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Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Mole (pronounced moh-lay) comes from the Nauhauti (Aztec Language) word "mulli", which means sauce or concoction. Depending on the ingredients used to create the concoction, regional variations of mole are very diverse and can be either green, yellow, red, or black. Where did mole originate?  It's common lore that 16th century nuns from the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla, Mexico were expecting a visit from the Archbishop. In a panic to feed him, they gathered what they had on hand (chiles, nuts, tortillas, spices, and chocolate), roasted and toasted them, ground them into a paste, diluted the paste with water, threw the mix into a cazuella with a slaughtered wild turkey, and created Mole Poblano de Guajolote or Turkey in Mole Poblano.

Mole Poblano is probably the most familiar and popular of the mole variations. While most people refer to it as a Mexican chocolate sauce, it's actually a complex multilayered  chile sauce with a little chocolate. And it's fabulous. Around our part of the country, it usually pops up in restaurants served over enchiladas or as a side sauce. Occasionally, I'll come across Pollo Mole Poblano on a restaurant menu. When I do, I'm all over the spiced chocolate chicken.

As much as I adore mole, I've never had the time or tenacity to attempt making it because of the time commitment. I finally had the time and the inclination to play with mole.

In Mexico, mole poblano varies from household to household, village to village, and from region to region. With the common denominator being chiles and chocolate, almost anything goes. Whether using a minimum amount of ingredients or going all out with as many as 30 ingredients, technique is crucial. There are some rules. Roast. Toast. Grind. Blend.

After deciding to do a full blown make-the-nuns-proud mole poblano, I made a quick trip to Super Mercado Aguascalientes to source my ingredients. Chiles, check. Spices, check. A gazillion other things, double check.

Turkey in Mole Poblano.
Round 1
While no two moles are alike, they're all loaded with sultry madness. Some folks simply throw everything into a pot at the same time. Nope. I wanted to honor the complexity of the layers. It was all about building flavors. To do so, everything had to be prepared individually. Although it was a bit involved, it was simple and straightforward. That said, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the process. I stayed true to the technique, but created my own little crazy method. Mise en place was key. Big time.

I stemmed and seeded 6 dried ancho chiles, 6 dried pasilla chiles, 4 dried mulato chiles, and 3 dried tobacco-colored dried chipotle chiles. After tearing them into pieces, I dry roasted them in a very hot cast iron skillet before covering them with boiling water to soften for 30 minutes.

Working over a medium flame, I used the same hot skillet to individually toast 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1/2 teaspoon whole cloves, 1 teaspoon whole aniseed, 2 crumbled bay leaves, 1 tablespoon whole allspice berries, 1 stick canela (mild Mexican cinnamon, broken), and 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano. When the spices cooled, I ground them into a powder and set them aside.

Nuts and Seeds.
To help thicken the mole and ground the flavor with a slight nuttiness, I  toasted 5 tablespoons sesame seeds, 1/2 cup hulled pumpkin seeds, 1/2 cup peanuts, and 1/2 cup whole almonds before tossing them into the spice mixture.

The Fresh Stuff.
After halving 2 plum tomatoes, 2 tomatillos, and 1 large white onion, I broiled them until they were charred. Really charred. Just before they cumbusted , I tossed 5 whole garlic cloves into the mix to cook and soften.

Sweet balances heat. I chopped a ripe plantain and sauteed it in 1 tablespoon olive oil.  When the soft flesh started to caramelize, I tumbled 1/2 cup raisins into the skillet and added a splash of liquid from the soaking chiles to plump the raisins.

Down the stretch. Over an open flame, I toasted 2 corn tortillas and 2 slices of white bread before tearing them into small pieces and setting them aside.

With everything on deck, I poured myself a huge glass of wine and took a break.

Round 2.
To strain or not to strain? I wanted a smooth mole, so I strained everything.
Working in batches, I pureed the re-hydrated peppers (with soaking liquid) in a food processor, pressed them through a fine mesh strainer, and discarded the solids. After heating 3 tablespoons of bacon fat (in lieu of lard) in a dutch oven until it was smoking hot, I lowered the heat, added the chile puree, and simmered it for 15 minutes. Without cleaning the bowl, I tumbled the charred vegetables, garlic, spice mixture, nuts, raisins, tortillas, bread, and plantains into the food processor.  After adding 2 cups chicken stock, I gave it  a quick puree, strained it, discarded the solids, and added it to the simmering chile puree.

I cracked the Mexican chocolate into large pieces with a sharp knife, scraped them into the bubbling mole along with 2 tablespoons of piloncillo (raw cane sugar), simmered the sauce for 35 minutes, pulled it from the heat, and cooled it to room temperature before sliding it into the refrigerator to chill overnight.

Round 3.
Turkey. I know, right? Who the hell roasts a turkey a week before Valentine's Day? In all fairness, I didn't roast a whole 15 or 20  pound turkey. I kept it somewhat reasonable by roasting a 4 pound bone-in turkey breast. I slathered the skin and underlying flesh  with oregano, thyme, and seasoned butter. After preheating the oven to 325 degrees, I slid the turkey breast into the oven to roast for 1 1/2 hours. Traditionally, turkey is poached or simmered in the mole. Because I wanted some turkey flavor and fat to seep into the sauce, I plopped 2 large turkey drumsticks into a cast iron skillet, covered them with the mole, added a few sprigs of fresh cilantro, covered the pan, and slid the legs into the oven to braise alongside the breast. Two for the price of one. Knockout round.

So, here's the deal. I've always been served chicken mole on a bed of iceberg lettuce topped with sesame seeds and sliced white onions. I'm not sure why. It's not traditional. Traditional or not, it's pretty fantastic.

After basting the breast and babysitting the legs for 1 1/2 hours, I pulled them from the oven to rest. I carved a whole turkey breast lobe from one side of the turkey, sliced it into thin pieces, and fanned it over iceberg lettuce with cilantro-flecked white rice to the side. I drizzled the mole poblano over the turkey, tucked sliced white onions between the slices, and dusted them with sesame seeds. Grilled corn tortillas, avocado, and fresh limes finished it off.

Holy moly. As the turkey juices dripped through the flesh and puddled with the sauce, I almost felt naughty eating the mole-stained meat. There was a lot going on. While the seductive sweetness of the chocolate tempered the smoldering heat of the chiles, every individual spice, vegetable, herb, seed, nut, and fruit seemed fully present. Big. Bold. Soft. Perfect.

And the drumsticks?
Two-fisted midnight snacks.
Messy mole lipstick.

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