and garlic. In the same skillet you used to fry the chiles, heat the remaining 1/4 c. of vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the almonds and stir frequently until they're browned, about 4 minutes. Remove, draining well, and add to the tomato mixture. Fry the raisins for about 1 minute, stirring constantly, until they're puffed and brown. Scoop them out of the skillet, draining, and add them to the tomato mixture. Cook the onion and garlic, stirring frequently, until well-browned, about 8 to 9 minutes. Remove from the skillet, draining, and add to the tomato mixture.

Fry the corn tortilla and bread. If needed, add a little more oil to the same skillet. Fry the corn tortilla until it's browned, then break it up and add to the tomato mixture. Lay the bread in the pan, then flip both pieces over to coat both sides with oil. Brown the bread on both sides. Tear the bread into large pieces and add to the tomato mixture.

Puree the tomato mixture. Stir the tomato mixture thoroughly and scoop about 1/4 of it into a blender along with 1/2 c. turkey broth. Blend until smooth, adding just a little bit more broth if the mixture won't move through the blades. Strain through a medium-mesh sieve into a large bowl, using a rubber spatula to push the mixture through. Puree the 3 remaining batches, adding 1/2 c. broth to each batch; strain.

Puree the chiles. Puree the drained chiles in 3 batches, adding about 3/4 c. of broth (or more, if needed) to each batch. Strain through the same medium-mesh sieve into a separate bowl. Straining the tomato mixture and the chiles is a time-consuming process, but be patient. It's important to separate the smooth sauce from the chile skins and larger pieces of nuts and seeds.

Fry and simmer the sauce. Coat the bottom of a dutch oven with vegetable oil. Heat the oil over medium heat for about a minute, then add the chile puree and stir constantly with a whisk until it's thick, about 5 minutes. Add the pureed tomato mixture and stir several minutes longer, until the mixture thickens once again. Mix in 5 c. of turkey broth, partially cover the pot, reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for about 45 minutes. Stir the sauce occasionally. Finally, season with kosher salt and sugar and, if the sauce is thicker than heavy cream, thin it with a little more broth. You might have to add more sugar than you think would work, to offset bitterness from the peppers. Keep tasting and adjusting until the sauce is only a teeny bit bitter. It should have a nice balance of spice, sweetness and bitterness.

Congratulations! You have made mole. Pat yourself on the back, then decide how you'd like to serve the sauce.

If you would like to serve it over enchiladas, as I typically do, begin by preheating the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly fry about 8 corn tortillas in a little bit of vegetable oil in a skillet. Remove a few ladels of mole to a shallow bowl, then drag the fried tortillas through the mole, coating them with sauce. Place about 2 T. each grated cheddar and monterey jack cheese in the center of each tortilla, sprinkling the cheese mixture with sliced black olives and sliced scallions. Roll up the enchiladas, place them in a baking dish, then spoon mole over them. Scatter more cheese on top of the enchiladas. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes, until they are heated through and the cheese is melted. Serve with an additional sprinkling of fresh scallions and sesame seeds. (Please note: I do not know if or claim that this method of serving mole is at all authentic and traditional. It just happens to be my favorite way to showcase the amazing sauce.)

If you would like to go the poultry route, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Saute 4 chicken breasts in olive oil in a skillet until browned on all sides. Remove the browned chicken to a baking dish. Pour the mole over the chicken, cover the pan and bake until the internal temperature of the chicken is 161 degrees Fahrenheit. (I use a digital probe thermometer for this.) Before serving, spoon some sauce from around the edges of the baking dish over the chicken to give it a gistening coat, then sprinkle with sesame seeds. If you are so inclined, you might choose to serve mole with an entire chicken (as opposed to only the white meat), or a turkey. After cutting the bird into breast, thigh, wing and leg pieces, just follow the same browning-and baking technique.

Makes 3 quarts of mole. That's quite a bit of mole, so I freeze it in ice cube trays for use later on down the line.

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