Mole poblano is the type of food that legends are made of, but it isn’t easy to make.
If you find yourself in Beverly Hills, Calif., you should head a couple of blocks south of Wilshire Boulevard to a restaurant called Frida for some mole poblano that is out of this world.
Mole poblano is a traditional deep-colored, richly textured sauce from certain parts of Mexico that may date back as far as 500 years. It is the type of food that legends are made of, a dish that can inspire courage in the timid and true love in the heartsick. It is the sort of dish that condemned prisoners request for their last meal.
So remarkable is mole poblano that I still remember the first time I had it. It was 1985, at Tula’s restaurant in Austin, Texas. The mole at Tula’s was excellent, but it wasn’t as spectacular as the one at Frida.
I once asked the folks at Frida what made their mole so extraordinary. They said they make it with 36 ingredients.
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When making mole poblano, numbers matter. Properly made, a mole is a true mélange, a whirling combination of subtle flavors so expertly balanced that no single taste is identifiable. It is a case of the sum being greater than the whole, with each ingredient adding a key layer that joins with the others to create a kind of multiplier effect. Individually, the ingredients are good by themselves, but taken together they are sublime.
The problem with making a mole poblano for yourself is that the results improve in proportion to the number of ingredients used. The amount of time it takes is also important: Longer is better. So making a really excellent mole poblano in your own kitchen can be a challenge.
Fortunately, I like a good challenge.
I set out to make the most complicated, most time-consuming recipe for mole poblano that I could find. Recipes with, say, 25 ingredients? I scoffed. Recipes requiring six or seven quick steps? I snorted derisively. I was going for 30 ingredients or more and at least 10 steps to put it together. At least.
I found my challenge in the (electronic) pages of the Los Angeles Times, with a recipe created by Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu of Cenaduria La Casita Mexicana restaurant. The same article, incidentally, carried a recipe for green mole served at Frida. I had the green mole at Frida once, and I didn’t care for it as much as I did the mole poblano, but I took that as a good sign.
Another good sign is that it requires 32 ingredients — the list and proportions looked very promising — and 14 distinct steps to make. Plus, it took four hours to make, not including shopping (unless you cook a lot of traditional Mexican meals, you are not likely to have all the ingredients in your pantry) and a night’s worth of soaking dried chilies.
Now that’s a challenge.
I also decided to test my theory that the more ingredients and steps to make a mole, the better. So I looked for an easy version of mole poblano, and this is what I discovered: Even the easy versions aren’t easy. Recipes that go so far as to call themselves “easy” will include a good 15 to 20 ingredients. The one I picked has 13 ingredients, and I feel like I got off lightly.
So I also decided to test these two recipes against the easiest method of all, opening a jar of mole paste from the store, mixing it with stock and serving it over chicken.
First, the harder version. This dish is most distinguished by the use of five different types of dried chilies, though one of them is optional. Each with its own flavor and characteristics, these form the base on which all of the other flavors are constructed.
Into this base goes the expected ingredients — cloves, cinnamon, Mexican chocolate, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), peanuts, almonds, raisins — and a few unexpected ones, including anise and coriander seeds. The mixture is thickened with a fried bolillo roll and tortilla, and simmered until it is a rich, dark brown. Chicken pieces are poached halfway in a homemade stock and then finished in this sauce for maximum flavor.
The taste is incredible. It is astonishingly complex, with one subtle layer after another revealing itself, in turn, on the palate. You could never guess all or even most of the ingredients that go into making it; you can only marvel at their combined perfection.
Who cares if it takes half a day to make it? This is the kind of dish that is worth any effort.
It’s great as a main course, but don’t overlook the opportunity to do a little snacking on what I call Mole Nachos Cristina. Take a tortilla chip — it’s best if you’ve fried it yourself, but don’t forget to salt it — and add a dollop of crema (a Mexican sour cream) and another dollop of the mole sauce. Delicious.
The relatively easy version of mole poblano comes from Jim Peyton, the author of several Mexican cookbooks. His version uses only one type of chili, ancho. That means much of the complexity is gone right there, and many of the spices that are used even in small amounts in the harder version are also missing. And some of the cooking techniques that allow the flavors to meld and mature have also been bypassed in the service of speed and ease of making.
The result is a mole that is more of a song than a symphony. It is a pleasant enough song, for what it is, and it uses less of your wallet and your time. But once you’ve had the real thing, the relatively easy version seems like a half measure. Though it is perfectly fine and would make a satisfying dinner for your family, it is a tepid replica of something bold and powerful and startlingly delicious.
For my final version, I opened a jar of Doña Maria mole paste (available at many grocery stores), thinned it down with chicken stock and served it over chicken with rice on the side.
Not only is it not bad, it is decidedly good. It took a few minutes to make and cost about $1 per serving, plus the chicken.
While the stuff in the jar is enjoyable enough, it isn’t in the same league as the real thing done in the time-honored, laborious method. That mole may take a lot of time and effort, but it is easier than flying to Beverly Hills.
MOLE POBLANO, THE HARD WAY
Makes 12 servings
16 dried mulato chilies
20 dried pasilla negro chilies
10 dried ancho chilies
14 dried chipotle chilies
4 dried puya chilies, optional, see note
1½ cups corn oil, divided
1 teaspoon white vinegar
2 large plum tomatoes
½ small onion
6 cloves garlic, peeled, divided
¼ teaspoon coriander seeds
¼ teaspoon anise seeds
2 tablespoons pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
¾ teaspoon black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
½ cup sesame seeds, toasted, divided
1 stick cinnamon
1 corn tortilla
¼ bolillo roll, sliced crosswise in 4 slices
¼ ripe plantain, sliced
¼ cup shelled raw peanuts
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon blanched almonds
1/3 cup raisins
Leaves from 1 sprig thyme
1 sprig Italian parsley
2 tablespoons salt, divided
2 tablets Mexican chocolate, or 6 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
½ to 1 cup sugar, according to taste
2 whole chickens, cut into serving pieces, or 6 pounds chicken parts
1 medium onion, peeled and cut into quarters
4 bay leaves
¾ cup Mexican crema for garnish
Note: To make a milder version, omit the puya chilies. The chilies, Mexican chocolate and crema (a type of sour cream) are available in Mexican and Latin markets.
1. The day before making the mole, remove the stems and seeds from the chilies; rinse the chilies and pat dry. Reserve ¾ teaspoon of the seeds and set aside. Heat ½ cup oil in a large skillet, add the chilies (in batches if necessary) and fry until glossy, about four minutes. Drain and place in a Dutch oven. Cover with 10 cups hot water, add the vinegar and let stand overnight.
2. The next day (or several hours later), drain the chilies and reserve the soaking liquid. Working in batches, place the drained chilies in a blender. Add enough soaking liquid to blend them smoothly. Repeat with the remaining chilies and set the mixture aside. This makes about eight cups.
3. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise. Do not peel them before or after roasting. Slice ½ small onion crosswise into 1-inch-thick pieces. Roast the tomatoes, sliced onion and 2 cloves of garlic in an ungreased skillet over medium-high heat until spotted with brown. Set aside.
4. Add the coriander seeds, anise seeds, pepitas, reserved chile seeds, peppercorns, cloves, ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons of the sesame seeds and cinnamon stick to the skillet and roast just until fragrant, about one minute. Transfer to another bowl.
5. Add ½ cup oil to the skillet. When the oil is hot, fry the tortilla, then the bolillo slices, until the tortilla is crisp and the bolillo slices are golden. Remove and drain on a paper towel. Fry the plantain slices until golden and softened. Remove with a slotted spoon. Set aside.
6. Fry the peanuts, almonds and raisins for about one minute until almonds and peanuts are well-browned. Drain on a paper towel. Fry the seeds and spices toasted in step four for 30 seconds. Strain them through a sieve, discarding the oil.
7. Heat the remaining ½ cup oil in a Dutch oven. Add the puréed chile mixture and enough of the reserved soaking liquid to keep the puréed mixture from erupting like a volcano when it simmers. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often.
8. Add the fried cinnamon stick to the puréed chile mixture. In a blender, combine the rest of the spices, seeds, nuts and raisins. Grind with enough chile soaking liquid to purée. Add to the chile mixture.
9. Grind the reserved roasted tomatoes, onions and garlic cloves, the thyme leaves and the parsley sprig in the blender with enough chile soaking liquid to purée, then add to the Dutch oven.
10. Crumble the fried tortilla into small pieces. Place the bolillo slices, tortilla pieces and plantain slices in the blender with 1 tablespoon of the salt. Add enough soaking liquid to blend. Add this to the Dutch oven. Add the chopped chocolate and stir until dissolved. Add sugar to taste.
11. Stir constantly over medium heat until the sauce thickens to the desired consistency and becomes very dark. Strain the sauce through a fine sieve, in batches if necessary, and return to a clean pot. Failure to strain the sauce will result in an unpleasant texture filled with flecks of chile skin. Place the sauce over low heat. Discard remaining chile soaking liquid. Makes 10 cups of sauce.
12. Wash the chicken pieces and place them in a large Dutch oven or stockpot. Add water to cover. Add the medium onion quarters, bay leaves, remaining 4 garlic cloves and remaining tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pot. Strain the stock and set aside.
13. Place the chicken pieces into the pot with the mole sauce or, if there is not room, put the chicken in a large pot and pour in the sauce. Bring the sauce to a simmer and continue to cook until cooked through, an additional 15 to 20 minutes, adding stock as needed to thin the sauce. Reserve remaining stock for another use.
14. To serve, place a serving of chicken on each plate and cover generously with mole sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sesame seeds. Drizzle crema on the chicken and around the plate. Serve with Mexican or white rice. Freeze leftover mole in an airtight container.
— Recipe adapted from one by Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu in the Los Angeles Times
MOLE POBLANO, THE (RELATIVELY) EASY WAY
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3 ounces dried ancho chilies, about 6 medium to medium-large
½ tablespoon sesame seeds
3 tablespoons blanched, slivered almonds
2 tablespoons raisins
1 cup chopped white onion
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon dried oregano
2 to 3 cups chicken broth
2½ tablespoons lard or olive oil, or a combination
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
2 tablespoons Mexican chocolate, finely chopped
Cooked chicken, turkey or pork
1. Heat a skillet over medium heat and toast the chilies for 20 to 30 seconds on both sides until they soften and become fragrant but do not allow them to scorch. Remove and discard the stems and seeds, tear the chilies into small pieces, place them in a bowl and cover them with very hot water for 30 minutes. Drain and place in a food processor.
2. While the chilies are soaking, toast the sesame seeds in a skillet over medium heat until they just turn golden brown. Add to the food processor, along with the almonds, raisins, onion, cinnamon, oregano and ½ cup of the broth. Process the ingredients for two minutes, then transfer to a blender and blend for two minutes more, adding broth if necessary for the blender to operate. If the mixture is not totally smooth, put it through the fine blade of a food mill or a strainer to remove any bits of remaining chile skin.
3. Heat the lard or oil in a medium-sized pot over just-above-medium heat, add the mole paste and cook, stirring constantly, until most of the liquid has evaporated and it becomes shiny. Then, little by little, stir in the rest of the broth and add the sugar. At this point, the mixture should be thinner than you want the finished product to be. If necessary, add more broth. Simmer the mole until it is the consistency of a milk shake, about 15 minutes. Add the salt and Mexican chocolate and serve over cooked chicken, turkey or pork.
— Recipe by Jim Peyton, lomexicano.com