MOLE (mo-LAY). Thick, rich, spicy, flavorful mole. Mole refers to various sauces in Mexican cuisine, particularly in the states of Puebla and Oaxaca. Mole can also refer to the dish made with these sauces. Many of you have probably heard of mole poblano(named for the Mexican state of Puebla) and I know most of you have heard of guacamole.
There are several types of mole - red, yellow, black, green, etc. Some of these varieties are quite different from one another. However, the basic preparation usually consists of combining dried chilies (sometimes quickly fried or just reconstituted in hot water), with ground spices, nuts, seeds,and Mexican chocolate into a rich and flavorful paste. It's usually thinned a bit with chicken broth and then cooked slowly until it thickens and darkens.
A typical recipe for mole can look intimidating. I used to think the same of typical Indian recipes too. Now I make Indian food often and I know that the long list of ingredients mean layers of flavors in the resulting dish.
With any involved dish, prep work is invaluable. Plan it out, sort it out, measure it out, set it out in groups of what will be used together. A few extra minutes of this prep work made all the difference in the world.
The original recipe I used as my guide is from Cafe Pasqual's Cookbook by Katherine Kagel. A wonderful book of Southwest flavors in traditional and contemporary dishes. For the mole, I made alterations not only in the ingredients but in the process to a degree. And I reduced the quantity by about half. I still had plenty for dinner that night, leftovers the next day, a batch of mole cornbread, and plenty of spoon diving while making it and every time I walked past the container for 3 days afterwards. I still got to put about 3 cups in the freezer. Take the time to make a batch of mole and you will be rewarded the next time you want mole - just grab it from your freezer.
Here is what I used and what I did. I broke out the process into segments to make it more manageable.
First, pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Then grab your largest skillet, your blender and/or food processor (I used both) and three large bowls.
The Peppers (bowl #1)
2 dried chipotle chiles
5 dried ancho chilies
4 dried pasilla negro chilies
1 large red bell pepper
3/4 cup sesame seeds
1/2-3/4 cup vegetable oil
In a dry saute pan, roast the sesame seeds on low heat until they are slightly brown. Shake the pan continuously. Remove from the heat and empty into large bowl #1.
I bought my chilies pre-packaged and they were free of dust and dirt. If your chilies are not clean, wipe with a damp towel. Let them dry completely or they will be bitter when you dry roast them. I removed the stems and most of the seeds of the ancho and pasilla negro peppers and my mole still had quite a kick. You can do as you please depending on your heat tolerance. In a large saute pan dry roast the chilies over low heat, in bathces if needed. Shake the pan continuously - about 3-5 minutes. You do not want to brown them or char them. Empty into large bowl #1.
In the same pan, add the vegetable oil and heat on medium-high. You are going to quickly fry the chilies a few at a time. Throughout the dish, I used considerably less oil than called for in the original recipe. For frying the chilies, I used about a 1/4 inch of oil. Be careful when you place the chilies in the hot oil. You only leave them in the oil a few seconds on each side. They will soften, swell up and you will begin to smell them. Remove the chilies with a slotted spoon and add them to the bowl with the sesame seeds. Retain the oil in the saute pan.
Roast the red bell pepper either on a grill or under your broiler. Remove the skin, stem and seeds. If using jarred peppers, just pull out a nice big one and add it to the bowl with the sesame seeds and roasted chilis.
The Sweet Stuff (bowl #2)
1/3 loaf french bread, sliced or cubed
1/2 cup walnut pieces
1.5 ounces Mexican chocolate
2 inch stick Mexican cinnamon*
On a large cookie sheet, in a single layer, toast the bread and walnuts for 10 minutes or so. Give the walnuts a shake now and then and do not let them burn. While the bread and walnuts are toasting, break apart the chocolate and cinnamon stick into large bowl #2. The book instructed to add the toasted bread and walnuts on top of the chocolate and cinnamon to melt it. This really didn't work as I had thought so you might have to give this bowl about 40 seconds in the microwave.
The Savories (bowl #2)
2 Italian plum tomatoes (but I think any tomatoes would work)
4 cloves garlic
1 ripe banana, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 inch piece of fresh ginger, sliced into rounds
1/2 large white onion, quartered
Reheat the oil you used to fry the chilies over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the whole totmatoes, onion, garlic, banana, ginger. Cook until the tomato begins to char and the onion is translucent - 10 minutes tops. Remove the contents with a slotted spoon and add to the large bowl with the bread and chocolate mixture and combine well. You can now discard the oil.
Bringing it all together (bowl #3, the largest one)
water or broth of your choice
brown sugar, to taste (optional)
You will probably have to work in batches but now it's time to bring everything together and make the mole paste. Transfer the chocolate-bread-vegetable mixture to a blender, along with the chilies.** You might choose to blend the peppers and then the veggies/chocolate separately and then blend both together. You might employ a large bowl #4 in which you combine everything for a final big stir before blending. It's up to you. I say go for whatever is easiest. While blending, add enough water or broth of choice to make the sauce smooth but thick, like a milkshake, according to the book. Taste the mole for spiciness. This is where you might add the brown sugar to tone down heat. Once all of the mix has been blended, you can press it through a strainer. I chose to skip this step. I was happy with the texture.
Cooking the mole (large stock pot)
1/2 to 1 cup olive oil
In a large stock pot, heat the olive oil until it just begins to smoke and add the puree - carefully. Try to add the puree to the pan in one smooth movement but not so fast as to cause it to splash into the hot oil. Combine the oil and mole with a whisk and then lower the heat to low. In fact, if you have an electric stove, it's a good idea to remove the pan from the heat while you wait for the burner to cool down to the low setting. Our burners are painfully slow to adjust and I am in the habit of removing pans while things even out. Continue whisking mole for for about 20 minutes. Do not let the mole burn. You will notice that the mole thickens and darkens. You can thin with more broth or not. You can cook longer or not. Just keep an eye on things. In the meantime, your house will smell wonderful and you will have made mole! Yippee! It's not nearly as difficult as you thought, right?
I can't wait to try other mole varieties. Let me know what types you like and have made. I'll have to hit the library for books on Mexican food traditions.
Mole can be served with chicken or pork or winter squash or over a fried egg or in baked beans or wherever you like. Then again, I am a complete fiend for sauces and condiments of all kinds and I am in no way, shape, or form bound by traditional constrictions of how said sauces and condiments should be used. I will dip, slather, smear, marinate, douse anything on just about anything. Pesto is just fine on soba noodles. The wonderful sauce for the Indian eggplant dish bagara baigan works beautifully with chicken and/or tofu. Chili and curry pastes from a jar can be spread directly on crackers or toast. Use your mole in a variety of ways just make sure to enjoy it!
*Mexican cinnamon does taste different than the cinnamon we normally use for muffins and pies or sprinkle into our oatmeal. It smells sweet, like cinnamon candy. It has less bite. And the sticks are much softer.
**Nowhere in the original recipe in the Pasqual's Cafe cookbook are you instructed to add the chilies back into this recipe after you have fried them. I think it's safe to assume this is merely an editorial mishap and that the chilies need to be incorporated into the blender along with the chocolate-bread and veggie mixture.