Making Mole


The mid-June afternoon is the warmest we have had in a week or two, and I find myself standing next to the stove stirring the lava-like mass at the bottom of the big kettle. It spits and pops and sends small jets of dark red grease upward to catch the unwary forearm. A simmering pot of broth steams on the left burner, making the small hairs around my face curl from the humidity. This is not the type of cooking where one can leave the room and pursue other tasks, no matter how urgent. We will serve this chocolate-laced savory concoction of ground nuts, seeds and both fresh and dried chiles over rice at the annual Taste of Wine, Chocolate and Ale to benefit the Mendocino Music Festival.

The recipe for this complex and labor-intensive stew comes from the state of Puebla in Mexico. It has been lovingly and awkwardly translated from its original Spanish, and modified to reflect the types of chiles available at my local Mexican market. As most of the Mexican immigrants here on the coast hail from either Oaxaca or the Yucatan, substitutions from the original are mandatory. The actual types and proportions are a guarded secret, but the process itself is the real story.
One begins by charring the fresh vegetables, tomatillos still in their husks, white onions, and fresh Poblano chiles. Traditionally, this is done on a comal, a cast iron griddle the size of a garbage can lid. To hasten the process while still preserving the flavor, I roast each of the items in a very hot convection oven until the skins are blackened and the juices ooze and caramelize on the pan. Fresh corn tortillas and a torn-up stale bolillo (soft roll) are fried in pork lard and set aside to cool. The dried chiles are soaked in boiling water to soften them for handling. Blanched almonds and pumpkin seeds are also fried until toasty brown and fragrant, and whole cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds, cloves and allspice are toasted in a dry pan.
The first ingredients to be pureed are the onions and the tomatillos, husks and skins removed. Next the tortillas and fried bread are ground to fine crumbs and stirred into the vegetable mixture. The nuts and spices are combined and processed to a powder, taking care not to process so long that almond-pumpkin butter results. When combined with the other ingredients, the mixture looks like some type of dough. The roasted Poblanos are stemmed, pureed and added as well, darkening the mixture with their almost black-green hue. The soaked dried chiles are also stemmed and carefully seeded so the finished stew is not fiery hot. Plastic gloves are required for this procedure, as it is too easy to inadvertently touch lips or eyes with fingers infused with the potent oils. A handful of the seeds are toasted and added back to the chiles for just a bit of heat. The mixture is drained and then fried in more lard until the dark red chiles turn almost black and their pungent oils fill the air. The thick paste is scooped into the food processor with water to thin, and pureed until it resembles brick colored paint. When everything is combined, the raw mole is faintly reddish and flecked with darker specks of chiles and spices.
Though this process takes over an hour, it is not the most time consuming part of preparing mole. The woman that gave me the recipe told me that the most important part is when the love is added to the stew. Heating more pork lard in my biggest kettle until it froths; I prepare to finish the mole. When I add the raw paste to the fat, everything boils and bubbles frantically. I must stir almost constantly at this point, so that the paste browns but does not burn. Soon I add large ladles of hot chicken broth, alternately thinning and thickening the mixture as it cooks over a period of hours. Halfway through, I add several rounds of chopped up Mexican chocolate, allowing it to melt into the paste. Now stirring is non-negotiable as the chocolate will burn if left sitting on the bottom of the kettle. This is where the love comes in, as the mole must be nursed along, stirring constantly, as it darkens and continues to thicken. I imagine Mexican women, mothers, daughters, sisters, and grandmothers, taking turns stirring the mole through the afternoon as they laugh and talk and share the joys of the kitchen. Unfortunately, my only companions this day are my dogs, sitting patiently at my feet hoping for a small taste of what is to come. The final ingredient added is a glass of white vinegar, the acid providing a necessary counterpoint to the richness.
Dishes like this take much too long for most of us to prepare in our modern, hurried world. Even the Mexican grocery store sells mole in a small glass jar, to be seasoned with the cook’s own variations on spices, often reminiscent of her mother’s recipe. There is something elemental about preparing a dish that takes most of a day to cook. There is an intimate connection between the cook and the kitchen, and the love and attention that is required to transform the mundane ingredients of an everyday salsa into a complex and heartening Mole Poblano. Spicy, savory, bitter, sweet, and sour; the flavors that punctuate every region’s culinary traditions meld together in a dish that warms the hearts of all of those who partake of its magic.
Post by Julia Conway on June 13th, 2008