Oaxacan Black Mole with Braised Chicken
Mole Negro Oaxaqueño
I’d venture to say that anyone who has traveled to Oaxaca, the beautifully preserved colonial city in Southern Mexico, has eaten black mole at least once. It is the regional specialty–on every restaurant menu, at every fiesta. And, quite expectedly, not all black moles are crafted equally. At the touristy zócalo (“central square”) restaurants that spill their tables out under the portals, it is a lacquered-looking blackness (ever seen drying tar?) that’s all sweetness, burn and chocolate. At Abigail Mendoza’s now famous Tlalmanalli restaurant in Teotitlán del Valle, its near-blackness draws you into the layers of complexity, the perfect piquancy, the delicately balanced dulcet char of real mole negro. Her version is what dreams are made of.
Black mole has to be the star of any meal, so serve it simply with a spoonful of Classic White Rice (page 000–you may want to add a little diced cooked carrot and zucchini to the rice as Abigail does) and plenty of hot tortillas. In summer, I’d work hard to locate squash blossoms for Golden Squash Blossom Crema (page 000) or serve Mushroom-Cactus Soup (page 000) to start. Dessert should stay classic and Oaxacans like Mango-Lime Ice (page 000) or Tropical Trifle of Mango and Almonds (page 000).
Chilhuacle chiles are unique to Oaxaca, rarely venturing outside. Even there, the chiles are expensive and not always available, so folks have learned to adapt with a little more mulato and pasilla plus a few guajillos (certainly don’t squelch a desire to tackle this grand achievement just because you have no chilhuacles). For years I collected recipes that yielded mediocre results to the point that I just wouldn’t offer it at our restaurants. And I don’t much like the mole pastes and powders that most of the restaurants use and everyone brings home: they’re made in a way that traps bitterness which requires too much sugar and chocolate to balance it. Not until my favorite chile seller, Panchita, in the downtown market really explained the details and her proportions could I get it right. Here’s what she taught me.
Serves 8 (with about 10 cups of sauce, which will mean leftovers to make enchiladas or more chicken with)
11 medium (about 5 1/2 ounces) dried mulato chiles
6 medium (about 2 ounces) dried chihualces chiles (see note in Variations and Improvisations below)
6 medium (about 2 ounces) dried pasilla chiles
1 dried chipotle chile (preferably the tan-brown chipotle meco)
1 corn tortilla, torn into small pieces
2 1/4-inch-thick slices of white onion
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled
About 2 cups rich-tasting lard or vegetable oil (for frying the chiles)
1/2 cup sesame seeds, plus a few extra for garnish
1/4 cup pecan halves
1/4 cup unskinned or Spanish peanuts
1/4 cup unskinned almonds
About 10 cups chicken broth (canned or homemade, page 000)
1 pound (2 medium-large or 6 to 8 plum) green tomatoes, roughly chopped
4 ounces (2 to 3 medium) tomatillos, husked, rinsed and roughly chopped
2 slices stale bread, toasted until very dark
1/4 teaspoon cloves, preferably freshly ground
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, preferably freshly ground
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, preferably freshly ground Mexican canela
A scant teaspoon oregano, preferably Mexican
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 ripe banana
1/2 cup (about 3 ounces) finely chopped Mexican chocolate
2 or 3 avocado leaves (if you have them)
Salt, about 1 tablespoon depending on the saltiness of the broth
Sugar, about 1/4 cup (or a little more)
2 large (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chickens, cut into quarters
1. Getting started. Pull out the stems (and attached seed pods) from the chiles, tear them open and shake or scrape out the seeds, collecting them as you go.
Now, do something that will seem very odd: scoop the seeds into an ungreased medium-size (8- to 9-inch) skillet along with the torn-up tortilla, set over medium heat, turn on an exhaust fan, open a window and toast your seeds and tortilla, shaking the pan regularly, until thoroughly burned to charcoal black, about 15 minutes. (This is very important to the flavor and color of the mole.) Now, scrape them into a fine-mesh strainer and rinse for 30 seconds or so, then transfer to a blender.
Set an ungreased skillet or griddle over medium heat, lay on a piece of aluminum foil, and lay the onion slices and garlic cloves on that. Roast until soft and very dark (about 5 minutes on each side of the onion slices–peel it off the foil to turn it; about 15 minutes for the garlic–turn it frequently as it roasts). Cool the garlic a bit, peel it and combine with the onion in a large bowl.
While the onion and garlic are roasting, turn on the oven to 350 degrees (for toasting nuts), return the skillet to medium heat, measure in a scant 2 cups of the lard or oil (you’ll need about 1/2-inch depth), and, when hot, begin frying the chiles a couple at a time: they’ll unfurl quickly, then release their aroma and piquancy (keep that exhaust on and window open) and, after about 30 seconds, have lightened in color and be well toasted (they should be crisp when cool, but not burnt smelling). Drain them well, gather them into a large bowl, cover with hot tap water, and let rehydrate for 30 minutes, stirring regularly to insure even soaking. Drain, reserving the soaking liquid.
While the chiles are soaking, toast the seeds and nuts. Spread the sesame seeds onto a baking sheet or ovenproof skillet, spread the pecans, peanuts and almonds onto another baking sheet or skillet, then set both into the oven. In about 12 minutes the sesame seeds will have toasted to a dark brown; the nuts will take slightly longer. Add all of them to the blender (reserving a few sesame seeds for garnish), along with 1 1/2 cups of the chicken broth and blend to as smooth a puree as you can. Transfer to a small bowl. Without rinsing the blender, combine the green tomatoes and tomatillos with another 1/2 cup of the broth and puree. Pour into another bowl. Again, without rinsing the blender, combine the roasted onion and garlic with the toasted bread, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, banana and 3/4 cup broth. Blend to a smooth puree and pour into a small bowl.
Finally, without rinsing the blender, scoop in half of the chiles, measure in 1/2 cup of the soaking liquid, blend to a smooth puree, then pour into another bowl. Repeat with the remaining chiles and another 1/2 cup of the soaking liquid.
2. From four purees to mole. In a very large (8- to 9-quart) pot (preferably a Dutch oven or Mexican cazuela), heat 3 tablespoons of the lard or oil (some of what you used for the chiles is fine) and set over medium-high heat. When very hot, add the tomato puree and stir and scrape (a flat-sided wooden spatula works well here) for 15 to 20 minutes until reduced, thick as tomato paste, and very dark (it’ll be the color of cinnamon stick and may be sticking to the pot in places). Add the nut puree and continue the stirring and scraping until reduced, thick and dark again (this time it’ll be the color of black olive paste), about 8 minutes. Then, as you guessed it, add the banana-spice puree and stir and scrape for another 7 or 8 minutes as the whole thing simmers back down to a thick mass about the same color it was before you added this one.
Add the chile puree, stir well and let reduce over medium-low heat until very thick and almost black, about 30 minutes, stirring regularly (but, thankfully, not constantly). Stir in the remaining 7 cups of broth, the chocolate and avocado leaves (if you have them), partially cover and simmer gently for about an hour, for all the flavors to come together. Season with salt and sugar (remembering that this is quite a sweet mole and that sugar helps balance the dark, toasty flavors). Remove the avocado leaves.
In batches in a loosely covered blender, puree the sauce until as smooth as possible, then pass through a medium-mesh strainer into a large bowl.
3. Finishing the dish. Return the mole to the same pot and heat it to a simmer. Nestle the leg-and-thigh quarters of the chicken into the bubbling black liquid, partially cover and time 15 minutes, then nestle in the breast quarters, partially cover and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, until all the chicken is done.
With a slotted spoon, fish out the chicken pieces and transfer them to a large warm platter. Spoon a generous amount of the mole over and around them, sprinkle with the reserved sesame seeds and set triumphantly before your lucky guests.
Advance Preparation: The mole can be completed through Step 2 several days ahead (it gets better, in fact); cover and refrigerate. Completely Step 3 shortly before serving.
VARIATIONS AND IMPROVISATIONS: Chilhuacle chiles are very difficult to find unless you’re in Oaxaca (even then they’re sometimes hard to obtain). Without them you can make a very respectible black mole with 6 ounces (12 total) dried mulato chiles, 2 1/2 ounces (8 total) dried pasilla chiles and 1 ounce (4 total) dried guajillo chiles. If you’d rather serve your black mole with turkey, follow directions on page 000. But don’t overlook the possibilites of serving black mole alongside roast porkloin (a crown roast of pork with black mole would be stunning for New Year’s Eve), or even grilled or roasted beef, venison or lamb.
Herb Green Ceviche with cucumber
Ceviche Verde con pepino
From Fiesta at Rick’s, due to be published in July
This is one of my favorite dishes of all times: that seductive texture of fresh fish with a citric sparkle, the savor of roasted garlic and green chile, and the oh-so-attractive vividness of fresh cilantro and parsley. Add a little farmers’ market cucumber and buttery avocado, and you’ve made a dish no one will forget. My inspiration was an all-green ceviche I ate in Mexico, prepared by my Veracruzana friend Carmen Ramírez Degollado, and the chimichurri they serve on steak in Argentina.
I don’t usually follow regular ceviche procedure here, thoroughly “cooking” the fish in lime juice for several hours before serving. Instead, I toss the raw fish with lime and flavorings, scoop it into something pretty and carry it to the table—that’s the essence of freshness. But if that doesn’t sound good to you, stir a couple of cups fresh lime juice into the raw fish, refrigerate it for a couple of hours until the fish has a cooked texture, drain it and add the herb mixture and vegetables. Or just use cooked shrimp instead of raw fish, which I did last week for dinner and loved the outcome.
One thing to keep in mind: you’ll have more than you need of the herb mixture (we call it Mexican chimichurri in our kitchen). You’ll thank me for that. Store it in a covered container in the refrigerator (pour a film of oil over the top). It’ll keep for a month or more. I smear it on chicken before grilling or roasting it. I stir it into scrambled eggs. I add it to salad dressing and cream sauces. It’ll make your everyday cooking taste special-occasion.
Working Ahead: As I said: the herb seasoning can be stored in the refrigerator for a month or more. All the basic prep work can be done early in the day you’re serving; store everything separately, covered, in the refrigerator. Mix and season the ceviche shortly before serving—no more than hour—waiting to add the avocado until the guests have assembled.
Makes about 4 ½ cups, serving 8 to 10 as a starter
For a scant 1 cup of herb seasoning:
½ head garlic, cloves broken apart
2 to 3 fresh serrano chiles
1 medium bunch cilantro, thick bottom stems cut off
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, thick bottom stems cut off
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup fresh lime juice
1 ½ pounds “sashimi-quality” skinless, boneless fish fillets—my favorites are Alaskan halibut, ahi tuna and aqua-cultured Kona Kampachi (a type of yellowtail)—cut into ½-inch cubes
2 (7 ounces total) small “pickle” cucumbers (the kind you get in the farmers’ market) or Persian (baby) cucumbers, cut into ½-inch cubes
2 ripe large avocados, pitted, flesh scooped from skin and then cut into cubes
Lettuce leaves (butter lettuce works great here) for garnish
1. Make the herb seasoning. Set a dry skillet over medium heat. Lay in the unpeeled garlic cloves and chiles. Roast, turning frequently, until soft and blotchy brown in spots, about 10 minutes for the chiles and 15 minutes for the garlic. Cool until handleable, then slip the skins off the garlic, pull stems off the chiles and roughly chop (no need to remove the seeds). Place in a food processor along with the cilantro (about 1 cup if packed), parsley (about 1 cup if packed), oil and 2 generous teaspoons salt. Process until nearly smooth (it will be pasty). Scrape into a storage container and refrigerate until serving time.
2. Finish the ceviche. In a large bowl, whisk together the lime juice and ½ cup of the herb seasoning. (Cover and refrigerate the remainder for another preparation.) Add the fish and cucumber, and stir to combine. To blend the flavors, cover and refrigerate for a half hour (for best results no more than an hour). Taste and season with a little more lime juice or salt if you think necessary, gently stir in the avocado (save out a little for garnish if you want), then serve on lettuce leaf-lined plates or martini glasses.