By Ron Bechtol
Anybody with an ounce of sense would simply buy the stuff in a jar. But no …
No, this is one person who took a bus to Puebla from Mexico City just to visit the Convent of Santa Rosa, the alleged mother ship of mole, Mexico’s national dish. The term itself is said to be adapted from the Nahuatl word molli, which simply means sauce or concoction. But the simplicity stops there.
The complexity of mole begins, in fact, with the mythology surrounding its invention. Though some historians trace its roots to the Aztecs, the best stories have to do with the Colonial-era Pueblan convents, the most-repeated involving the sister superior of Santa Rosa and her desire to blend old- and new-world flavors in a dish to honor the archbishop. Or some visiting viceregal emissary. (Partisans of Oaxaca’s famed seven moles doubtless have their own creation story, but we’ll allow the two cities to duke it out on their own.)
Sr. Andrea surely must have been aware of the Aztec uses of chiles and of the practice of thickening sauces with ground nuts, but the addition of chocolate, if chocolate did indeed enter into the first moles, is unique: The Aztecs used the food of the gods for ritual drinking only and are not known to have employed it in cooking.
That first mole was said to have been made with pavo, or turkey, another of the New World’s gifts to the old. The idea of substituting turkey in mole for America’s ritual Thanksgiving Butterball is thus not such a leap in principle. No, the leap comes in having decided to make the mole from scratch. I blame it all on Rick Bayless and a recipe for turkey breast in mole poblano in the November 2010 Saveur. (I have several perfectly good Bayless cookbooks, not to mention those of Diana Kennedy, but somehow the latest magazine always gets the attention.) Hey, there were only 25 ingredients, not counting the turkey …
But I’m here to tell you, do not be deceived: The number of ingredients is only the half of it. The first issue comes with finding all of the requisite dried chiles in any one spot. Neither Central Market nor my neighborhood H-E-B had anchos, guajillos and pasillas all together on a single day. Let me save you some time: go straight to the closest La Michoacana market; they’re the source of all things Mexican. Then, having collected the chiles, the fun really begins.
Let’s assume for starters that you managed to find shiny, supple chile pods requiring no surface cleaning. You’re asked to stem them, shake out and save the seeds, then tear them into pieces. A portion of the reserved seeds is then toasted with sesame seeds in a dry skillet. Get used to toasting and frying. Grind seeds in a spice grinder (you could certainly use a molcajete) and set aside. Aniseed, peppercorns and cloves are then toasted in the same skillet and transferred to the grinder along with thyme, marjoram or oregano, bay leaves, and stick cinnamon. (Though the recipe doesn’t say this, feel free to substitute Mexican oregano for the marjoram/oregano; it’s surely what was originally intended, and is something like a combination of the two in flavor.) Grind and add to the seed mixture.
We’re next asked to haul out a larger skillet, prime it with canola oil, and fry the torn chiles in batches for no more than about 20 seconds. This sounds quick and easy, but of course it’s lengthy and messy. I used much of a roll of paper towels to drain the fried chiles—and that was not the end of the frying. Almonds, peanuts pumpkin seeds and raisins came next—individually and each requiring a different frying time. And more paper towels. Bread and stale tortillas? They got fried, too.
Those with a fear of frying should simply retreat now, for there was more to come. But first, a little puréeing. Those fried chiles had previously been covered in boiling water and allowed to soak for 30 minutes or so. Once drained, the soaking liquid saved, they’re puréed in batches in a blender (sadly, mine is on its last legs) with some of the soaking liquid and a bit of turkey or chicken stock. That’s the easy part. Next, one pushes the purée through a sieve with a rubber spatula or the back of a wooden spoon. Don’t pick too fine a sieve or you’ll be at it all day.
Returning to the skillet, one next fries garlic and onions, removing them to the bowl now containing the seed-spice mixture and the broken up bread and tortillas. Into the skillet also go tomatoes and tomatillos to be fried until soft. They, too, go into the bowl, along with more stock. It will come as no surprise that this mixture is now blended in batches and, yes, passed through a strainer into another bowl. More than four hours have now elapsed—closer to five, really. Enough for one day.
Day Two: You will have purchased a five-pound or so turkey breast, and it’s likely you will have to bone it yourself. This is not as hard as it may sound, especially if you have a long, sharp boning knife. Just remember to cut against the breastbone, scraping against it as you proceed. Cut the breast into halves lengthwise. Having reserved the oil from yesterday’s frying marathon, you now brown the breasts, individually, in a Dutch oven or other heavy, deep sauce pan that can be covered with a tight-fitting lid. The browning process always takes longer than recipes say, too, but once finished (a pair of tongs is useful to hold the halves while attempting to get all parts properly colored), the breasts are removed to a plate. Then, into the pot goes the puréed chile mixture for a bit more frying. It’s followed a few minutes later by the spice purée, and the two are cooked together for about 30 minutes over reduced heat. The smells are incredible.
Finally, we add more Mexican chocolate and more stock. An hour later the mole is ready for the addition of sugar —I added less than the recipe called for — and salt. About three hours total have elapsed. So, let’s say that a total of almost seven hours could have been saved —and that doesn’t include running around to assemble ingredients — by buying a good prepared mole.
But is there one?
In Mexico, any self-respecting market has several mole pastes in bulk, ranging from green to orangey-red and almost black. Not so San Antonio. But reading the backs of bottles and tubs at La Michoacana turned up two that actually sounded reasonable based on the list of ingredients. One was Goya, a widely distributed purveyor of all things Latin. The other came from Teloloapan, a town in Guerrero that Bayless calls “famous (at least in Chicago) for exporting their mole pastes.” This is the one I bought to sample.
On the back of the container of Mole Rojo El Mejor Teloloapan, we’re told to “Mis the paste of red mole ‘El Mejor’ with a little bil of turley broth before frying. Your will see how good it is.” Fresh out of “turley” broth (misspellings always add to authenticity), I simply used a little “bil” of water to dilute the paste — not altogether fair to the product. But without fear of contradiction, its safe to say that though El Mejor was indeed better than most prepared moles I’ve tasted, it was sweeter and far less nuanced than the one resulting from the Bayless recipe — the rest of which, by the way, has you “nestling” the turkey breasts in the mole paste in the Dutch oven and baking them, covered, for about an hour at 350 degrees. The result was truly spectacular.
But would I do it again? There was a lot of sauce left over, and it went into the freezer against another day, another “turley”—or even some chicken breasts, so the decision can be deferred until the two-day effort has been forgotten. Sadly, that will probably take less time than I would like to imagine. Should you decide to take leave of your own senses (the turkey would be great for Christmas, too), the recipe can be found at www.saveur.com by typing in “turkey in mole poblano.” Note the degree of difficulty: “hard.”
Photographs by Ron Bechtol