Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mole Gringo, with only a dozen(ish) ingredients

Reading about traditional moles makes me feel like a total poser, but it also makes me hungry. My students are currently reading What the Moon Saw, a thinly veiled ethnography of a rural village in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, for another one of their classes. I snagged it to read one day last week in the name of integrated curriculum and devoured it more or less in one sitting, give or take snacks. Oh, YF books, you go down so smooth. It is also a fairly good coming-of-age story about a teenage girl from the burbs of DC meeting her Mexican grandparents for the first time, finding out her grandmother is a curandera (shamanistic healer), and falling for a local boy who sings revolutionary songs real pretty. Moles, though never mentioned by that name are, along with hot chocolate and corn tortillas, essential to the story. In one of her grandmother's stories, a friend recalls a situation in which she planned on killing herself, but decided to make chicken with chocolate-chile sauce as a final meal and decided life was worth it after all. Mole proved to be her reason to keep living.

The word mole comes from a Nahuatl word, molli, which simply means "sauce," though it lines up interestingly with the direct-from-Latin Spanish verb moler, "to grind," an essential process in making mole. Nahuatl, a group of
languages from across southern Mexico, is the source for a surprising number of English words: chocolate, avocado, guacamole, tamale, chili, coyote, and tomato are all of Nahuatl origin, filtered through Spanish. Seeing as the term of origin is as broad as it is, it's unsurprising that there are a wide variety of moles across southern Mexico. They vary in complexity and focus, but have a few things in common: all begin with a variety of chiles, and from there are built out of spices and ingredients that make it sweet, like dried fruit; sour, like tomato or tomatillo; and thick, like nuts, seeds and starch. Oaxaca, where the book takes place, is known in some circles as the "Land of Seven Moles" but it's much broader than that - think of the seven moles a little like the five classic French mother sauces. They're more like guidelines. The most complex of these moles have nearly 40 different ingredients and can take days to make, so it's easy to see where folks might be overwhelmed by the idea of making it on their own for anything short of something very special, and miss out on the joys still available from a simplified mole.

I blame Rick Bayless. I mean, I should thank him as well, considering the fine work he's done to broaden American understandings of Mexican food, and especially seeing how I totally ripped off his breakdown of the classes of mole components in the last paragraph. But he's also a cultural anthropologist, and cultural anthropologists make a career of their excitement for the detailed processes of everyday life, especially anything where they can find a sense of ritual. Traditional food really does evoke a sense of ritual, especially an involved, sometimes ceremonial dish like a mole. However, his rapture in the detailed minutiae of the traditional recipe makes anything less than that feel like posing.

There's a time and a place for following tradition to the letter, but also one for adapting it to what fits your life. The only real ways to disrespect a tradition are to forget it or to take it away from someone. As much as I would love to try some of the mole recipes Bayless has collected in his fieldwork that involve things like setting tortillas on fire, I don't have time for that after work on the average Tuesday. Beyond that, as much as this is an adaptation and I am a total gringa, this is also much the way I learned to make mole negro from my mother, and the way we made it growing up. Which brings me to the other important point about traditions: grow your own. By all means, learn about other folks', incorporate from many sources, but recognize that your family has them, and honor those as such, too.

The main reason I decided to do this write-up is that I really want this dish to feel accessible: it doesn't have to take all day and require a "splurge" price warning. If you've got the inclination and about an hour, you should be able to swing this. Plus, you can freeze this sauce. Here's the main breakdown of steps, details follow:
  1. Roast the Peppers. Or not.
  2. Simmer dried peppers and fruit.
  3. Toast and grind the nuts and seeds.
  4. Saute some onions with some spices.
  5. Put it all together and add chocolate.

Mole negro de gringo

vegan, gluten/grain-free
makes about 1 qt, takes about 1 hour


  • 1 c. mixed nuts and seeds (some combination of the following: walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pepitas/squash seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds)
  • Sweet/Sour

  • ¾ c. raisins
  • 1-2 chipotle peppers
  • 1½ c. water or stock (veg. or chicken)
  • 1½ c. chopped tomatillo or tomato
  • Spice

  • 1/2 tsp. ground clove
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • The Altogether

  • 1 med. onion, small dice
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 jalapeño pepper
  • 1 poblano pepper (or 1 more jalapeño if you can't find a poblano)
  • 2 oz. unsweetened chocolate or ¼ c. cocoa powder
  • A note about this season's jalapeños: Probably because of the very dry conditions where I live (and through much of North America) this summer, I'm finding that local jalapeños are much spicier than usual. As such, I've been using half as many jalapeños, which is too bad in some ways, as they do have more to offer, flavor-wise, than just heat.
I feel obligated to mention that this is the dish which inspired the "two-chile rule" in the co-op where I lived for most of college. The rule prohibited using more than two types of chiles in any one dish, and, functionally, only applied to me. The opposition wasn't necessarily to the idea of using many different kinds of chiles, but to the level of heat that typically resulted when I got into a chile mood and used more than two varieties of chile. This was part of the process of simplifying this recipe, and building it into more of a condiment (where I received special dispensation for additional chiles) - my mom's version of it included pieces of turkey or chicken cooked into the sauce.

1. Roast the Peppers. Or not.

If you have a gas stove, toast the fresh chiles whole, directly on the burner over a medium-low flame, turning with tongs every few minutes as the skin becomes black and blistered. When all sides are roasty-toasty, put into a bowl, cover, and set aside.
The peppers will continue to cook as they steam from the inside.

If you are a sad sack like me that is stuck with an electric stove by virtue of renting, you can either turn the oven to broil and follow a similar process as above or you can give up and just dice the peppers, sauteing them with the onions later. In the summer when I grill, I like to plan ahead by sticking a few peppers on the grill during or after cooking the meal, which I then freeze for later. However, if you have people over, as I often do when I'm grilling, they may not survive.

2. Toast & grind your nuts & seeds

Get a cup measure and fill it up with a variety of nuts & seeds; try not to let any one make up more than half. If you or someone you cook for has a nut allergy, you can successfully stick to a variety of seeds without losing much. I really like using squash seeds, and I tend to keep walnuts and almonds around, so those tend to form the backbone of this component for me. Sesame & sunflower seeds also commonly make an appearance. Peanuts...tend to
disappear around here, but they are a traditional inclusion (it didn't filter into English, but the main Spanish word for peanut, cacahuate is from Nahuatl). In a pinch, you can add a few spoonfuls of natural peanut butter at the end - what is peanut butter but ground, toasted nuts - but it feels wrong somehow.

Toast the nuts and seeds in a heavy-bottomed skillet over a medium low heat, shaking or stirring every few minutes until they get darkly toasty (some traditional recipes describe toasting them right to the verge of burnt). Let cool (this happens faster if you shake them out onto a plate to cool), then grind in a spice grinder or food processor.

3. Simmer dried peppers & fruit

While nuts & seeds are toasting, put raisins and chipotles in a small saucepan with a lid and add water or stock to cover (about 1½ c.). Cover and turn onto high heat and bring to a boil, then turn down to a moderate simmer (med-low heat). Wash and quarter tomatoes or tomatillos. Once peppers & fruit are well rehydrated, remove from heat, add quartered tomatillos or tomatoes and puree. I like my hand-blender for this, because it makes fewer dishes, but use what you have. It doesn't have to be perfectly smooth.

4. Saute some onions with some spices

Cut onion in a large dice and mince garlic. Heat a little oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic. If you didn't roast the peppers, dice them and add with the onion and garlic. Add the cumin, cinnamon, clove and salt.

5. Put it all together and add chocolate

When onions get soft, add the pureed fruit. If you did roast the peppers, now is a great time to rub off the skins. They should come off pretty easily, and it's not important to get all of it off. Remove stem and seeds and dice. The poblano can be a fairly large dice, the jalapeño should be closer to minced. If your peppers went in with the onions, make sure the fruit gets a few minutes to simmer with the onions before adding anything else. Add the ground nuts & seeds. The mixture will immediately start to thicken. Prep the chocolate. If using unsweetened chocolate (e.g., Baker's), chop roughly to aid in melting. I like the results I get from this kind of chocolate better than cocoa powder, but cocoa powder is good enough that it's not worth making a trip to the store for the other kind if I'm out. If using cocoa powder, sift into the pot. Adjust salt as needed.

Serving suggestions

This mole will keep in the fridge for a week or two, and also freezes well. It's incredibly versatile, so don't worry about being able to use it up. That said, here's a few ideas to get you started:
  • Use as a sauce for poultry
    As I mentioned before, when we made it when I was growing up we cooked turkey (which I like slightly better and is rather more traditional) or chicken right in the sauce. We browned 1-2 lbs of chicken or turkey in pieces in the dutch oven before starting to cook the onions (no intermediary cleaning required), then put the chicken back in with the fruit/pepper puree. We let the poultry simmer until cooked through, then added the nuts and chocolate, and served it over rice.

    You can spoon it over poultry cooked in some other way, as well.
  • With roasted winter squash (Vegan!)
    I have been really into winter squash recently, in large part because it's starting to come in from the farm, but also because it's so good and requires so little. A little drizzle of this over the top and maybe a little chopped, fresh cilantro and it makes a great side.
  • Build it into a black bean chili (Vegan!)
    This was the path I usually took when I was living in the vegan co-op. For this, I add about 3 cups (2 cans) of cooked black beans and include red and green bell pepper when sauteing the onions. I also sometimes add ingredients like kale and cubed sweet potato and serve over rice or cornbread.
  • On eggs
    This mole also jazzes up a simple egg dish. Spoon a little over a fried egg with a toasted tortilla for a surprisingly satisfying breakfast. If you're feeling fancy, add beans, cheese, salsa, cilantro, sauteed peppers, onions, greens, or sausage.

    Egg on tortilla with mole, tomatillo salsa and chopped cilantro

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