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Monday, May 9, 2016

Beautiful, Beloved, Misunderstood Mexican Mole, Demystified!

Mole Coloradito and Cilantro-Lime Rice we recently prepared in one of my classes for Mexican cooks

"Mole is probably the best metaphor and certainly the cornerstone of Mexican gastronomy, a baroque cuisine that is almost magical in its complexity."  
Enrique Olvera, chef, cookbook author, and restauranteur

Beautiful, Beloved, Misunderstood Mexican Mole, Demystified!
by Victoria Challancin

Perhaps the most misunderstood dish in Mexican cuisine, is mole (pronounced mo-lay).  Complex. Rich.  Refined.  Labor-intensive.  Elaborate.  Pre-Hispanic. Ubiquitous.  In Mexico no true fiesta would be complete without it, but what, really, is it?  A chocolate sauce?  A seed sauce?  A spicy concoction?  A nut sauce?  Red?  Yellow?  Green?  Black?  Thick?  Thin?  Yes. No.  All of these things or none? Let's see if I can illuminate some of the basics for you of this group of incredible dishes so misunderstood outside of Mexico.

To really understand this culinary marvel, let's go back in time.  The word mole comes from Nahuatl (the language spoken by the Aztecs) word mulli or molli, which means a sauce, concoction, mixture, or stew.   When the Spanish first came to what is now Mexico, they documented well the foods they found, including the many moles.  The complex sauces, called mulli, were widely popular. Sometimes these mixtures were simple, consisting of roasted chiles, tomatoes or tomatillos, and a bit of tortilla as a thickening agent.  Of course, more complicated versions existed, which included seeds, nuts, chocolate, spices, and more.  These sauces were eaten on simple tortillas or with turkey or other game (remember that Mexico had no chickens, pork, or beef prior to the Columbian Exchange).  

And while mole differs from region to region, incorporating local ingredients in its varied interpretations, two modern states can make particular claim in the area of mole-- but, of course, this statement could get me in trouble as other locations can also make their own claims to mole fame. Puebla, or more specifically the nuns of the Santa Rosa convent who supposedly concocted/invented Mole Poblano for a visiting Bishop, and Oaxaca, which is known as the Land of Seven Moles (or seven hundred, as the people there like to tell you).  But truly, there is no definitive mole, just countless versions that have evolved over time, varying from family to family, cook to cook, town to town, and region to region.

Here are a few examples of well-known versions of moles:

Mole Poblano --a rich, dark, complex mole from Puebla which includes chocolate and up to 35 or so other ingredients--perhaps the best known mole outside of Mexico
Pipian  -- A red or green sauce made with toasted squash and sesame seeds
Huatzmole  --  a soupy mole often served over goat, or cabrito
Mole de Olla  --  not really a mole, but rather a soup made with beef or chicken and lots of vegetables that often gets lumped in the category of moles because of its name, but it is not a true mole
Tlilmole or Mole Prieto  --  a rich mole from Tlaxcala often served with pork and anise tamales
Mole Ranchero  --  a very simple to prepare mole from Morelos
Mole Rosa  --  lovely mild, light pink mole from Taxco, Guerrero, which includes white chocolate, pulque, anis and hoja santa (the rootbeer plant so popular in southern Mexico)
Mole Castillo  --  typically thickened with bread, this sauce is rich with oregano, black pepper, and spicy chile guajillo

The Seven Traditional Moles of Oaxaca:

Mole Negro --  Black mole
Mole Colorado  --  Red mole
Mole Coloradito  -  A little red mole
Mole Verde  --  Green mole (the color comes from tomatillos, herbs, poblano chiles, or even lettuce/radish leaves/spinach in some places)
Mole Amarillo  --  Yellow mole (difficult to make outside of Oaxaca because the yellow chilhuacle chiles used in it)
Chichilo Negro  --  A rich, dark mole characterized by the anise flavor imparted by avocado leaves and charred tortilla and various chile seeds
Manchamantel --  "Tablecloth stainer," which usually contains fruit

Mole Coloradito and Pipián Verde (a green pumpkin seed sauce) sauces served in corn husks with chicken at a recent Mexican Dinner at Zaguán B & B for which I cooked

Mole--Deconstructed into a Simplified Formula

While this is greatly simplified, many moles can be broken down into the following parts:

  • The necessary chiles, which vary from region to region, must be toasted and/or fried and then reconstituted in hot water and made into a paste (often any chocolate used would be added here)
  • The "wet" part  -- tomatoes, nuts or seeds, onions, garlic, raisins, plantains, bread or corn tortilla, chocolate (if used, sometimes it is added here instead), etc, often roasted before being ground together into a wet paste.  Note that the nuts and seeds vary and include almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, sesame seeds, squash or pumpkin seeds and more)
  • The herbs and spices, which include cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon, aniseed, peppercorns, oregano, thyme, and of course...more
  • The rich broth, which is usually made from the main protein on which the mole will be served (chicken, pork, etc).  Note that the broth is added over and over to thin moles as many of the ingredients, such as tortillas, nuts, seeds, and chiles, are all natural thickeners.
To see how a typical mole might come together see my personal recipe below, developed after much trial and error, for an almendrado (or almond-based mole) or as some would call it, mole coloradito.

Mole and the Curry Connection
Mole and Indian Curry connected, you ask?  In theory, yes.  The incomparable Rachel Laudan, a food historian (and more) whom I greatly admire, wrote a lovely, scholarly paper called "The Techical Bases of Mole and Curry," which if you can find, is simply a wonderful eye-opener.  In it she traces the history of mole, saying that its origins are pre-Arabic Indo-Iranian in that it has an onion/nut paste thickener plus sweet spices, typical of many of the dishes brought by Arabs to the Mediterranean, but with the addition of chile and chile seeds, indigenous to Mexico.  Of course, I am not doing her thesis justice, as the article is complex and richly researched.  But simply said [forgive me, Rachel, for putting my own spin here] from whatever or wherever the source from whence we get this blending of various pastes and parts, most moles are very like curries in the techniques used, and the end result is similar in that a complex mixture of flavors and textures comes together so that no one ingredient really dominates, but rather the whole is blended into a beautiful symphony of flavors that are married and harmonious.

The Mole Coloradito served over shredded chicken

Common Questions about Mole

Does mole always contain chocolate?
Certainly not.  Though chocolate, that ancient ingredient so loved in Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, is integral to some moles, it is not used at all in others.  But if it is used, its taste should meld with the other ingredients and not stand out.

Does mole always contain chiles?
Well, let me put myself out on a limb and say that I can't imagine any mole that doesn't contain chiles, though many moles aren't really spicy-hot, just rich with a mixture of varied chiles, which depend on where it originates.

Is mole always labor-intensive to prepare?
Yes and no.  Yes, because many moles contain a long list of ingredients and several techniques (toasting, roasting, stewing, and frying).  No, because some types of mole have fewer ingredients and because homemade or commercial mole pastes can be purchased in almost all Mexican markets and grocery stores.  These can be used as a base, ready to go once reconstituted with broth, or be added to according to the cook's wishes.

Is mole only served at fiestas?
Not at all.  Though major fiestas for quinceañeras (a "coming of age" party of sorts when a young girl turns 15), weddings, baptisms, confirmations, Christmas, and more, moles can also appear at the breakfast table in the form of enmoladas (tortillas dipped in a mole sauce and rolled--stuffed or not with eggs, cheese, and more), baked eggs in mole sauce, and other dishes to countless to name.

Are there other ways to serve mole other than over chicken, pork, or goat?
Of course.  Think of mole as a rich sauce that lends itself to many interpretations and many dishes.  Because a pot of mole serves many, there is often some left over.  This can be used in countless ways:  in enchiladas (enmoladas), with eggs of all sorts, in tacos, tamales, in rice, in casseroles, roasted vegetables, with shrimp or fish, or even just as a condiment (on beans...or chiles rellenos...two of my favorite uses for leftover mole sauce).  And don't overlook serving a dab of mole on a simple toasted corn tortilla...heaven!During Lent and Christmas as well, cakes made from dried shrimp and romeritos (a vegetable that actually looks like rosemary, hence the name) are served with mole.

Can mole be made vegetarian?
Of course, again.  Just make the usual adjustments.  

Is mole gluten-free?
Well, careful here...not always.  While corn tortillas are often added as a thickener, bread or breadcrumbs made from wheat is also common, especially mole negro, coloradito, rojo, manchamantel, chichilo often contain bread, while mole amarillo and mole verde don't.  Usually.  If you have celiac's disease, it is always better to ask!

Is the meat/chicken always cooked separately when preparing moles?
Usually, yes.  Because moles require a lot of stirring, the meat/chicken would just get in the way.  Also, cooking times are quite different for the two:  the meat or chicken don't require as much time as do moles, which, like with a good Indian curry, just get better as they simmer--and are always better the next day once the complex flavors get a chance to marry.

Do Mexican cooks still use metates and molcajetes, the traditional grinding implements, to prepare their moles?
Purists do, of course, saying it is the only way to coax out the best flavors and textures.  But modern tools, such as spice grinders, food processors, and blenders, are obviously commonly used.  When preparing really big batches for fiestas, the mole ingredients will often be taken to a molino, or mill, to save the cook time, while leaving his or her own specific ingredients pre-measured to personal specifications.

Dried corn husk "boats" that Isabel Pascasio and I (well, mainly she, with a little help from me!) made for serving the moles...with extra sauce served at the table

Recipe:  Mole Rojo Coloradito
((Recipe by Victoria Challancin)

2 pounds plum tomatoes (or a mixture of tomatoes and tomatillos, but the latter will make it brown, not red)

1/3-1/2 cup lard or vegetable oil
8 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
6 guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded

1/2 large white onion, thickly sliced
6 garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup almonds with skins
1/2 cup dark raisins
1 slice firm bread, 1 1/2 inches wide (bolillo, pan de yema, or any brioche or egg bread)
1 plantain, green to black in color (optional)

Herbs and Spices:
One piece cinnamon, 2 inches in length
15 black peppercorns
1 teaspoon aniseed
8 cloves
10 allspice berries
1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 ounce of Mexican chocolate tablet (Abuelita or Ibarra brands are good), chopped
5 to 6 cups pork or chicken broth, or more as needed
1/3 cup lard or vegetable oil
Salt, to taste
Sugar, to taste (several tablespoons may be needed to balance the sauce)

Place tomatoes on a heated griddle or in a heavy skillet.  Roast, turning frequently, until slightly blackened, about 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle, peel and place in a large bowl.

Meanwhile, heat the lard or oil in a large, heavy pot.  Tear the chiles into large pieces and fry in batches for about 20 seconds or until color changes slightly and the aroma of the chiles develops.  Be careful not to burn them.  Drain the chiles and put them in another bowl, reserving the oil for further frying.  Pour boiling water over the chiles and allow to rehydrate for approximately 20 minutes.

In the same oil fry the onion for about 5 minutes to soften, adding the garlic after about 3 minutes.  Remove the onion and garlic and place in a small bowl.

Add a bit more oil if necessary and when hot, add the almonds.  Fry for one to two minutes, drain, and add to the tomato-onion mixture.

Using the same oil, fry the bread slice until golden.  Drain and set aside.

Put the plantain, if using, in the same oil and fry until golden.  Drain and add the tomato-onion mixture.

In a heated dry skillet toast the cinnamon, peppercorns, aniseed, cloves, and allspice for about 20 seconds to bring out the flavor.  Grind the spices in a coffee or spice grinder with the oregano and thyme.

Purée the tomato mixture, bread, and almonds in a blender and grind to a fine paste.  Drain the chilles, discarding the soaking liquid.  Add the chiles, raisins, garlic, spice mixture, and enough broth to facilitate grinding.  This may be done in batches.  Put in a bowl and stir to mix thoroughly.

Heat remaining oil in large Dutch Oven or other heavy pot.  When very hot, add the sauce all at once.  Be careful as it will spatter.  “Fry” the sauce for several minutes.  Add the chocolate and more broth, if needed. Check the seasoning and texture, adding salt, sugar, and broth as needed.  Lower the heat and simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until oil begins to separate on top and the color deepens somewhat.  Strain in a mesh strainer before serving.   

Taste, taste, and taste again, adjusting flavors as you go to get the right balance for your palate--mainly it is both salt and sugar I add at this point so that the final result is harmonious.  Salt is obvious, but sometimes a hint, just a little, sugar balances the bitterness from the chiles.         

Makes enough sauce for 8 people.

I have made countless versions of various Mexican rice dishes, but I chose this one from pineappleandcoconut because it was ready to go, looked reliable, and just right as a light, fresh accompaniment to the heavy flavors of the mole I made in class.

Recipe:  Mexican Cilantro-Lime Rice

2 cups white rice such as jasmine, basmati, long grain
Zest and juice of 2 limes
1 bunch cilantro
3 teaspoons olive oil, divided
Sea salt

Rinse the rice until the water runs clear. Drain well and place in a saucepan and add 3 cups water. Bring to a rapid boil over high heat. Lower the heat all the way, cover and cook 15 min. Turn off the heat after 15 min and let steam for 10. While the rice is cooking prepare the rest. In a food processor add the cilantro, lime zest and juice and turn on, while on slowly add 2 tsp of the olive oil, occasionally scraping down the sides to get it all chopped up.

Fluff the rice with a fork or rice paddle and add 1 tsp of olive oil then the cilantro mixture. Fold the rice until well combined and all the rice is mixed with the cilantro and is green. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

Spices for my version of  Mole Coloradito

Parting Shot:  A Molcajete (for grinding) filled with flowers at El Zaguán Bed & Art

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Victoria Challancin
Flavors of the Sun Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende, México


laura ann loveland said...

Another FABULOUS posting, Vicki! You are my queen of content, inspiration, and photography and I so enjoy your blog. Laura

Eha said...

You may appreciate or not that I find this the best post I have ever received from you! Both in word and picture!! The most thoroughly informative one which will be filed and kept and used!! How can one not be thrilled about something with a supposedly 'pre-Arabic Indo-Iranian' background if one so loves both Indian and Persian food :) ? Remember being a twenty-something novice foodie on my first trip to Mexico City. The first night we were offered mole poblano chicken: yikes - a savoury dish with a chocolate sauce! It tasted divine and began my curiosity re Mexican food and this special 'concoction' . . . no you have filled in so much background: thank you !!! And that simple rice recipe will be used even before I get back to testing my abilities with mole again . . .

laura ann loveland said...

I just spent well-deserved time absorbing this outstanding mole posting. I especially love the photo of the corn husk "boats." I just returned from visiting my first grandchild in California where our son-in-law asked me to help make prototype corn husk dolls for his high school class on cultures. His students enjoyed the project and my feeble attempt, but your "boats" definitely get my vote. Laura

Amy Ferguson said...

Is the cinnamon you use canela?

Victoria Challancin said...

Amy, yes, it is canela in stick form, then ground.

Nagi@RecipeTinEats said...

Another great post, Vicki! I really love how you give us great content in your posts. You're such an inspiration!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

This was SO interesting! I never knew that there were so many types of mole. I think the only kind I have tried is mole poblano! :D

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

Your mole sounds so full of flavor. Basically I make a pipian mole most of the time, I need to try yours next. Love the idea of the corn husk boats…do they tend to leak if the mole isn't real thick?