Mole, that wonderful, deep, rich, multi layered intense sauce from south of the border is a complex, intoxicating potion. Its origin is mysterious as it’s spellbinding flavor. There are 32 states in Mexico, two of them lay claim to mole, Puebla, and Oaxaca. There is no absolute documented factual evidence how, when and where mole was created. Unlike other famous dishes, Peach Melba for example. That was created by Auguste Escoffier. He conceived it in 1892 or 1893 at the Savoy Hotel in London in honor of famed Australian soprano, Nellie Melba. Relatively recent history in the gastronomic timeline, Peach Melba is an old school dessert, vanilla ice cream, raspberry sauce topped with toasted almonds. However, fast forward to 2012, the significance of Peach Melba, both culturally, and culinarily was put on full display as it was the very last dish served at El Bulli when it closed. At the time El Bulli was the greatest restaurant in the world. Mole, however old it may be, will never go out of style. Mole Poblano, an ancient preparation is the national dish of Mexico.
Sometime when Cortez arrived in present day Mexico from Spain via Cuba in 1519 for three hundred years during the colonial period of New Spain the miracle of mole was manifested. But exactly how, is the mystery that lingers like mole itself. Lets examine the etymology. Nahuatl was the language spoken in the Aztec Empire. Nahuatl dates back to at least 600 AD. The word for sauce in Nahuatl is mōlli.
There is the tale of a high ranking Spanish religious leader visiting a convent in Puebla. The nuns, obviously poor, had nothing to offer. They prayed, then scrambled. Fueled by everything but the kitchen sink, they gathered bits and pieces of what was on hand. Of course, omnipresent chili peppers, stale bread, nuts, seeds, garlic, and the sweetest of all New World gifts, chocolate. They sacrificed an old turkey, cooked it and poured the impromptu sauce over the top of the past its prime poultry. The guest loved the dish and asked the nuns, “What do you call it.” One nun replied, “I made a mole.” Mole is an ancient term for mix.
A similar version is that a sauce was cooking and spices were inadvertently knocked over, or the wind blew them into the sauce. Yet, another story is told about a nun at the convent put too many chilis in the sauce. To counteract the spice she added chocolate. Thus creating a hot, sweet, and viscous mixture. Certainly, accidental, yet a tasty mistake. Regardless, of how it was created, mole is magical, marvelous, and mystifyingly Mexican.
My dear friend Margarita Vin is the President of the Culinary Association of Mexico. Petit and elegant, a class act who is a driving force of all things culinary in Mexico. I get a kick out her name, Margarita, that tasty salt rimmed cocktail, and Vin, the French word for wine. I adoringly call her Madam Vin. Some years ago I visited Mexico and went to four different states, Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Mexico D F, and Puebla. It was a gastronomic tour to learn about Mexican cuisine and share my knowledge about American Regional Cuisine. It was early November. I was scheduled to go to four different culinary schools. Madam Vin was my partner, hostess, and tour guide. This was nearly 20 years ago, Mexico was still steeped deep in traditional cuisine. Unlike today where progressive restaurants are creating cutting edge cuisine. Although there are no Michelin starred establishments, the reason is not because they are not worthy, but rather there is no Michelin guide for Mexico. But one day there will be. Mexico City is the second most populated city in the Western Hemisphere. With more than 150 museums, the New World Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, the birthplace of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Mexico is a cultural treasure chest with a rich culinary history. It is simmering for a hungry generation of chefs to elevate enchiladas, transform tamales and propel pozole to the peak of the pyramids in Teotihuacan.
It was a soul satisfying to visit those culinary schools and engage the next generation of chefs. The torchbearers who will blaze the trail with their interpretation of Mexican cuisine, garnering the coveted Michelin guide to include Mexico in its publication. I delivered not only a cooking class with all the traditional Thanksgiving favorites. They received a history lesson about the first Thanksgiving involving the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock with Abenaki Indians who were instrumental in the survival of the colonists. Specifically teaching them how to plant and harvest the Three Sisters, corn, beans and squash. They were grown together, squash, being the hard varieties, pumpkin, butternut, acorn, etc. This was also known as the trinity. These three vegetables were staples in the diet of the American Indian. Raw ingredients the Pilgrims never saw before. The first Thanksgiving was a three day affair. An abundance of turkey was served as was waterfowl, venison, ham, which was brought from the old world, various crustaceans and shellfish, and of course pumpkin. Turkey is king on Thanksgiving Day. Alexander Hamilton stated, “No citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” Another patriot, Benjamin Franklin held the turkey in such high regard he wanted a proclamation to claim it the national bird of America. Ben, you did some great things for America, but thank God the turkey didn’t become our national bird. A good thing our Founding Fathers flipped the bird on that foul idea.
I spoke at length about cranberries. When I was a kid and I would open a can at both ends and push out the red gelatinous cylinder, its sides ridged from the indentations around the center of the can. I would eat that tube in one setting. That was until I discovered fresh cranberries, I have never eaten canned since. That must be a good 40-45 years ago. I spent five years on Nantucket. I always loved the fall when the cranberries were harvested. Cranberries were originally called crane berries due to the elongated stamen that bloomed off the flower. It resembled the long feathers atop a cranes head. Crane was dropped and it became cranberry. Cranberries are a New World food, they did not exist in the old country.
It’s quite a scene. They flood the bogs. Then a machine, a jacked up skeletal tractor with rotating mechanism is driven through the bog. It knocks the berries off the bush, which in turn float. Then people in neoprene overalls and waterproof boots with oversized bamboo rakes begin to round up the tart ruby berries. They are pulled into a dam, fed into a revolving hopper transporting the fruit skyward cascading into a gigantic dump truck. The berries are hauled to a processing warehouse where they are washed, sorted, packed and shipped, then served on every table on turkey day in America.
I shared the amusing story when I was kid. My four brothers and I were getting into a shouting match regarding who would get the other turkey leg. There was no question one belonged to dad. But as to would get the other leg was yet to be established. Dad had his Hamilton Beach electric knife fired up expertly slicing the white meat off the breast. He paused, shut off the knife, and gave the look. You know the look? The look that is far more powerful than any words. Chefs are really good at, the look. After the stare down my siblings and I clamed up. Dad said “If you boys dont knock it off you’ll be eating bologna sandwiches next year. We shut up real quick. No sooner did dad fire up the knife, we started right back into it. Dad, always a man of few words commanded, “Keep it up and you’ll be eating bologna sandwiches today!”
Mole is a labor of love. It is a process, there is no other sauce like it. Certainly there are various types of mole. But mole is monogamously Mexican as gumbo is quintessentially Cajun. In Oaxaca, the gastronomic cradle of Mexico, there are seven different moles. The French have their Mother Sauces, bechamel, espagnole, tomato, hollandaise, velouté demi-glace. Some add mayo to the list too, no argument from me. But in Mexico, mole is the mother, from which variations are made.
Amarillo, this does not include chocolate. It’s a mixture of onion, garlic, whole spices like cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and cumin, dried chilis, pumpkin and sesame seeds, herbs such as hoja santo (holy leaf) and cilantro, bread for thickening. More on the savory side due to lack of chocolate and fruit. However this mole is viewed as a base from which you can adjust as you see fit.
Chichilo, another non chocolate mole. Rich and intense, the base is made from beef broth, That broth is used to rehydrate the chilis, such as chilis de arbol, anchos and guajillos. Thus creating a bold flavor. Then the usual slow roasted garlic and onion are added. It is thickened with masa harina, lime-cured corn flour, or crushed fresh tortillas. Excellent for braised dishes, rich and robust. Coloradito, translates into a shade of red. This is a reddish-brown hue. It contains the usual ingredients, onions, garlic, seeds, spices, herbs, and chocolate. The kicker here is plantain. It serves as the thickener, and a sweetener. Manchamantel, translates to stain, or tablecloth staining. Between the tomatoes, ancho and chorizo grease this will stain like ink. Similar to its Coloradito cousin, it utilizes plantain, and pineapple. A fruitier flavor profile which goes great with duck, game, pork and wild boar. Negro, the most common, especially found on American menus. The usual suspects, slow roasted onion, garlic, canela, cloves, black pepper, cumin, dried chilis, pumpkin and sesame seeds, herbs like hoja santo and cilantro, bread for thickening and sometimes dried fruit for extra sweetness. Lastly, mucho amounts of dark, bitter chocolate. Rojo, known as mole poblano, similar to black mole, basically many of the same spices and base ingredients. It also contains far less chocolate, but is a more spicier mole. This has serious heat from pasilla, guajillo and ancho. Additionally, pulverized raisins. almonds or peanuts. When the sauce is done, browned chicken, pork or beef is typically added and stewed until tender. Also great as a spread on tortillas for tacos or simply eaten with queso Oaxaca, basically Mexican mozzarella. Verde, chicken stock based, pepitas. tomatillos, cilantro, lime, parsley, garlic, jalapeno. Great with poultry, shrimp, or hardy fish such as salmon, swordfish, or tuna.
As I wrapped up my turkey talk and demo with Madam Vin who assisted every step of the way I wanted to present something completely different and unique. I wanted to take something so indicative of Mexican cuisine and change it drastically. The point was to impress upon the students to think outside the burrito. To maintain the roots and soul of tradition, but infuse it with creativity and flair.
With immense thought, I began digging deep into Mexican cuisine. Searching for one item I could drastically alter, tacos, tamales, tripe. Then it hit me like a shot of tequila. Mole! That dark red brown, nearly black sauce. What if I used white chocolate and such ingredients as sweated onion, roasted garlic, skinned granny smith apples, cauliflower, parsnip, sesame seed, almond, peanut, or filberts, clove, coriander, heavy cream, coconut milk, stale sourdough. For the heat I could simmer dried chilies or jalapenos in simple syrup. Creating a liquid transparent sweet heat.
I began toying with different combinations and utilizing as many white ingredients that my mind could think of. The mole must be spicy, sweet, fruity, aromatic, toasty, layered and long lasting. In other words, it had to be Ottolicious. Admittingly, this was 20 years ago, I had never heard of mole blanco. I really thought I was having a Peach Melba moment. What I know now, but didn’t know then is, mole blanco is rare. It is not included in the 7 moles of Oaxaca and is generally served only twice a year, Easter and Christmas. It is nowhere to be found in what is considered the Mexican Cuisine Bible, The Art of Mexican cooking, by Diana Kennedy.
Regardless, during my turkey trot tour to with Madam Vin, this Caucasian concoction turned heads and tickled taste buds. I was surprised to learn the majority of students never heard of or had mole blanco. That, was the most rewarding moment for me. To deliver something straight from their own backyard that they never experienced.
Such is the beauty of food, it truly is the international language. Happy Thanksgiving to you, and may your mole always be holy.
3 T coconut oil
1 C golden raisins plumped in hot water then drained
1 C blanched almonds, toasted
1 C unsalted pepitas, toasted
1 C sesame seeds, toasted
1 C peanuts, unsalted toasted
2 each habanero, seeded and sliced. Yellow ones are best
2 each plantain, ripe, but not black, peeled and sliced in 2” pieces
1 slice of stale bread, preferably sourdough, crust removed, toasted cut into cubes
1 C of diced onion
1 T minced garlic
1/4 C roasted garlic
1 C white chocolate, rough chopped
12 C chicken stock, hot
1 13.5 oz can unsweetened coconut milk
1 t freshly ground cloves, toasted
1 t canela (Mexican cinnamon), toasted
1 t freshly ground anise, toasted
3 each star anise
Salt and white pepper to taste
Using half the coconut oil sauté the plantains until golden, remove from pan, place on paper towel to absorb excess oil. In the same pan with the remaining oil sweat the onion and habanero until thoroughly cooked and no color. Add the fresh garlic, cook for 5 minutes. Place all ingredients in a saucepot and with an immersion blender mix on high speed until mole is thoroughly incorporated. Conversely, you may use a blender to mix. Be careful with hot stock when blending, don’t blend more than half full. Simmer for about 30 minutes to thicken. Once desired thickness is achieved adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and serve over protein. This is a perfect sauce for your leftover turkey.
Yield 12 servings
Taste the Freedom.