Saveur (September 2012)
The September issue of Saveur is a doozy. The Mexico Issue, which is obviously devoted to south-of-the-border cuisine, is one of those magazine issues that you want to file away and keep. It's almost more of a reference book on Mexican cooking, laying out the ingredients, flavors, kitchen tools and preparations that define that kind of cuisine (and the different regional cuisines within Mexico). It's great.
For some reason, out of all the choices in the issue, we were really drawn to the recipe for chicken in mole sauce. Neither of us was too familiar with mole. We've never ordered it in a Mexican restaurant, although we're sure we've tasted it when others have ordered it.
In fact, when we started thinking about it, we could only think two things about mole: "Isn't that that chocolate sauce that goes on meat? And doesn't it have, like, a ton of ingredients?"
Answer: Yes. And yes.
Mole does in fact have a lot of ingredients. Twenty-four, in this recipe (not including the chicken). And a lot of them are Mexican ingredients that we thought would be hard to source -- pasilla chiles, canela cinnamon, piloncilo sugar, Mexican chocolate.
So we hopped on our bikes and went on a hunt.
We biked over to the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of D.C., which has several Latino grocery stores. We immediately found the majority of the items on our list: all three of the dried chiles, the canela (which is a softer, less astringent variety of cinnamon than what we're used to), and the piloncilo (which is a raw, unprocessed form of cane sugar, with a flavor similar to molasses).
There were a couple ingredients, however, that we couldn't find in any of the half-dozen bodegas and grocery stores we tried: the bolilo bread and the Mexican chocolate. All the breads we could find were sweet, and there were no bars of cooking chocolate anywhere. So we substituted a slice of white bread and a bar of bittersweet chocolate with a pinch of cinnamon.
Making a mole is all about building layers of flavor. For that reason, it involves slow cooking and a lot of sequential steps: Add the spices, cook for six minutes, add the plaintain, cook for six minutes, add the almonds, cook for eight minutes, and so on.
It's hands-on cooking, and it takes the better part of two hours, but it's nothing all that difficult.
How did it turn out?
We ... liked it! It was tasty. We didn't fall in love. There was no swooning. But we really appreciated all the multiple layers of flavor. The sauce -- which has snippets of flavor from everything from cloves and chiles to raisins, plantain and a corn tortilla -- is really unlike anything we'd ever eaten before. It's complex and dark, and we're really glad we tried it.
On the one hand, it's a labor-intensive dish that requires a lot of hard-to-find ingredients and didn't knock our socks off in the end. (And the less said about that bland, boiled chicken, the better).
But on the other hand, we had a lot of fun scouting out the ingredients and hunting through the aisles of grocery stores we'd never really explored before. We loved building the flavors and watching them come together, and it all made for a very enjoyable Sunday afternoon.
And we can now check "Make a mole from scratch" off our culinary bucket list.
2 oz. dried mulato chiles
1 oz. dried ancho chiles
1 oz. dried pasilla chiles
1 (3–4-lb.) whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 small plum tomato, cored
1/2 medium tomatillo, husks removed, rinsed
1/4 small white onion, peeled
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 tsp. whole cloves
1/2 tsp. whole allspice berries
1/4 tsp. coriander seeds
1/4 tsp. whole black peppercorns
1/4 tsp. anise seeds
1/2 stick cinnamon, preferably canela
1/4 ripe plantain or banana, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 small corn tortilla, roughly chopped
3 tbsp. whole almonds
1 ½ tbsp. sesame seeds, plus more for garnish
2 tbsp. raisins
¼ stale bolillo (see Mexico's Daily Breads) or 1 slice white sandwich bread, toasted and crumbled
1 tbsp. lard or canola oil
2 oz. Mexican chocolate, such as Ibarra, roughly chopped
1 tbsp. finely chopped piloncillo or packed light brown sugar
2 tsp. kosher salt
Mexican-style red rice, for serving
1. Heat a 12" skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add mulato, ancho, and pasilla chiles, and cook, turning once, until toasted, about 2 minutes. Transfer all chiles to a large bowl; pour over 5 cups boiling water and let sit until chiles are soft, about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving soaking liquid, and remove stems and seeds from chiles, reserving 1 tsp. seeds from chiles. Set seeds aside, and transfer chiles to a food processor; add 1 cup soaking liquid, and process until smooth. Set chile purée and remaining soaking liquid aside. Bring chicken and 8 cups water to a boil in a 4-qt. saucepan over high heat, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until tender, about 45 minutes. Drain; set aside.
2. Meanwhile, arrange an oven rack 4" from broiler element, and heat broiler to high. Place garlic, tomato, tomatillo, and onion on a foil-lined baking sheet, and broil, turning as needed, until all vegetables are charred all over, about 15 minutes. Transfer vegetables to food processor, and process until smooth; set vegetable purée aside.
3. Heat butter in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat. Add reserved chile seeds, cloves, allspice, coriander, peppercorns, anise seeds, and canela, and cook, stirring constantly, until lightly toasted and fragrant, about 6 minutes. Add plantain, and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 12 minutes. Add tortilla, and cook, stirring, until lightly toasted, about 6 minutes. Add almonds and sesame seeds, and cook, stirring, until lightly toasted, about 8 minutes. Add reserved chile purée and vegetable purée, along with raisins and bread, and bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until all ingredients are softened, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, and transfer mole to blender along with remaining soaking liquid; purée until very smooth, at least 4 minutes.
4. Return saucepan to medium-high heat, and add lard. When hot, add mole and fry, whisking constantly, until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Add chocolate, piloncillo, and salt, and cook until chocolate and sugar dissolve and sauce is smooth, about 10 minutes. Arrange chicken on a platter, liberally cover with the sauce, and sprinkle with sesame seeds; serve with red rice, if you like.