Holy mole: The traditional chili sauce that’s touched by angels
For the Nevada Appeal
Cioppino tour ends with mole exploration
In spite of these challenging economic times Ardi and I just returned from a lavish vacation filled with castles and cruise ships. Actually the ship was the RMS Queen Mary, permanently docked in Long Beach as a hotel, the maritime equivalent to being put out to pasture. And the castle was the “B Tour” of Hearst Castle, part of a package deal at the Best Western in San Simeon. Hard times maybe. Good times for sure.
Our road trip was to be The West Coast Cioppino Tour, so named because we were bent on tasting as many versions of the Italian fisherman’s stew as we could find in hopes of getting inspiration (ripping of ideas) for our own recipe.
First stop was Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing, located half way between Santa Cruz and Monterrey. Coincidentally, I had just seen a Cioppino throw down between Bobby Flay and Phil on the Food Network. The fact that Bobby won was, to me, no ding on Phil’s reputation. For a good cook like the TV star to go to school on someone’s signature dish and come up with a better version is just not that extraordinary. But, I digress.
The stew at Phil’s Fish Market arrived complete with the requisite San Francisco style sourdough and plastic bib. And the analyzing began. There was a sweetness to the broth, maybe a little balsamic vinegar cooked down? Or basil though there were no specks except a little dry oregano. Fennel? Comfortable in the belief that I could come close once I got back to my own laboratory, we proceeded to the cashier.
There behind the register in sizes X-small to 5-X were T-shirts with the exact recipe for Phil’s Cioppino plastered on the front. My ego would not allow me to buy one, and I instead opted for the giant Dungeness crab with the slogan, “I’ve got a crabby attitude.”
Funny thing is we so over analyzed the dish that we lost all interest in searching for more Cioppino.
Even Columbus had a Plan B, so I switched my sights to another dish I had been meaning to explore, mole poblano, the legendary red chili sauce from Puebla Mexico, the final exam for students of Latin cuisine.
There are a lot of stories about the origin of this almost mythical dish, all of them charming and all with an ecclesiastical thread.
Sometime in the 1600s a group of nuns were preparing an elaborate meal to celebrate the dedication of their new convent. Friar Pasqual, later to be San Pasqual, patron saint of cooks, began chastising them for their untidiness. He gathered up all the spices and put them on a tray. Without warning a divine breeze passed through the kitchen blowing all of the spices into the pot, and behold, mole poblano.
Most people think of chocolate sauce when they hear the word mole and sort of turn the page. Truth is there are several kinds of mole, and chocolate is only found in a couple. Furthermore, the Mexican style chocolate is not like a Hershey bar. It is there mainly for texture.
The thing that caused me to shy away from it for the longest time was the epic nature of the recipes. There is a lot of stuff, but don’t be put off. Get all of your ingredients together and measure them out into cups or saucers. From there you’re just toasting, roasting and pureeing.
Today’s recipe is my recreation of the mole we had at a place called Peppers in Pacific Grove. Traditionally, turkey is braised in the sauce, but at Peppers it was used to elevate simple chicken enchiladas. As in a lot of Mexican cooking, it’s more about the sauce itself than how you use it.
So take your time. Enjoy making mole. Remember, it’s meant to be a celebration.
Makes about 6 cups
4 dried chilies mulato
4 dried chilies ancho
4 dried chilies pasillia
The soft stuff:
4 roma tomatoes, cored
4 tomatillos, husked and rinsed
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
1⁄8 teaspoon coriander seeds
10 black pepper corns
1⁄8 teaspoon anise seeds
4 whole cloves
1⁄2 inch cinnamon stick
Nuts and seeds:
1⁄4 cup sesame seeds
1⁄4 cup pumpkin seeds
1⁄4 cup whole almonds
2 slices firm white bread, like French
1⁄3 cup raisins
1 dried (stale is fine) corn tortilla torn in pieces
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 ounces Mexican chocolate, chopped
Approximately 6 cups of chicken or turkey stock
Stem and seed the chilies. Place on a cookie sheet and toast in a 375 degree oven until fragrant – about 5 minutes. Don’t let them blacken. Place in a large bowl and cover with hot water. Put a plate on top to keep them submerged. Let soak for about 30 minutes.
Turn the oven to broil, toss the tomatoes, tomatillos and garlic in a little oil, place on the cookie sheet and roast in the oven until soft and blistered, shaking the pan occasionally – about 10 minutes. Place in a bowl large enough to accommodate the remaining ingredients.
In a dry frying pan, toast the spices until fragrant. Grind the toasted spices in a spice grinder, and add to the tomatoes. Drain the chilies and add to the tomatoes.
In the same frying pan add a little oil. Toast the bread until browned on both sides. Add to the tomatoes. Add a little more oil and saute the raisins until puffy – 1 minute. Add to the tomatoes.
Sautee the sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and almonds separately until browned, draining them on paper towels before adding each to the tomatoes. Set aside a few of the sesame seeds for garnish.
Add the torn tortilla, cider vinegar and chopped chocolate to the tomatoes, and stir to combine.
Puree the mixture in batches adding just enough stock to facilitate blending. Pour the puree into a bowl or container as you go to hold temporarily.
Using a large sauce pan with high sides (it’s going to spatter), heat about 1⁄8 inch of oil until sizzling. Add the pure and sautee over medium-high heat, stirring frequently and scraping up what sticks to the bottom of the pan. Thin with the remaining stock as needed. Taste for salt. Strain through a medium mesh strainer and keep warm or cool, cover and chill for up to a week.
Note: You can find mulato chilies at some Mexican markets, just not the one in Carson City. They are easy to find on line, or double up on the anchos.
• Brian Shaw and his wife Ardie own Cafe Del Rio in Virginia City.