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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Gone Fishin'

The best laid plans...

I had a simple plan. Braise a spatchcocked cornish hen in white wine with yellow tomatoes and yellow bell peppers. Simple. Lazy. A little somethin' somethin' Sunday night supper kind-of-thing. I wanted to break in a new enamel cast iron dutch oven that Michael and I recently picked up on the cheap. It wasn't fancy. It was cheap and cute. 

With everything on deck, I cranked the dutch oven over a medium high flame, drizzled the pan with olive oil, and added 2 minced shallots.  When the shallots turned translucent, I scattered minced garlic into the mix. Just before the garlic went too far, I hit the pan with white wine to release the sticky bits before adding chicken stock. I immediately recognized that sound. I knew exactly what had happened. In rapid fire slow motion (think strobe light), the faux cast iron dutch oven splintered and cracked into large broken shards, spilling sticky butter, shallots, garlic, and white wine everywhere. Yep. As the braising liquid oozed down the sides of the oven and puddled onto the floor, I stood in awe of my ridiculous mess. Sometimes, I simply amaze myself. Professionally and personally, I've had my share of kitchen blunders. Trust me. Crap happens. I've learned to roll with the punches and move on.

I trashed everything, had a good laugh,  cleaned up the mess, poured myself a glass of wine, and used a kitchen cleaver to hack the dainty splayed hen into several bite sized chunks.  After battering and deep frying the pieces, I smothered them with buttery hot sauce. Deep fried Buffalo chicken, thank you very much. Celery batons for crunch  and creamy gorgonzola for dipping. Go with the flow.

Needing to wash that hen right out of my hair, I decided to go fishing. Well, not fishing fishing. I stopped by The Lexington Seafood Company and caught gorgeous fresh grouper filets. Easy. Simple. Safe.

Poached Grouper.
I'm not much of a poacher. Sure, I'll poach eggs for brunch or midnight snacks, but when it comes down to meaty or fishy stuff, I prefer a quick saute or long braise. Typically, fish is poached in either olive oil, white wine, or court boullion. It's delicate work. Delicate doesn't become me, so in lieu of the traditional mediums, I used tomatoes for a heartier and less dainty approach.

 That said, the grouper filets begged for a light hand. Using our reliable cast iron skillet, I warmed 4 tablespoons of olive oil over a low flame before adding minced onions and sliced garlic. As they started to perfume the oil, I hand-crushed a 28oz can of San Marzano whole tomatoes into the mix. After adding 1/2 cup white wine, smashed kalamata olives, fresh tarragon, and sliced Meyer lemons, I brought the poaching liquid to a boil, reduced the heat, and let it ripple for 15 minutes before sliding the grouper filets into the simmering sauce. Because I didn't want the fish to overcook, I reduced the heat a bit further and covered the skillet to gently poach the fish for about 8 minutes.

After sliding the grouper filets into shallow soup bowls, I draped them with the tomatoes and tumbled simple boiled potatoes to the side before finishing with fresh tarragon, lemon slices, steamed julienned snow peas, olive oil, and white buttered bread for sopping.

Although the tomato poaching liquid might have bumped up the heartiness factor, the grouper remained incredibly tender and moist. During the quick poach, the fresh tarragon infused the tomatoes with subtle anise undertones. While the Meyer lemons added spunky sweet acidity,  the briny olives countered with needed saltiness. Grounded by the potatoes and crisp snow peas, the poached filets were surprisingly light, soft, and airy. Bathed in the sweet crushed tomatoes, lemons, olives, and fruity extra virgin olive oil, the grouper flesh flaked apart on a whisper, melted into the sauce, and teetered on the edge of morphing into a delicate fish stew. A fabulous unexpected win.

Simple. Complex. Crazy.

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.