As I’m standing in the kitchen Saturday night cutting up a whole chicken — something I never did before moving here, by the way, I mean why would I when a normal grocery store sells them in convenient little pieces already? — I’m thinking of my grandmother, and the story she told recently about butchering a turkey for Thanksgiving one year because she thought she and her daughters ought to know how to do it. My chicken arrived already dead and frozen, thankfully, but I’m picturing my grandmother in the kitchen with me anyway, offering tips as I cut through joints, separating legs from body, drumsticks from thighs, breasts from backbone. I’m making chicken stock, using a whole chicken instead of just spare parts in order to get a super-rich broth (plus shredded breast meat for enchiladas later). Two more whole chickens wait in the freezer for their turn under the knife. This stock is slated for tomorrow’s mole negro sauce, to accompany those other two chickens at a dinner party on Monday.
In the morning I wake up with a start. Isn’t my grandmother’s birthday this month? Have I forgotten it? Still in bed I check the calendar on my phone. Nope, haven’t missed it; it’s Monday. Mole Monday. So Grandma, this one’s meant for you!
A bittersweet dark-chocolatey black mole sauce with succulent white chicken is one of my most favorite things. It’s a specialty of Mexico which I don’t think I ever knew about before living in the Southwest. And didn’t necessarily love until I tried the one from La Roca in Nogales, just over the border from Tucson. Over the years I went back to the same place twice more just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. The mole was always delectable, and the music, ambience (the restaurant is built into a rocky cliff), margaritas, and table side guacamole didn’t hurt, either. A beautiful place.
If you’ve never had mole negro before, it might be what you’d call an acquired taste. At first it seems strange, I mean it looks like you’re eating pure melted chocolate for dinner. But there’s only a touch of chocolate; the rest is mostly chiles, and lots of them. Yet it’s not a very spicy dish. What it is is complex. Deliciously, luxuriously complex.
That word is even more appropriate now that I’m trying to make it myself at home, in the hopes of recreating the same kind of velvety black heaven as La Roca serves up. There are a hundred different recipes for mole — it seems each region of Mexico claims their own specialty, which probably varies from family to family, too — but instead of choosing a simple, accessible one, I went the opposite direction and decided to tackle Rick Bayless’ White House Dinner recipe for my very first try. It takes 4 kinds of chiles, more than 20 other ingredients, and a couple of days. HuffPost calls it a “doozy.” A logical choice, right?
Logical if you’re a masochist. Or maybe just a person who enjoys a challenge and happens to have tasted heaven before. A heaven that is no longer a few hours’ drive away. A heaven that can be built from scratch by your very own hands; all you need to do is follow these steps as carefully outlined by the creator himself!
Rick’s recipe calls for four kinds of dried chiles: mulatos, chihualces, pasillas, and one lone chipotle (preferably the tan-brown chipotle meco, in case you were wondering). However, Rick readily admits that it can be rather difficult to obtain the chihualces chiles, and that’s even if you go looking for them at their source in Oaxaca, Mexico. So he offers this helpful second-tier list of dried chiles in slightly different quantities: mulatos, pasillas, guajillos, and one lone chipotle (the tan-brown chipotle meco, of course).
My Congo pantry contained these: some dried ancho chiles, a can of chipotles in adobo sauce, and some red chile powder from New Mexico donated from one of Seb’s colleagues.
Close enough, I say! Let’s do this!
So that was my first attempt, about a year and a half ago. More creative substitutions were required to come up with the rest of the ingredient list; about the only thing I did have was real tomatillos from our own garden. But somehow everything came together and transformed into a black sauce resembling actual mole that turned out to be pretty tasty. And lucky that, as we had invited a whole group of Spanish and honorary Mexican (i.e., New Mexican) colleagues over for dinner.
I mentioned to a friend here that my experiment had taken my entire supply of dried chiles but turned out well; next thing we knew, she and her husband arranged for someone to hand-deliver us a care package of mole fixings to try again! Pasilla-anchos, chile negros, Abuelita chocolate, Mexican cumin & oregano. What a gift! Shortly after this bounty arrived I found myself stateside, where I made a beeline for ethnic grocers and added to my stash some dried guajillos and… you’ll never guess… actual dried chipotles, which didn’t say “meco” anywhere but were decidedly tan-brown. No sign of the notorious chihualces, and I even checked a few mail-order sites. “Out of stock,” they all said, except for one in Canada but it required too long for shipping. Never mind, I’ve got all the others. I grabbed some canned tomatillos since my garden supply was exhausted and came home excited to play kitchen chemist again.
Armed with fewer substitutions and some misplaced confidence, I invited the whole group of expats-with-spouses over for dinner. And wouldn’t you know it but this version turned out not as good as the last? It was too bitter. It was pretty and could pass for mole if you didn’t know what to expect, but disappointing when compared to the liquid black gold of my dreams. I spent a day recounting my steps and analyzing the shapes, sizes and colors of my dried chiles. I learned that the pasilla-anchos I had used, thinking they were pasillas, were actually anchos. The two are not the same but often mislabeled. The untouched bag of chile negros, however, were actually the pasillas I needed. (The irony is that my totally casual and mostly-ancho first try had sort of worked.)
But a dozen other things had also gone differently this time. I hadn’t used green tomatoes, only red. I used a frozen banana and whole-wheat bread. The canned tomatillos failed me in another recipe later, so maybe those are best avoided. Finally, the grand mistake was trying to do it all in one day. The leftover sauce from that party was much better a day or two later, having had time to mellow out.
After that, I wasn’t exactly feeling the urge to try my hand at this mole again. It’s an exhausting recipe. (Not to mention foolhardy to attempt in one day, especially if you’d like to play relaxed, amiable hostess the same evening.) The recipe was relegated to my “maybe again, someday” category until we stumbled across, completely by accident, THE elusive chile that’s the star of Rick’s first-tier recipe. The one you can’t even find in Oaxaca, where it comes from for goodness’ sake. We weren’t even looking for it anymore. Yet here we were, wandering the aisles of a health food store in Québec, looking for chia seeds and dried shiitake mushrooms, and this wonder chile is just sitting there on the shelf in broad daylight, all innocent. I wanted to grab it like a long-lost child and shake it, saying, “Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you??”
Back home to Congo we went with our precious Canadian groceries. A few months passed. Last week I found lovely green tomatoes for sale in the local market, and our New Mexican contact arrived with corn tortillas, so I sounded the mole-making alarm bells. Here we go again.
This time, with the right chiles in hand, I’m giving it my very best effort, starting with the best chicken stock I can possibly make. I’m also upgrading the “controlled burning” process that is supposed to turn the chile seeds charcoal-black by using a comal, a gift from another awesome former Congo neighbor (by the way it makes a mean charred tomato salsa, thanks Lisa!). Rick doesn’t mention the comal in his recipe and soon I find out why — it’s so efficient at cooking those chile seeds, I literally burned my esophagus just standing nearby. This must be what pepper spray feels like. Hours later and I feel like I just smoked a pack of cigarettes.
The recipe is full of strange little surprises. Along with the chile seeds that you should confidently take to the charcoal-black stage, you are to tear up and toast one — just one — corn tortilla. There’s a burnt piece of toast in one of the four purees, and half a ripe banana. Another puree involves four kinds of nuts and seeds. Avocado leaves are called for in the simmer. And did I mention the chocolate?
This time around I also resolve to give myself extra time. No rushing around. Day 1, chicken stock. Day 2, mole sauce. Day 3, cut up those chickens and simmer them in the sauce. Make a couple of side dishes. Shower, set the table, smile.
Yet it’s not enough; it’s never enough. Weekend activities get in our way a little bit. At the end of day 2 the chile-seed fumes and a power outage — the day’s second one — force me outside to fry the chile flesh in hot oil on a miniature BBQ with Seb’s help. Soon a storm comes along and chases us back inside. Just as I finish blending the four purees and start cooking them, another power outage sends me to the couch for an hour-long timeout. It’s midnight by the time I start the sauce on its final simmer. There’s still a few hours of work left to do, and the kitchen and I look like victims of a chocolate bomb.
Seb and I decide to push the dinner party from Monday to Wednesday. Mole Wednesday doesn’t have the same ring to it, but that’s ok. This time around, I’ll take my sweet time. Besides, mole only gets better with age. Just like my Grandma! Happy birthday, Grandma! I’ll post a picture of the finished dish for you on Wednesday. 🙂