World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Category: Sauces

Holy Mole!


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

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Sunday Dinner


   "Why waste an open bottle on a closed mind?"

                                —Sean Thackrey, Winemaker

I celebrated my birthday a few weeks ago with S & K by having lunch at the girl and the fig in Sonoma.  After a great lunch, a gift presentation of their cookbook, we strolled around the plaza poking into the original Williams-Sonoma, a bookstore and a few wine shops. 

And there at the Wine Exchange of Sonoma sitting demurely on the shelf were four bottles of non vintage Sean Thackrey Pleiades XIII {RP: 90 / 2004}($18).  What a find.  This exceptional wine is a blend of Syrah, Barbera, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Mourvedre, and Grenache. Southern Rhone in style with a taste of pepper,spice, and berry fruit contains this medium to full-bodied, complex red.

If you aren’t familiar with this renegade winemaker well that’s okay.  Those of us that are have a hard enough time tracking where to buy it. He’s not widely distributed in the States. He sells more overseas at a higher price point. I’ve been into shops where you need to ask if they have it and they go in to the back room and pull out one or two. 

His wines are named after stars and constellations–Pleiades, Orion, Sirius. The Pleiades, considered the entry wine of the constellation,  were the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione and is loosely translated as flock of doves. This is the more easily found–which keep in mind is a relative statement.

Sean Thackrey is a real artisan winemaker, someone who makes wine by "feel," not by recipe.  Wine critic Robert Parker, gave the 2001 Sirius Mendocino County Eaglepoint Ranch Petite Sirah 96 points and the 2002 Orion Rossi Ranch St. Helena California Native Red Wine 94-plus points.

About twice a month S, K and I gather and make Sunday dinner.  Sometimes there’s others and at other times there’s not.  The fare can be elaborate or comforting.  Last night I created a dinner menu around this wine.

Grilled Pork Chops with Apple Cider Sauce

Pumpkin Gnocchi with Walnut-Sage Pesto

Greens with Dressing 

Dessert: Vanilla Tea with Alfajores

Dinner was so good we were chewing on the bones!

SF Chronicle Thackrey Wine Section Profile

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Secretos de Salsa


Anderson Valley, in Mendocino County about 100 miles north and almost 3 hours from San Francisco, depending on the weight of your foot, is a world onto itself. A true escape, with hills covered with thick groves of redwood and live oak. It’s a great place to drive in the fall as it’s the closest I come to New England without getting on a plane. There are quant inns, wineries and picnic spots to build an entire weekend around.

Fog creeps through the valley and cools the climate making it ideal for the ripening process of cool-weather northern European grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, and Chardonnay. The area’s population is full of ex-hippies, loggers, farmers and upscale vintners such as the Navarro Winery. The county pops up on the local news often when hippies who farm have their crop confiscated.

In a 2003 Travel & Leisure article Guy Trebay captured the local values in an article on the valley.

Along with this willed separation has come a preservation of the communitarian values that in much of America today seem about as vital as the dodo.

At some point, any conversation with an Anderson Valley local will turn to talk of potluck dinners for the rancher whose house burned down, of fund-raisers for a sick kid in need of chemotherapy. People speak with passion of pulling together to hold off the forces of monoculture and thus preserve the integrity of this extraordinarily unspoiled locale.

In California the backbone that keeps our agricultural economy going are the Mexican laborers. This area is no different. In the town of Boonville, population 975, the Anderson Valley Adult School teaches English twice a week to those new to the area from Mexico. During the three-hour class students bring snacks usually with salsa.

A few years ago the teacher Kira Brennan was looking for ways to make the school’s teaching methods more useful to the area’s large Spanish-speaking population. She came upon the idea of putting the various recipes into writing as a way to teach English as well as preserve some regional Mexican recipes. What she ended up with was a 25-recipe book titled, “Secrets of Salsa: A Bilingual Cookbook by the Mexican Women of Anderson Valley.”

According to a SF Chronicle article the monies raisesd from the sale of this collection go toward the annual cost to run the English program, which is supplemented by state money as well as grants and countless hours of volunteer work.

This collection is so endearing. The salsa recipes are given in English and Spanish, and include the sauce’s flavor profile, heat rating and serving suggestions. There are also instructions for the roasting of chiles, tomatoes and tomatillos, and for blending and grinding ingredients.

I tracked down the book through the publisher, Chelsea Green if you are interested in purchasing the book.

…continue on for Salsa Verde de Miel recipe

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Harissa is a red chili paste originating with the Berber people in Tunisia. The harissa sauce (pronounced huh-REE-suh) is made from hot chiles, garlic, cumin, coriander, caraway and olive oil. Harissa is served with cous cous and is also used in soups and stews. Commercially-produced <a href="harissa in tubesand jars can be easily purchased in Middle Eastern grocery stores.

It can be served as a dip for cooked meat or stirred into casseroles and soups to give a fiery kick. Stir a little harissa into natural yogurt to make a tasty marinade for chicken and pork dishes. Harissa can also be added to couscous to give a spicy flavor. Mix a little harissa with some mayonnaise or stock and serve it as an accompaniment to thick vegetable or fish soup.

Tunisians mix it liberally with almost every dish, while Algerians and Moroccans prefer to serve it on the side, adding it according to individual taste. The kick of your harissa will depend upon the variety of dried chile peppers used to make the harissa. If you are ambitious and want to make it yourself for a mild harissa choose a New Mexico red or guajillo; for medium, pasilla or a chipotle; and use cayenne or habanero for a fiery flavored harissa.

Clifford Wright the writer and scholar of Mediterranean food writes about “harisa” in A Mediterranean Feast:

Harisa comes from the Arabic word for “to break into pieces,” which is done by pounding hot peppers in a mortar, although today a food processor can be used. This famous hot chili paste is also found in the cooking of Algeria, Libya, and even in western Sicily, where cuscusu is made. In Tunisia it would be prepared fresh in a spice shop.

Harissa is worth having in the kitchen as it elevates the ordinary to something special and unique. At about $3.00 a tube it’s money well spent.

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I was never of the caramel sort. Most likely due to my preference for all things pure chocolate. But once I started exploring Mexican cooking, well one thing led to another and now I’ve taken to getting a firm sticky handle on caramel. Discovering cajeta and dulce de leche will do that to a girl.

Webster’s defines caramel, as, a color; caramel, the flavor, mellow and complex. It’s also a close color of my hair. Carmel can be found in many candy bars and desserts. It seems to one of the most versatile in that you can stir toasted nuts into liquefied caramel and it becomes praline or cook it with butter and spread across a smooth marble slab for toffee. According to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat’s History of Food it was an Arab invention used as a depilatory for harem ladies. (Sweet mother!)

Distinguishing between cajeta, dulce de leche, and for that matter fangullo, manjar blanco, and arequipe can be become strained. Goat’s milk is the primary ingredient in cajeta while cow’s milk is used in the creation of dulce de leche.

Dulce de leche has gained in popularity here in the U.S. enormously through the introduction of Haagen-Dazs’ dulce de leche ice cream in Miami it outsells vanilla 3 to 1. According to company press releases it’s the second best selling flavor after vanilla.

Although cajeta hasn’t yet caught on with the public on the scale of dulce de leche I find it to be a lot sexier. Traditionally the sauce is produced by the dulceros (sweet-makers) of Celaya in Central Mexico. The name cajeta comes from the name of the small balsa-wood box or case “cajita” especially made to store the product before refrigeration was widespread.

According to Rick Bayless, in, Mexico One Plate at a Time, the goat’s milk flavor brings a more intricate flavor as it is allowed to reduce in volume through slow simmering giving it a more depth in taste and color. It takes a lot of patience and time. Homemade Cajeta is infinitely superior to store bought, as according to Diana Kennedy, the Mexican cooking maven is often degraded with the addition of cane syrup.

Editor’s note: Photosource:; continues with recipe.

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Top of the World Food


Lhasa Moon is most likely on of the few Tibetan restaurants in Northern California. This quiet restaurant in San Francisco’s north side is a quiet retreat offering inexpensive and tasty dishes from the top of the world. Unfortunately this little gem is closing at the end of the month.

The menu has made some adjustments to accommodate Western tastes but after researching more about traditional food from Nepal it appears that the personality of the region’s food is intact. Understandably it is a challenge to get fresh yak meat in the States. As you might expect, as Buddhists are by choice vegetarians, there are many options suited for this dining preference. In addition in my quest for understanding the food and the country’s history I came across an April 2000, Asian Wall Street Journal article where the owner of Lhasa Moon, Tsering Wangmo:

“This kind of food you won’t find in Tibet,” she laughed. I felt vindicated in my withering summary of this faked Tibetan cuisine; the restaurants in the U.S., I thought, simply cater to an American palate. But her next words caused me to reconsider. “Tibetan cuisine went into exile with the Dalai Lama’s court; the only thing left to eat in Tibet is tsampa, yak meat and Chinese food,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

When the Dalai Lama left, the elite of Tibetan society went with him–taking along their cooks, their traditional recipes and a lifestyle that delighted in lavish entertaining. The historic exchange of Tibetan salt
for Indian spices narrowed to a trickle when the borders with India and Nepal were closed. Transport within Tibet was restricted, so that the low-lying regions that traditionally provided fruits and vegetables were
unable to trade their wares. Authentic Tibetan cuisine was marked by its subtle seasoning and liberal use of ginger, garlic and emma, a peppercorn-like spice with an electric zing, found only on the Tibetan plateau. Meat and vegetables were seared on high heat, much like Chinese stir-fry, though sauces were rare and never thickened. Curries were popular, but usually milder than their Indian counterparts.

Nepali food is more about fuel than gourmet. This is not to say that it isn’t tasty. Tibet rests at a high altitude, has a short-growing season and cold climate and is best for the grains barley and wheat. Wheat is used to produce a wide variety of breads, noodles, and pancakes. Barley, a mainstay food for most Tibetans, doesn’t yield enough gluten to produce flours for bread. Instead, it is eaten as tsampa either as a stiff dough or a congee-like gruel. It is also used to brew a barley beer.

After the Chinese Red Guard occupation of Tibet in 1949, the Chinese government made a less than successful attempt to convert large areas of the country to intensive wheat farming by resettling nomads. Fertile land that had supported nomadic herders and farmers for generations quickly became high-altitude desert. The Chinese also began a campaign of religious persecution which caused many Tibetans to flee their homeland. Shortly thereafter refugees made their ways to America.

The cultural ways of Tibetan Buddhist have a practical sense to them. For example slaughtering small animals such as chickens to provide a meal for a few when a larger animal such as a yak could feed so many more makes better sense. Fish is also rarely eaten in Tibet, although it’s available.

Common spices used are Sichuan peppercorns, fresh and dried chiles, ginger, tumeric (poor-man’s saffron) and garam masala for curries. Rapeseed or mustard, is grown all over lower Nepal, turning the fields yellow with flowers in springtime. Rapeseed oil is used for cooking, oil lamps, temple offerings, and massage. Fried foods are seasoned with garlic, onions, and fresh ginger. The dishes we had at Lhasa Moon were not overly spicy but carried a slight bite of heat.

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