Holy Mole!

by Jeanne


Part II of the series that ran last year on Oaxaca and the Day of the Dead.  This post written by Chris Carter.  Who excels in this category of Mexican cooking, his cajeta is fantastico also!

Written by Chris Carter

As we stepped through the wide iron gates of the cemetery at Xoxocotlan Cemetery in Oaxaca City well into the evening on October 31st a brass band struck up a jaunty tune. The enclosed space, crowded with people and illuminated in candles, was beyond anything I had seen in magazines about Day of the Dead celebrations– in the United States you rarely see hundreds of people in a cemetery at night, let alone with a brass brand. I was here for two reasons—to witness this cultural ritual first hand and to master the preparation for the king of all moles, Mole Negro Oaxaqueno (black mole). This task would be facilitated through Susanna Trilling and her school, Seasons of My Heart.

Oaxaca, in food circles, is known as the land of Seven Moles. This Mexican sauce made of ground nuts, seeds, chocolate and spices takes its name from molli, from the language of the pre-Colombian Nahuatl Indians in Mexico, and loosely translates as mixture. The Mexican state of Oaxaca is famous for its seven moles, often called the Seven Sisters.

Mole (pronounced MO-lay) preparation and especially mole negro, is complex and a difficult sauce to make. It contrasts greatly with both our culinary practices and general way of life in America. Rachael Ray need not apply as this is no 30-minute meal. It can actually take days to make and generally contains 20 to 30 ingredients. It is also not a simmer all day and forget about it dish either, as it can require a couple hours of constant, attentive stirring. It can actually be heartbreaking to dump a batch of inedible mole down the drain after three days of hard work. In my case it took several of these down-the-drain experiences and a trip South to perfect the dish before I could produce a passable traditional black mole.

The difficulty of the dish is due in part to the fact that the sauce does not lend itself to the rote following of directions. The end goal for a great mole is a single deep rich flavor. How do you know if you are tasting a quality mole? You should not be able to individually identify any of the 20-30 single ingredients, which requires the deft hand of the mole maker to balance all the aspects of the sauce– the sweetness from the fruit and nuts, with the heat from the chilies, and in many cases the richness of the chocolate added to the mole. Black mole requires a step where you deeply blacken the chilies followed by igniting and burning the seeds of the chilies to give the mole the classic delicate burnt undertones that add distinctiveness and complexity. After all the ingredients are prepared they are pureed together. In Oaxaca this ability and skill is acknowledged with a “buen sazon” which according to our instructor Susanna Trilling means “good taste buds or palate, combined with a good hand for seasoning.”

“Black mole always has to be the star” according to Rick Bayless in his cookbook, Mexican Kitchen. This can be generally interpreted as serving rice and fresh tortillas on the side of the dish to sop up the sauce. In America where meat is plentiful and usually the focus of a special meal, in Mexican cooking the sauce is typically the centerpiece with the meat—turkey or chicken–as a luxury. Zarela Martinez states in her book The Food and Life of Oaxaca “an understated foil to the fascinating textures and nuances of the sauces”.

If you take the time to make the black mole recipe below from Susanna Trilling you will certainly have an extravagant, richly complex, and deeply flavored dish for a special occasion. Relative to all the contrasts between Oaxaca and America listed above, it is actually harder to make Mole here than in Oaxaca where all the ingredients can be ground for you at local molino or mill. Here are a few practical tips to make preparing and serving black mole easier and more enjoyable:  continue on for mole recipe

Photo credit: J. Brophy

The recipe requires small amounts of many ingredients so it is actually hard to make small batches of mole and unlike our neighbors to the South in Oaxaca you probably aren’t feeding 50 people. Luckily mole freezes extremely well and you can get several meals out of a single batch. Black mole is great with chicken or pork with pork chops being especially delicious. Another idea, especially if your mole comes out a little bitter or not quite as balanced as you like is to braise the meat in the mole, while this is not necessarily authentic, the juices of the meat really add flavor to the mole and the additional cooking time for the mole will help to round-out the sauce.

If you are going to commit to making the dish whatever you do please, absolutely use high-heat rendered lard (not the white fluffy stuff from the grocery store). It does make a noticeable difference in the final dish adding a warm roasty tone and it is only two tablespoons of lard which has much less saturated fat and cholesterol than butter. Any ethnic butcher can supply you with the lard you require.

Mexican stock is much more like a broth and really bears no resemblance to traditional stock as it is much lighter in flavor and body. As with the lard, if you are going to the trouble to make the mole it is probably worth making a large batch of Mexican chicken stock from scratch and it makes a great base for tortilla soup.

Split the preparation of the dish up over several days if possible; collect and prepare all the ingredients on the first day including rendering the lard and making the stock if you choose to do so, cook the mole on the second day, and since mole is always better the second day after it is made (I even think some moles get better every time they are re-heated) serve it on the third day after you have rested up!

In Oaxaca mescal and beer would be served with mole, but here in the States we like to drink wine with our meals, particularly at the dinner party you will be having after the mole journey you’ve been on. For a while I struggled to match a wine to the complex flavors of black mole until Rick Bayless recommended that I try a fruity Australian Shiraz with the dish. It is a great match and it will add a finishing touch to a meal that none of your guests will ever forget.

A true mole negro is a thick, deep-black sauce of charred chilies, chocolate, tomatoes, and ground nuts. It is traditionally made in a cazuela, a clay pot that sits directly in the coals of the wood fire. Le Creuset is a good substitute. CMC Company carry the chile peppers you’ll need. Good products but a bit expensive at $10 for 4 oz: http://www.thecmccompany.com/

Mole Negro Oaxaqueno
Oaxacan Black Mole

excerpted from
Seasons of My Heart: A Culinary Journey through Oaxaca, Mexico
by Susana Trilling
4 large onions, chopped, plus 1 medium onion, quartered
8 ribs celery, chopped
8 carrots, chopped
2 (3 pound) chickens, cut into 12 pieces, skinned
5 chilhuacles negros, seeded and deveined; seeds reserved
5 guajillos, seeded and deveined; seeds reserved
4 pasillas Mexicanos, seeded and deveined; seeds reserved
4 anchos negros, seeded and deveined; seeds reserved
2 chipotles mecos, seeded and deveined; seeds reserved
1/2 head garlic, cloves separated
2 tablespoons whole almonds
2 tablespoons shelled and skinned raw peanuts
1 (1-inch) piece Mexican cinnamon
3 black peppercorns
3 whole cloves
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
1 1/2 tablespoons raisins
1 slice egg-dough bread
1 small ripe plantain, cut into 1/2-inch slices
1/2-cup sesame seeds
2 pecan halves
1/2 pound chopped tomatoes
1/4 pound chopped tomatillos
1 sprig thyme, or 1/2 tsp. dried
1 sprig Oaxacan oregano, or 1/2 tsp. dried
2 tablespoons lard
4 1/2 ounces Mexican chocolate
1 avocado leaf
Salt, to taste

In a 2 gallon stockpot, heat 5 quarts water and onions, celery, and carrots to a boil. Add chicken pieces and poach, covered, over low heat for about 35 to 45 minutes, until cooked through and juices run clear when pierced with a fork. Remove the meat from the stock. Strain and reserve the stock.

Heat 2 quarts of water in a kettle. On a 10-inch dry comal, griddle, or in a cast-iron frying pan, toast the chiles over medium heat until blackened, but not burnt, about 10 minutes. Place the chiles in a large bowl, cover with hot water, and soak for 1/2 hour. Remove the chiles from the soaking water with tongs, placing small batches in a blender with 1/4 cup of the chile soaking water to blend smooth. Put the chile puree through a strainer to remove the skins.

In the same dry comal, griddle, or frying pan, grill the onion and garlic over medium heat for 10 minutes. Set aside. Toast the almonds, peanuts, cinnamon stick, peppercorns, and cloves in a dry comal, griddle or cast-iron frying pan for about 5 minutes. Remove them from the pan.

Over the same heat, toast the chile seeds, taking care to blacken but not burn them, about 20 minutes. Try to do this outside or in a well-ventilated place because the seeds will give off very strong fumes. When the seeds are completely black, light them with a match and let them burn themselves out. Remove from the heat and place in a bowl. Soak the blackened seeds in 1 cup of cold water for 10 minutes. Drain the seeds and grind them in a blender for about 2 minutes. Add the blended chile seeds to the blended chile mixture.

Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in an 8-inch cast-iron frying pan over medium heat until smoking. Add the raisins and fry them until they are plump, approximately 1 minute. Remove from the pan. Fry the bread slice in the same oil until browned, about 5 minutes, over medium heat. Remove from pan. Fry the plantain in the same oil until it is well browned, approximately 10 minutes, over medium heat. Set aside. Fry the sesame seeds, stirring constantly over low heat, adding more oil if needed. When the sesame seeds start to brown, about 5 minutes, add the pecans and brown for 2 minutes more. Remove all from the pan, let cool, and grind finely in a spice grinder. It takes a bit of time, but this is the only way to grind the seeds and nuts finely enough.

Wipe out the frying pan and fry the tomatoes, tomatillos, thyme, and oregano over medium to high heat, allowing the juices to almost evaporate, about 15 minutes. Blend well, using 1/2 cup of reserved stock if needed to blend and set aside. Place the nuts, bread, plantains, raisins, onion, garlic and spices in the blender in small batches, and blend well, adding about 1 cup of stock to make it smooth.

In a heavy 4-quart stockpot, heat 2 tablespoons of lard or oil until smoking and fry the chile paste over medium to low heat, stirring constantly so it will not burn, approximately 20 minutes. When it is ?dry?, add the tomato puree and fry until the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Add the ground ingredients, including the sesame seed paste, to the pot. Stir constantly with a wooden soon until well-incorporated, about 10 minutes. Add 1 cup chicken stock to the mole, stir well, and allow to cook 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Break up the chocolate and add to the pot, stirring until it is melted and incorporated into the mixture.
Toast the avocado leaf briefly over the flame if you have a gas range or in a dry frying pan and then add it to the pot. Slowly add more stock to the mole, as it will keep thickening as it cooks. Add enough salt to bring out the flavor. Let simmer another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally so it does not stick, adding stock as needed. The mole should not be thick; just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Place the cooked chicken pieces in the leftover stock in a saucepan and heat through.

To serve, place a piece of chicken in a shallow bowl and ladle 3/4 of a cup of mole sauce over to cover it completely. Serve immediately with lots of hot corn tortillas.