Chef Rick Bayless’ name is known to many for his Mexican cookbooks and restaurants, including Chicago’s Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. His face is recognizable to many more, thanks to his PBS series, “Mexico — One Plate at a Time.”
But his contribution to the culinary scene is far greater, according to Iliana de la Vega, Mexican/Latin cuisines specialist at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus.
“He opened the door of Mexican cuisine in the United States,” she said Wednesday as she introduced the celebrity chef during a series of cooking presentations that celebrated the culinary heritage of Central Mexico. The forum was part of the opening day of the annual Latin Flavors, American Kitchens symposium that the CIA sponsors at the Pearl Brewery.
Yet Bayless, standing in the new lecture hall and demonstration kitchen at the CIA, said he’s the first to admit that he has “a whole lot more of the cuisine” left to learn. So he continues to study, because the more he knows, “the better I can do the work that I do every day.”
During his years of study, he has loved “watching Mexican food evolve,” he said. And the more he understands, the more he’s able to nudge some of that evolution.
One dish that interests Bayless is mole. “Mole in Mexico is a pretty big deal,” he said.
That’s because it can take so many forms, beyond the peanut butter variety that is commonly served. No matter the form, the end result is a dish filled with “depth, complexity, intrigue,” he said.
The goal is to create a sauce in which all of the ingredients blend together. You shouldn’t be able to pick apart a good mole and dissect the cumin from the clove.
To demonstrate this, Bayless tossed together a green mole, which uses fresh ingredients as opposed to dried chiles. The end result didn’t have a recipe so much as a collection of items blended to taste.
He started by filling his Vitamix with roasted tomatillos (about one-third of the container), then added a healthy amount of pumpkin seeds, which works as a thickening agent. He tore off a generous handful of cilantro and added a surprise ingredient to some: leaves of romaine lettuce. The lettuce is a part of many people’s recipes, but you could use radish leaves instead for a little extra bite, he said.
He poured chicken broth over all of it and said some would end the recipe there. But he decided to give the mole extra flavor by adding some spice. In a molcajete, he ground together canela, or Mexican cinnamon, as well as a couple of cloves, a few peppercorns and a pinch of cumin. Only a pinch, he said. Though too many Americans think cumin is what makes food taste Mexican, the truth is that “cumin is used very sparingly in Mexico,” he said.
Once the spices were ground, Bayless added them to the tomatillo mixture and pulverized everything in the Vitamix. The point was to get the mixture as smooth as possible, before finishing it off in melted lard.
That’s right. Lard. “Lard is iconic in Mexican cuisine,” he said. And in mole, it is the ingredient “that brought it all together.”
But not just any lard. It has to be freshly rendered pork fat, not the white blocks that sometimes sit for months on grocers’ shelves.
“It has to be good lard,” Bayless said. “It has to fill the kitchen with the incredibly beautiful aroma of roast pork.”
Bayless poured the tomatillo mixture into the warm lard and stirred it together, heating it until it was ready to serve. It would work on tacos, on chicken, on pork … In other words, make the mole to suit your tastes and use it however you like.