Mexico’s mole – it rhymes with ‘ole!’

My first introduction to mole, the chili sauce with chocolate that is perhaps the highest expression of Mexican cuisine, came – oddly enough – in New Jersey, in a cooking class with Ruth Alegría, former owner of Mexican Village restaurant.

By: Faith Bahadurian

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Illustration by Jody Martin

   My first introduction to mole, the chili sauce with chocolate that is perhaps the highest expression of Mexican cuisine, came — oddly enough — in New Jersey, in a cooking class with Ruth Alegría, former owner of Mexican Village restaurant. Turkey mole (moe-lay) was on the menu, and its preparation took up much of the evening, with various parts of the richly complex dish being prepared in between the other, simpler, dishes.
   Chicken mole was on the menu at Princeton University recently, when the student-run Flavor Club brought in a huge array of dishes from Restaurant Oaxaqueño #2 in New Brunswick. The restaurant’s staff arrived at the Carl A. Field Center on a frigid evening with a truckload of excellent tacos, including beef (both barbacoa and shredded asado), pork (al pastor) and tongue (lengua). There were also crispy flautas, sweet corn tamales, housemade salsas and other accompaniments, and their wonderful chicken mole, which takes five to six hours to prepare each day.
   Seniors Jennifer Pan and Alex Toledano co-founded Flavor in their sophomore year and are now passing management of the club to a new team of sophomores. The dinners are culled from extensive research trips to area restaurants, this one having been arranged by senior Matt Goldberg, who is from Arizona.
   The standards of the Flavor scouts are high. Members (not limited to the university community) sign up online before each dinner and pay a student-friendly $6 or so for dinner.
   Oaxaca is known as the Land of the Seven Moles, with Mole Negro Oaxaqueño regarded as the King of Moles. Others (not all contain chocolate) are Mole Coloradito Oaxaqueño, Mole Verde (green), Mole Amarillo (yellow), Mole Rojo (red), Mole Manchamanteles ("tablecloth stainer," containing pineapple), and Mole Chicilo (with burnt chili seeds). Each has its own uses, and in her "Seasons of My Heart" cookbook (Ballantine, 1999), Susana Trilling lovingly describes and provides recipes for each of them.
   Her recipe for the King of Moles takes several pages, but I provide a shorter version below. In Mexico’s large outdoor markets, one can find piles of variously colored mole pastes already made up, ready for thinning with broth. Here at home, one can buy a jar of mole paste to dilute with broth, but in my notes from Ruth Alegría’s class she suggests enlivening it with at least some freshly puréed chilies and a bit of Mexican or semi-sweet chocolate.
   The mole we made in her class used a rich chicken and vegetable stock she had made the night before. The stock was strained and the "exhausted" meat set aside for other uses, such as enchiladas. We briefly heated dried chilies on a griddle and soaked them in water. We sautéed, roasted or toasted onion, tomato, stale tortillas and bread, sesame seeds, raisins, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, anise and cumin. All of this went into the processor with the drained chilies, and were ground to a paste, using some of the chicken broth to keep the gears moving.
   The mixture was sieved, heated, and thinned with more broth. A couple of ounces of Mexican chocolate, made with cinnamon, were added.
   The chocolate is part of what gives mole its rich, deeply complex flavor, as the Mexicans cooked with chocolate and chilies long before the advent of sweetened chocolate desserts. The dish is finished by adding sautéed poultry pieces (we used turkey) and simmering for another 20 minutes or so to finish cooking the poultry.
CHICKEN MOLE
adapted from
"Mexican Family Favorites Cookbook,"
Maria Teresa Bermudez
Serves 6
   (I have annotated this recipe to give some alternatives that might result in a more traditional mole. Feel free to do as your time and inclination allow.)
   6 whole chicken breasts, on the bone
   8 to 10 dried chilies, in combination, mostly mild (look for pasilla, mulato, negro, ancho)
   6 tablespoons vegetable oil (or good quality lard), divided
   ¾ cup water
   2 tablespoons chopped onion
   1 diced garlic clove (or roasted, then skinned)
   1 medium tomato, chopped (or roasted, then roughly chopped)
   2 toasted bread slices, cut in cubes (plus 2 stale corn tortillas, cut in strips)
   2 tablespoons raisins (or dates)
   2 tablespoons peanuts
   ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (or ground fresh)
   ¼ teaspoon ground cloves (or ground fresh)
   3 to 4 cups chicken broth
   2 tablespoons (or 1 oz) cocoa or grated Mexican chocolate
   2 teaspoons sugar
   Salt to taste
   Remove skin from chicken breasts and rinse chicken. Place in cooking pot and cover with water. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook chicken until just tender. Remove chicken and set aside. Drain stock and pass through a sieve.
   Remove stems from dried chilies and break chilies into small pieces. Fry in 3 tablespoons oil for a few minutes. Drain. Put chilies in blender with approximately 3/4-cup water and purée. Pass through a sieve for a smooth paste. Set aside.
   In a blender, purée onion, garlic and tomato. In a saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon oil and sauté bread cubes (and tortilla, if using). Add to onion mixture along with raisins, peanuts, cinnamon, and cloves. Purée.
   Heat 2 tablespoons oil and cook onion mixture over medium heat for 8 minutes. Add chili purée and cook 5 minutes. Blend in 3 to 4 cups chicken broth/stock. Add cocoa/chocolate, sugar, and salt. Cover to simmer 1½ hours, stirring occasionally. Then cook uncovered until fairly thick.
   Preheat oven to 350 degrees and lightly oil a square casserole dish. Please chicken in dish and pour mole over. Bake for 15-20 minutes, to fully heat chicken.
Restaurant Oaxaqueño # 2 is at 260 Drift St. in New Brunswick, (732) 846-0668.
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