I walked into the kitchen and saw the two Mexican women preparing a huge olla, [or pot] of some dark liquid. It looked like a semi-boiling cauldron of thick dark lava, like some unknown magical concoction. Having grown up in Southern California, I was pretty sure I knew what Mexican food looked like, and I was certain this wasn’t it.
My fears were only confirmed when I realized there were not going to be any fried tortillas, no burritos, no refried beans and certainly no cheese on my soon to be delivered plate of dinner.
What I ate that night, prepared all day by my friend Rebeca and her mother Socorro changed my life. It’s known by two simple words… mole negro [pronounced mo-lay].
Dark, thick, sweet and spicy, nothing could change your perception of Mexican cuisine like a plate of this glorious sauce over chicken alongside some white rice. Suddenly I was transported to a food world that now seemed limitless, not constrained by a need to be fried and include the typical tomato and cheese offerings of El Torito or even the most adventurous of Tex-Mex combo plates.
As I enjoyed that meal, I loved how the sweetness hit my tongue first before giving way to a wonderful spiciness. The thickness of the mole gave the sauce a great body, full of a graininess that was bursting with flavors.
My friends and I obsessed over judging the quality of mole by the number of napkins we needed to clean up. The more napkins you needed gave evidence to how wonderful it was… you ate every bit of chicken off the bone so as not to miss a single taste. And as you ate, your fingers, hands and face all were covered in remnants of your recently devoured dinner
I soon learned that there were many types of mole. Spending a significant amount of time each year in Oaxaca introduced me to such variations as amarillo, verde, rojo and coloradito. One year I made a special trip to Puebla just to have the Puebla version of mole, called mole poblano there.
Mexican cuisine in the states has changed quite a bit in the last 20 years. Now if you find yourself in a city like Los Angeles, you can visit a restaurant like Guelaguetza and try their mole sampler plate. Or, if you are a little more daring, try La Casita Mexicana where Chefs Jaime Martin Del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu hold court daily. They always have great mole available but occasionally they push the limits with something like their blackberry or pistachio mole.
For me though, the classic is always going to be mole negro. With an aroma that permeates a room, it is rich and full of flavor, like the best chefs make in Oaxaca. And perhaps therein lies the conundrum for many living in the states. You can get great mole here, but if you want to taste the traditional flavors in all their spectacular glory, you’ll need to get on a plane. One thing I can promise you… you’ll think differently about Mexican food when you return.
However, if you’re daring but are unable to get to Oaxaca, or Puebla, I’ve included Chef Pilar Cabrera’s [of La Olla Restaurante in Oaxaca] recipe [click more below] for mole negro. It’s a lot of work to make from scratch, but as we say in My Mexico,”Vale la pena!” Well worth it!”
BLACK MOLE with TURKEY
by Chef Pilar Cabrera
INGREDIENTS FOR THE TURKEY
1/2 medium white onion
6 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons salt
6 pounds turkey breast, skin removed, cut into 4 pieces
INGREDIENTS FOR THE MOLE NEGRO
1 plum tomato
1/2 medium onion
3 garlic cloves
4 avocado leaves
8 mulato chiles
8 chiles pasilla mexicano
4 chilhuacle negro chiles
3 tablespoons asiento, or pork lard
2 plantains, peeled, sliced
1/4 cup almonds
1/4 cup pecans
1/4 cup peanuts
4 slices stale challah bread, torn in pieces
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/8 teaspoon anise seeds
1/8 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon mixed dried aromatic herbs such as, marjoram, thyme and oregano
3 whole allspice
3 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
4 cups chicken broth
1 piece, about 4 ounces, Oaxacan chocolate
1 tablespoon sugar
- Over medium heat, heat a comal or heavy skillet until hot. Place the tomatillos, tomato, onion, and garlic cloves on the hot comal. Roast, turning often until all sides are blackened on the exterior, about 10 minutes. Set aside in a large bowl. Remove the papery garlic peel. Using the same hot comal, heat the avocado leaves until fragrant, a few seconds. Set aside.
- Clean the mulato chiles, chiles pasilla mexicano and chilhuacle negro chiles with a damp cloth. With kitchen shears, cut a lengthwise slit on one side. Open the chiles and remove the seeds, discarding the veins and stems. Over medium heat, heat a comal or heavy skillet until hot. Toast the seeds until they are blackened, about 7 – 9 minutes. Set aside.
- In a cazuela or large pot over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon asiento until hot. Sauté the plantains until golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with the tomatillos. Sauté the almonds, pecans and peanuts until they are dark brown, about 5 minutes, transfer to the bowl. Sauté the challah bread until it is golden brown, about 2 minutes; transfer to the bowl. Sauté the raisins, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, anise seeds, cumin seeds, dried aromatic herbs, allspice, cloves and cinnamon sticks until they are dark brown, about 5 minutes; transfer to the bowl. Transfer everything from the bowl to a blender. Blend until pureed. Set aside.
- Add 1 tablespoon asiento to the cazuela. In batches, sauté the chiles until they begin to change color and blister on both sides, but are not burnt. Transfer to a bowl as each is done. In a blender, put the toasted chiles, toasted chile seeds and 1-1/2 cups chicken broth. Blend until pureed. Set aside.
- In a large cazuela or frying pan heat the remaining asiento until hot. Add the tomatillo puree and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 3 minutes. Slowly stir in the chile puree and cook. Stir in the remaining chicken broth, chocolate, sugar and avocado leaves. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt if needed. Stirring constantly, cook until the bottom of the cazuela can be seen, about 5 minutes. Add the sliced turkey. Heat until the grease rises to the top in bubbles.
- To serve, ladle onto serving plates, dividing evenly.