Holy Mole

cincodemayoWe hope you all had a happy Cinco de Mayo, amigos!  Yep, I just said that. Once a holiday to honor the ideals of freedom and democracy in the first years of the Civil War and celebrated by Mexican-Americans to commemorate an unlikely victory in a fight to end occupation, the celebration of Cinco de Mayo has been seized enthusiastically by margarita-happy gringos. This isn’t to say that the original or true meaning of the holiday has been lost. Uniquely American in origin, the day is now a widely-embraced celebration of Mexican heritage. In a state that was formed from Mexican territory and in which 30% of the population identifies as Mexican-American, it’s accompanied by a very visible display of pride. For the two of us, it also means an excuse to make an elaborate feast. 

For years I wrote off mole. The purview of elderly grandmas and professional chefs, mole seemed to require a Kerouacian scroll of ingredients, visits to multiple specialty stores, and an intricate dance of stewing and toasting and simmering. I was under the impression for most of my adulthood up to this point that mole routinely took days to make. However, having recently developed a habit of tackling labor-intensive cooking projects, mole was one of the early favorites among the options put forward for our Cinco de Mayo post. Once I actually read through a recipe or two, I realized that the process would not be nearly as arduous or agonizing as I had envisioned. Inspired by a recent trip to La Mission (delightfully inhabiting a former Taco Bell on University Ave. in Berkeley and serving up award-winning mole) and rendered necessary by a failed attempt to seduce the cashier for a copy of their secret recipe, we decided to adapt a recipe found online to suit our tastes. To begin, we had the enviable task of cracking open dried peppers to empty them of their seeds. Shaking them out like confetti is one of my favorite experiences from our shared cooking adventures so far, but touching my sunburned shoulders later that evening left a searing reminder of the oils that had clearly seeped into my fingers. We were then required to toast and blend a dizzying assortment of spices. We ground them in a (relatively) clean coffee grinder, which imparted a welcome scent of coffee to the mixture.

Next we had to heat the pumpkin seeds, almonds, and raisins in a skillet shimmering with melted lard. It turns out that lard does not smell good. Not to discourage unfamiliar cooks or disparage the cuisine of any nation, but it smells like the wrong end of a pig. However, it does render a dish absolutely delicious, so we held firm. The raisins grew fat in the hot lard and the mixture was surprisingly fragrant as it cooled. Into the empty skillet went tomatoes, blistering at high heat, followed by garlic cloves and onion quarters. In a pot we combined the ingredients—chicken broth, peppers, nuts and spices and raisins, tomatoes, peeled garlic, diced onions and let it simmer way.

As the preparations were progressing, our friend, one half of the brilliant team behind Company Co. Events, crafted pink lemon margaritas which we enjoyed, rims thick with salt, while cooking. After nearly an hour and most of the margarita, we threw in the chopped chocolate (minus a few slivers sacrificed for the good of the party) and pureed the mixture with an immersion blender. The smell was intoxicating. Rich, spicy-sweet, and beautifully thick, the mole looked and tasted exactly as we’d hoped. We threw in some browned chicken breast and tucked it into the oven to braise for an hour.

While the chicken simmered away in the sauce, we grilled corn and tossed it with crumbled cotija, chopped jalapeno and red onion, then drizzled fresh lime juice over the mixture. Setting this creation aside and trying with great difficulty to avoid snacking, we turned our attention to the cilantro lime rice. The rice took a lot of liquid, but the combination of sauteed rice with garlic and the addition of chicken broth and lime juice was perfect. Finally, my co-blogger drizzled olive oil, salt, and pepper over fresh asparagus and grilled it to a mouth-watering tenderness before we assembled the plates.

The meal was, in our opinion, worthy of a true celebration. The mole was spicy, smoky, sweet; the meat, pull-apart tender; the corn was sweet too, bright and crisp where the mole was dark and rich; the rice had achieved the perfect texture and a welcome tanginess. With a bottle of red wine we enjoyed the flavors and heady scents of a good meal made with care and attention, as well as a sense of appreciation for our privilege in being able to enjoy these pleasures.

cilantrolimerice margaritasBraised Chicken with Oaxacan Chocolate Mole Sauce Adapted from Food & Wine
Serves 7-8

  • 6 dried ancho chiles
  • 4 dried New Mexico chiles, stemmed and seeded
  • 1/3 cup sesame seeds, plus 1 tablespoon for garnish
  • 1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
  • 3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 3 cloves
  • 12 black peppercorns
  • One 2-inch cinnamon stick
  • 5 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening
  • 3 tablespoons raisins
  • 20 whole almonds
  • 1/3 cup raw pumpkin seeds
  • 1 corn tortilla, quartered
  • 5 medium plum tomatoes
  • 5 garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 1 small onion, quartered
  • 5 cups chicken stock or low-sodium broth
  • 3 1/4 ounces Mexican chocolate, coarsely chopped (we used roughly 2 ½ Taza Chocolate rounds)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 6 chicken skinless, boneless chicken breast
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  1. In a medium bowl, cover all of the chile peppers with hot water. Let them stand for at least 30 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, combine the 1/3 cup of sesame seeds with the anise, cumin, cloves, peppercorns and cinnamon stick. Toast over moderately low heat, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder and let them cool completely. Grind the seeds and spices to a fine powder.
  3. In the same skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the lard. Stir in the raisins, almonds, pumpkin seeds and tortilla. Cook the mixture over moderately low heat until the almonds are toasted and the raisins are plump, about 5 minutes. Transfer the contents of the skillet to a large bowl.
  4. Add the tomatoes to the skillet and cook, turning, until the skins are lightly blistered on all sides, about 12 minutes. Transfer the blistered tomatoes to the bowl. Add the garlic and onion to the skillet and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer the garlic and onions to the bowl and let cool. Empty the vegetables onto a work surface. Peel the garlic cloves and coarsely chop them along with the onions and tomatoes.
  5. Melt 1 tablespoon of the lard in a cast iron pot. Stir in the chopped vegetables and the spice powder and cook over moderately high heat until warmed through, about 3 minutes. Add the drained chiles and the chicken stock, cover partially and simmer for 45-50 minutes. Remove from the heat. Puree mixture until smooth with immersion blender. Season the mole sauce with salt and pepper.
  6. Preheat the oven to 350°. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of lard in the skillet. Working in batches, brown the chicken over high heat, turning once, about 10 minutes per batch. Transfer chicken to mole and bring to a simmer. Cover and braise in the oven until the meat is very tender, about 45 minutes. Transfer the chicken mole to a serving platter, garnish with the remaining 1 tablespoon of sesame seeds and the cilantro and serve.

Note: The Oaxacan mole sauce can be refrigerated for 2 weeks and frozen for 1 month. The braised chicken and mole sauce can be refrigerated for 4 days.

First We Eat’s Elote Our take on the famous Mexican corn snack you get from street vendors in Mexico. Serves 6

  • 5 Fresh ears of corn
  • 2 Jalapeno, seeded and diced
  • 1/2 Red Onion, chopped fine
  • 3 Limes, juiced
  • 2 Tbsp Queso Fresco, crumbled
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • 1 tsp Fresh ground black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp Olive Oil
  • 1 Tsp Chili Powder

Remove husks and as much of the silk from the corn as you can, then rub with Olive Oil. Heat grill and put corn on, making sure each side gets some nice char (about 15 minutes, rotating every few minutes). Once corn is done, remove from grill and let cool until you can easily handle. In the meantime you can prep the jalapeno, red onion, lime juice, and queso fresco. Once corn is cool enough to handle, slice kernels off the cob and put into a medium sized bowl. Combine the corn kernels with all the other ingredients and mix well. In Mexico, the corn kernels are traditionally topped with lime juice, queso fresco, chili powder, and mayonnaise but we wanted to do something a little bit spicier and less creamy, so this is our fresh take on Elote.

Cilantro Lime Rice Adapted from Ree Drummond of the Food Network. Serves 6

  • 2 Tbsp Olive Oil
  • 1 Yellow Onion, chopped
  • 3 Large cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 2 Cups long grain rice (we used Jasmine)
  • 1 Tsp salt
  • 3 Cups chicken broth
  • Juice of 3 limes and zest of two limes
  • 1 Bunch cilantro, chopped

Heat the olive oil in a skillet over high heat. Add the onion and garlic and sautee until golden, add the rice and continue stirring to make sure the rice does not burn. Add two cups of the chicken stock, the salt, and the lime juice & zest and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Cook for about 15 minutes and then check to see if the rice is finished. If it’s not finished and all the chicken stock has been absorbed, slowly add more chicken stock and cook until rice rice is tender (but not sticky). Remove from pan and toss with lots of chopped cilantro. Enjoy!

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