Thursday, December 29, 2011

CB Cooks: Mole ("moe-lay")

Makin' mole! (with my new homemade hand-carved mole stirrer)
When anybody mentions "mole" (the sauce, not the animal) a lot of things often come up.

"Oh yeah, the Mexican chocolate sauce," "It's super hard to make!" "It has so many ingredients in it" "It's too sweet for me" "I've had the premade kind and I don't like it one bit" "It was invented by nuns who had to feed some important guy and only had chiles and nuts and stale bread in their kitchen" "It takes three days to make" "How the hell do you pronounce it?"

As far as the last question, I'm pretty sure it's "moe-LAY" for us gringos, with the accent on the last syllable. Not sure why there isn't actually an accent there, perhaps because the word comes from a pre-columbian language. (In fact, I'm pretty sure "moe-LAY" just means a mixture of stuff or a sauce; the word "guacamole" just means "mixture/sauce of avocados". Pretty sure, not completely sure, so don't quote me on that. My spanish degree only covered spanish, not native mexican languages.)

I'm a huge fan of mexican food, and many say the concoction known as mole is the greatest accomplishment of the entire cuisine. In a lot of ways it is very complicated- many ingredients, many flavors, and the complexity only gets more complex when you serve it with other food like turkey (as is traditional for many moles). (Remember- "moe-LAYS" not "moles")

As I understand it, often mole is prepared on special occasions, because there are many ingredients; also, it's often paired with slow-cooked meat, which of course takes a while to cook. For these reasons (and probably many others) mole is one of those dishes (like tamales) that seems difficult and beyond reach for us lowly gringos. Especially on any day that isn't sunday!

Well I've got news for you! I'm definitely no expert in mexican cooking- but I think I have at least a handle on making "moe-LAY." In fact, I made some last night (on a wednesday night!). It took about an hour, and it will be even tastier today. I've made it a bunch of times, and I think I've come up with some rough guidelines (i.e. not an exact recipe) for making mole. In almost every mole recipe I've ever seen (in english OR spanish) there are certain types of ingredients that are always present. Based on that "research," I've come up with a list of ingredients- basically, you need at least one thing from each category to prepare your mole. Just to reiterate, I'm no mexican cooking expert, and this is most likely complete blasphemy... But it tastes just like mole in restaurants. If I had a mexican aunt, maybe this is what her mole would taste like.

Below I've listed the 6 categories, and some common ingredients that go in those categories. My idea is this: if you take at least one thing from each category, you will have something that is pretty much a mole.


- like dried chiles (absolutely necessary), raisins, bananas, plantains, etc

- peanuts (or peanut butter!), walnuts, almonds, sesame seeds, pecans, etc

- cinnamon (or mexican canela), anise, cloves, cumin, oregano, avocado leaves, allspice, coffee, and yes maybe even chocolate (but it's not entirely necessary!) - and SUGAR

- onions, garlic, tomatoes or tomato sauce, etc

- broth, stock, water, chile soaking liquid, beer, anything!?

- masa (like prepackaged tamale mix i.e. Maseca, or fresh from the tortillería), stale tortillas, toasted stale bread, animal crackers (I've heard this is a common old mexican lady addition)


Most recipes call for a very involved individual frying of each set of ingredients before everything is combined and blended together. I don't doubt this makes a thicker, richer, more voluptuous sauce... But this also exponentially lengthens the time needed to make this dish. When I make this, generally, I just throw everything into a blender and blend away! (If I fry anything, I'll get some onion and garlic looking toasty in a pan with some oil before adding it to the blender). Basically, here's the process:

L-R: Cloves, allspice, ancho chiles, piloncillo (sugar), tortillas,
oregano, pepper, onion, cumin, garlic, peanut butter,
tahini, walnuts NOT PICTURED: oil, guajillo chiles
1) ASSEMBLE your ingredients (at least one from each category, and you pretty much must use some kind of chiles)

For my wednesday night mole, I used:
dried ancho and guajillo chiles (fruits), peanut butter, walnuts, and tahini (ground sesame paste) (nuts), cloves, cumin, oregano, allspice, and some mexican piloncillo sugar (spices), onions and garlic (vegetables), chile soaking liquid (liquid), and stale corn tortillas (thickeners)

2) If your dried chiles are hard and old, and you can't run out and get some more, you might want to rehydrate them. Put them in a bowl, cover with hot water, and let them sit for 30 minutes or so. Mine were old, so I did this yesterday. Rick Bayless says if the soaking water is bitter, throw the water away.. If not, use it in the recipe! Mine last night was sweet tasting, so I used it. Many people will toast their dry chiles in a dry skillet before soaking, but I didn't do that. If you do it, make sure not to BURN the chiles.

soaking chiles (smells a whole lot like raisins)
3) BLEND - Add everything to the blender, and blend the &*#$ out of it. It might be better to add things in steps, to make sure everything gets blended.

4) STRAIN everything! This is key. The idea is to get a homogenous, velvety sauce with no lumps whatsoever. I have a strainer I pretty much only use for mole, I call it my mole strainer. 

Strain! Check out that gorgeous color. All that red/orange is from the chiles,
no tomato products here
5) Take the strained liquid and put it in a pan. If it's really really thick, add more liquid.

6) SIMMER - Add salt, pepper, whatever, to taste, and simmer. If it's too bitter, add some sweet stuff like sugar, honey, etc. Chiles are relatively bitter, you'll probably need to sweeten the mole at least a little bit.

7) That's it! You can simmer it for a long time, or not... Definitely gets better the next day.

I really like it over bean enchiladas, or grilled chicken, or pretty much anything. You can even put it on eggs! It's a really versatile sauce, and since there can be so many flavors in it, it goes with almost everything.

Using those 6 categories, the combinations are endless! By varying the type of chiles used, or the amount of sweetness, or the amount of other fruits or nuts, this base recipe could create an infinite variety of moles. This isn't entirely authentic, but the flavor is pretty close. If you follow these simple steps, in a matter of minutes you can be on your way to creating your own custom mole!

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