When I was a kid cooking was something elaborate and primal, instinctual and sensuous. It seemed obvious that one would roam the earth listening and learning while collecting mushrooms and moss, transparent beetle wings, berries and maybe even a few unsuspecting young cattails. A return home by twilight’s hush, satchels bursting with exquisite specimens of nutritive life meant another round of ritualistic movement in the form of thrash, scrape, mush and mix. Still later the fresh and found ingredient would be free to mingle and mate within a cast iron cauldron and in slow easy tempo flower wines would be imbibed, incantations mumbled, and hunger graciously eased for yet another night.
Years later my methods have been altered and tamed to suit my concession to modern day society but the desire and intent still share semblance to my youthful imagining. No other dish sings to me quite as passionately or makes me sigh heavy with relief than Mexican mole. D_ pointed out, making the invisible visible, that it has become a small tradition for me to make this dark secretive sauce whenever old friends travel eastward to visit. While eaten only a handful of times, there is something in the making and the tasting that connects me to a hidden place and blindly I have been fumbling towards it ever since.
People say that mole is a celebration food taking days to prepare. That it is a food that magically swells to feed hundreds and that the recipe cannot easily be altered down for meager portions like six or four without serious consequences to the final product. Mole contains chocolate, food for the Gods- and even hopeless sinners like us. It also positively luxuriates in lard, glittering shimmering fat that tinges the nuts, chilies, spices and fruit with a porcine perfume both warm and lingering. Aptly named from the Aztec Nahuatl word molli meaning sauce or mixture, it is an undeniable amalgamation of harvest and plenty.
The first time that I tasted Mole Poblano I felt that I traveled to a space where nothing but smoke, earth, heat and love existed. Somehow the great intensity of those singular elements whittled down into a final substance the color and depth of iron rich clay. Transfixed I embarked on a full immersion mole making experience over the next few days. Ingredients were located from unfamiliar and sundry sources; packages were carefully parceled and unwrapped. My friend and I clung to a composite recipe scrawled down upon well worn paper as if our very own abuela had passed it down from generations past. We carefully recited directions and stiffly broke tasks down into digestible components and then, we began to cook.
There is something about the slow unfolding passage of time which allows one thing to transform into quite another. The making of this meal is a moving landscape of texture, scent and picture bracketed by soft stilled space. It is thoughtful, full bodied meditation as well as the light chirpy bubbles of happy bantering. Either way, it is breath and the soul of being.
Ironically my entrée into this world was not ushered in with gaiety or the usual convivial spirit of celebration; rather it was intermixed with the mind numbing grief and searing pain that accompanies the sad termination of a marriage. I also was contending with the untimely loss of my physical ability and independence due to the deterioration of my body from disease. This hard blunted territory, this unkind terrain was softened and made bearable by the reflective process of this ancient sauce. Where the crimson red blood of chilies being rhythmically split, seeded and stemmed stain fingers sticky- the color of life and forbidden passion. Where the dried chili pod bodies smolder, wither and writhe upon a hot pan giving into glowing shades of colored translucency. Where the burnt acrid scent reaches swiftly past the nostril to a point in the back center of one’s being. Where the eye-popping cache of nuts, fruit and spices are counted, toasted, and pounded into a rich tawny mixture satisfying the heart of the most poetic forager. And finally where all separate parts, a thousand moments in time join together in one big gesture to mingle, condense, swirl and recreate into something earthy, infinitely layered, loamy and enduring.
So last week as I rejoiced in Honey’s cross country arrival and stay, we ceremoniously unpacked a chortle of chilies with the hope and desire to subdue the jagged edges of spring as well as celebrate friendship and life-- for the making of mole is all about participation and engagement with that which sustains. And it isn’t just about fiestas and mariachi singers either. Deep below in the muck of the mix is a quiet humble truth- that all shapes of joy and ecstasy are born from the salty tears of loss too.
Mole Paste- This is an adaptation from Jacqueline Higuerra McMahan’s recipe. This makes approximately 1 quart of paste which will have you feasting for days. I used about 1/3rd of the paste to make the sauce, which served about 8. I froze the rest. This is a good basic recipe although not very hot. The first time I made it I used 2 other kinds of chilies and it was deeper and earthier. This is a great time to explore and play with the different varieties of chilies. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to taste little bits to determine how each contributes to the overall flavor. And of course when the paste is added to broth and stirred slowly, it will need to be tasted and tweaked to satisfy the moment. Make this with a loved one. And Sher, no moles were hurt in the making of the sauce!
10 dried ancho chiles
8 dried pasilla negro (or negro) chiles
6 dried guajillo or mulato chiles
3 T golden raisins
3 T prunes
1/2 cup almonds
6 T raw sesame seeds
1/4 cup raw pumpkin seeds
1 slice bread
1 corn tortilla
One 5-inch piece of Mexican Canela (soft-bark cinnamon)
6 whole cloves
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 Tbsp reserved chili seeds
1 tsp fennel seed
1 1/2 t dried oregano
3 oz. grated unsweetened chocolate
2 heaping tablespoons of Dagoba Xocolatl cocoa powder
Instructions: Break of the stems of chilies, split them down the middle and shake out the seeds (reserve a bunch). Heat a skillet and slick it down with a bit of fresh lard (it is okay to skip this part, but it does smell heavenly). Toast the chilies in batches until slightly toasted. Be careful not to blacken them. Lightly toast the dried fruit too. Place the chilies and fruit in a large bowl and cover with boiling water for about 30 minutes, reserve the liquid. Sauté the nuts separately in more lard until golden. Alternately you can of course toast them in a 350 degree oven until golden. Toast the tortilla and bread until lightly golden, reserve. Dry roast the seeds in the skillet until fragrant and then grind them. In three separate batches grind the soaked chilies and fruit, nuts, spices, chocolate, and tortilla/bread in a blender with the reserved chili water until it forms a smooth paste. Continue blending until all the ingredients are used and form a puree the consistency of thick gravy.
3 large tomatoes roughly chopped
1 sliced onion
4 cloves garlic
2 tsp olive oil
2 C Mole Paste
¼ C peanut butter
¼ C almond butter
2 cups chicken broth for thinning
Instructions: Place the tomatoes, onions, and garlic in a pan with the olive oil and roast at 375 degrees for about 35 minutes. Puree the roasted vegetables and any accumulated juices in a blender until smooth. In a heavy pot combine the puree, mole paste, nut butters and chicken broth and stir over medium heat. The flavor changes a lot over time, we let it cook for about an hour plus and then set it to cool. The next day we cooked it again for another hour, adding more stock as needed to have the consistency of thickened cream. Taste and tweak and then pour the sauce over roasted turkey. It is nice to serve this with corn tortillas, pinto beans, rice, fresh salsa, and maybe a jicama-radish cilantro salad.