"...I have no doubt some serious work went into getting the formula just right because no one flavor dominates, the spice and seasonings all meld together beautifully. I couldn't stop dunking my short ribs into this sauce. I'm convinced it would make just about anything taste good."

– Amy Sherman, Cooking with Amy

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Michele Makes Mole

I love mole. Whenever I hear the word, “mole," I perk-up. Always intrigued by the number of versions and the layers of flavors captured within. It’s a sauce that haunts me. Dares me to make, and then seek other’s approval. Invite friends over, and then wait, hoping for that moment at the table when conversations momentarily stop, and eyes involuntary close. It’s just one of those dishes for me. I love it so. Ridiculously labor intensive, yes. Distinctly regional, yes. Had I ever made one from scratch? No.

Part One: Mole made in Class

I saw a mole class offered in my neighborhood at 18 Reasons, and after googling the teacher, Norma Listman, and reading her background, I immediately signed up. I could feel she had some serious mole street cred. I also looked at her instagram feed, and liked her artistic vibe. Plus, she was cooking one that I’d never had, or even heard of, Mole Chichilo.

Greeting us with her ingredients on display, she explained that this was one of the lesser known moles, and while the finished sauce would be dark, like the more familiar mole negro, it had no chocolate, or cinnamon, so it wouldn't be as rich. This style of mole would be brighter and fruitier, thanks to the addition of tomatillos. I was also happy to discover a new ingredient, toasted avocado leaves.

The finished mole was going to be served with beef, as was tradition, so it began with a homemade beef stock, already made, and simmering on the stove. We were all assigned tasks, and happily for me, I got to toast the chiles. Time flew by very quickly, and the finished dish was soon on the table waiting for us to plate up and experience.

It was very good, but due to the time constraints of the class, Norma explained to us that it could have benefited from a longer cooking time. She mentioned that mole is at its best if cooked at a low heat for at least 5 hours, constantly stirring and paying close attention to it. She said, “If you do not have that kind of time, prepare it the day before, and let the flavors marry. It's not an everyday dish, but one for special occasions, and the reason it's so good, is because all the care and patience you've to put into it. Never rush a mole, or you will end with a weak sauce.”

Hearing her say that inspired me, and I knew that I needed to recreate this at home, where I could take my time. A feat made possible, thanks to her guidance, and good cheer walking me through my first mole sauce.

Part Two: Shopping for Ingredients

I first needed to find the dried chiles used in Mole Chichilo, which are the real stars of the dish. In this case, chilhuatle negro. It gives the dish its backbone, and is considered by some to be the tastiest chile, therefore highly desired, and expensive.

Lucky for me, living in San Francisco, I knew exactly where to go, which made me smile, and gave me a quick flashback to the early nineties. Back then, I worked at the Ferry Plaza Harvest Market, located in a parking lot on Green Street, before it found its permanent home at the Ferry Building.

I was fortunate to sell one-of-a-kind, handmade cheese from Andante Dairy. It was an amazing market, and much smaller then. Circular in shape, vendors could literally wave to each other before the crowds came. It was there I first met many early food industry influencers.

One such kindred spirit was Evie, with Tierra Vegetables. During the market, when given a break, I would trade a piece of cheese for an item sold at another stall. It was a great way to meet the other vendors, and taste their offerings. I remember when Evie gave me my first taste of chili jam, and that combination of sweetness and heat sparked ideas of layering different chiles together.

So, when I started my mole shopping, I knew finding the best chiles meant going to the Saturday, Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market, and seeing Evie. It was as if time stood still, seeing her, and her amazing selection of both fresh and dried chiles. I found what I was after, and bought dried Chilhuacle, Mulato, and Pulla chiles; as well as some red Guajillo, for a future enchilada sauce. I’ve aways loved chiles. Intrigued, and educated by repeated tastings, they must resonate with my Calabrian heritage.

As for the other ingredients involved in the recipe, the only other special shopping trip, was to find Mexican avocado leaves. Again, easy enough, as I live in the Mission district of San Francisco. So, done, and done.

Part Three: Making Mole at Home

With shopping done, and beef broth made the night before simmering on the stove, I rested and got ready for the full day of prep ahead. I began by toasting each of the chiles separately in cast iron skillets, enjoying their scents as they turned soft and dark, then, with gloves on, peeling the charred skin off each, carefully liberating seeds from flesh. I was getting in the mole mood.

Next was the heady experience of toasting avocado leaves. Their scent, reminiscent of anise seed, perfumed the air. My kitchen smelled fantastic. With my cast iron pans on the stove, still warm from the avocado leaves, I toasted each of the spices, and finished by lightly charring the tomatillos, tomatoes, and garlic. The dish slowly began to unfold in front of me. Stirring the pot stirred other memories too. I felt like “Tita” in “Like Water for Chocolate.”

The finished dish was wonderful, and all I wanted it to be. Describing the finished sauce, I’d say it was both luxurious and tart; my dueling cravings were satisfied. The heat from the chiles both balanced, and warmed the dish, and the tender, succulent beef was a perfect companion to the tomatillos. 

So, an authentic mole is officially off my bucket list, and will be made again soon. Once in a while, someone will mention the flavor profile of SFQ reminds them of mole, thanks to its kiss of chocolate, and heat from the chiles, and for me, this is the greatest compliment possible. Thank you for letting me share my experience. It took almost as long to wax poetic about, than it did to make.

Mole Chichilo

Ingredients for 10 portions:

Beef Broth, Made a Day in Advance
1 white onion
1 lb. beef bones
8 cups water

Also, in advance, remove 2 corn tortillas from the package, and leave out overnight to dry. Day-old, dry tortillas are best for the sauce’s consistency.

The Chilies
12 Chilhuatle Negro chiles
6 Mulato chiles
3 Pulla chiles
Note: You will see many variations of chiles used in other recipes, this is what I used, and was very happy with the results. Of the 3 listed here, only the Pulla is spicy.

The Sauce
6 cups beef broth
10 tomatoes 
10 tomatillos
3 garlic cloves, separated but not peeled 
3 *Mexican avocado leaves
4  cloves
5  black peppercorns
1 teaspoon mexican oregano
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cumin seed 
1 teaspoon of marjoram
3 bay leaves
1/4 cup lard, or duck fat
salt to taste

The Beef
5 lbs. boneless beef chuck (well-marbled), cut into 1” pieces
salt to season the meat
lard, or duck fat for frying the meat

The Vegetables and Tortillas
6 chayote squash
1 lb. dried garbanzos, or 1 can of beans
1 or 2 corn tortillas (grilled and slightly blackened)

sliced white onion
diced avocado

Instructions For The Beef Broth

Place the beef bones and the onion, cut in half, in a stockpot and add the 8 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, then cook over low heat  6-8 hours or overnight. Strain, and defat in the morning. Have ready and warm on stove.

Instructions For The Chiles

Heat up a cast iron pan and toast your chiles, be careful not to burn them, as their flavor can become bitter. When cool, put on some gloves and remove the seeds and stems. Rehydrate your chiles in very warm beef stock, or water for at least an hour. Use only enough liquid to cover.

In a blender, add the chiles and liquid and blend adding as little stock as possible to make a smooth paste.

Instructions For The Sauce

Preheat lard in a stock pot (this is where you will cook your mole.) Add the blended pepper mix, it might splash and spit back if your heat is too high, so be careful and prepared. Keep it at a low heat, stirring the pot with a wooden spoon for about 10 minutes. Turn off heat.

Broil, under high heat, the tomatillos, tomatoes and garlic. Make sure they have some parts charred. Once cool, separate the garlic from the peel.

Add 1 cup of beef broth to the blender and blend the roasted tomatoes, tomatillos and the garlic until smooth. Add this along with the rest of the reserved beef broth to the chili mix in the stock pot, and bring up to a simmer at medium heat, then lower heat.

Instructions For The Spices and Avocado Leaves
Toast your spices, in a dry cast iron skillet, one by one, until fragrant,  Do the same for the avocado leaves. Set aside to cool and combine. In a molcajete or electric coffee grinder, grind your spices and avocado leaves into a fine powder. Add this to your sauce. Low heat.

Instructions For The Dried Garbanzos And Beef

Begin cooking the dried beans at the same time as the beef.

Place dried beans in a pot, cover with 3 inches of water. Bring to boil. Let boil for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and let rest in the hot water for 1 hour. Drain, add to sauce. Bring back up to a low simmer. Adjust heat as necessary.

Place a couple of spoons of lard or duck fat in a large frying pan and brown all sides of the seasoned beef. Once done, add the beef to the sauce.

Instructions For The Tortillas And Vegetables

Toast the tortillas directly on the stove's flame, a few charred spots are fine. When cool to the touch, tear them into a few pieces, and add them to the sauce, they will dissolve and thicken the mole.

Chayotes, peel and dice 6 squash into 1” pieces. Place in a bowl with cold water and set aside.

One hour before you are ready to serve the mole, at the 4 hour mark, remove the bay leaves. Drain water from squash and add to the sauce. If using a can of beans. Rinse beans and add them to sauce. Cook everything together.

- Remember Norma’s advise. “Cooked at a low heat for at least 5 hours, constantly stirring and playing close attention to it. If you do not have that kind of time, prepare it the day before and let the flavors marry.” I think it tastes even better the next day, the vegetables will hold up just fine.

- Serve in bowls garnished with sliced white onions and diced avocado.

- This mole keeps for more than a week in the fridge, or you can freeze for later.

*(FYI, I used Mexican avocado leaves in this recipe.) http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/articles/detail/avocado-leaves

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