Sunday, April 10, 2011

Holy (Oaxcan) Mole!

April 23 is Holy Saturday - meaning its the Saturday before Easter and the day before Jesus got all magical and resurrected.

Holy Saturday is the feast day of Our Lady of Solitude - one of the thousands (? I haven't confirmed this, but there are a ton!) of Mary's incarnations. Our Lady of Solitude represents Mary when Jesus was put away in his tomb and his poor momma was lonely.

She is also the patroness of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, land of tropical beaches, soaring mountains, and mole.

Legend goes that in the 16th century a donkey carrying way too much crap stumbled into the city of Oaxaca and died on the spot. The towns people opened the pack on its back to discover a mysterious statue of Our Lady of Solitude wearing a crown of diamonds. The Oaxacans took this event to show that The Virgin wanted to stay in Oaxaca so they built her a church on the spot and they've been really into Our Lady of Solitude ever since.

The church is fantastically baroque:

The internets are little murky about what happened to the original statute, but this is what she looks like now inside her Oaxacan church:

This image is from a different Oaxacan church; note the neon (religious imagery + neon is a winning combo, no matter what):

And, when she's made out of radishes:

Apparently Oaxaca has a radish festival every year in December and Oaxacans are just as into carving radishes as they are Our Lady of Solitude.

Perhaps the most famous Oaxacan food is mole, that sinfully rich and deep sauce with its mysterious, varying, and incredibly long list of ingredients (chocolate? sometimes? cinnamon? maybe? plantains? if you feel like it? Really, someone needs to write a book just about mole). My first taste of real mole was in Monterrey, Mexico from my boyfriend's Mexican mama's kitchen and I was totally smitten - her version was deep and peanut-y, slightly sweet, served smothering the most tender shredded chicken.

The mole and chicken combo is total comfort food - there is nothing better on your tummy after a night of too many cervezas and too much drunken dancing.

I haven't gotten a copy of Mexican mama's recipe yet, but in honor of Our Lady of Solitude's Oaxaca I tracked down this smoky almond-based version from Rick Bayless.

This is basically a combination of two of his recipes. Every recipe collection I've been able to find, his included, always makes the mole sauce and then pours it on top of something at the last minute, say an enchilada or a roasted chicken breast. But Mexican mama's mole is all mixed and cooked in together and is how I will always prefer my mole. The chicken here is poached like you were going to put it in an enchilada, but instead you're going to smother it in heaps of mole. The result is really weepingly delicious.

Keep in mind that mole is by its nature time consuming - there are a lot of steps, a lot of ingredients that have to be prepped, and a lot of long, slow cooking. That said, its really not difficult to make. Its one of those recipes that you can do in stages, letting everything chill for awhile as needed. Mole is not be rushed. I made this one Sunday afternoon, alternating between the various stages in mole-making and other projects I had going so that by late afternoon when I was good and hungry, pum, it was done.

And so, for the Oaxacan patroness Our Lady of Solitude:

Chicken in Red Mole

For the mole
8 cloves garlic, unpeeled
4 ounces dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
1.5 tsp. dried Mexican oregano
0.5 tsp freshly ground black pepper
A big pinch of ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground cloves
About 6 cups chicken stock (cooking the chicken will make around this much, maybe a little less)
3 tbs. vegetable oil
1/2 cup whole, raw almonds (with or without the skins)
1 medium white onion, sliced
1/4 cup raisins
5 ounces ripe tomatoes
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 cup roughly chopped Mexican chocolate (truth be told, I subbed some good moderately dark chocolate here)
1/2 a Mexican bolillo or 2 slices white bread, toasted
salt and sugar to taste

For the chicken:
1/2 medium white onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
a handful of baby carrots
1 tsp. salt
3 lbs of bone-in, skin-on chicken, light or dark or a mixture
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp. Mexican oregano

To serve:
corn tortillas
Mexican rice
chopped cilantro

First, poach your chicken.

In a large pot, bring 8 cups of water to boil. Add the onion, garlic, carrot and salt and simmer, partially covered over medium-low heat 10 minutes. Next add the chicken, dark meat first; dark meat will take about 23 minutes, the light only 13, so add any light meat 10 minutes after the dark. Skim off any foam that rises the top a few minutes after the chicken is added.

Add the bay leaves and oregano after skimming. Cook partially covered. When time is up, remove from heat and let chicken sit in broth for a few minutes.
Remove chicken from pot and let cool. Once cool, shred the meat, discarding bones and skin. Strain the broth and spoon off any fat that rises to the top. You'll be using this broth for the mole sauce next.

Then, make your holy mole!

This recipe will make about 6 cups of sauce, which is a little more than you'll need to smother your chicken. The sauce will keep in your fridge for a week or more and it freezes well, too. Save it for a quick meal: heat it up and stir something into it - meat, veggies, whatever you have.

1. Roast the garlic on an ungreased heavy skilled over medium heat until soft (it will blacken in spots). This takes about 15 minutes; cool and peel when done. While the garlic is roasting, toast the chiles on the other side of the skillet, a couple at a time: open them up flat and press into the pan for a few seconds until they crackle, then flip em and do the same to the other side. Toss the toasted chiles into a bowl and cover with warm water for 30 minutes to rehydrate. Drain and discard the water.

2. Combine the chiles, garlic, oregano, black pepper, cumin, cloves, and 2/3 cup of your brother into a blender; process into a smooth puree. If your blender is having trouble pureeing, add a little more broth. Dump out into a bowl.

3. Roast the tomatoes under a broiler until blackened on one side, the flip and roast on the other side. Cool, peel, and put into blender.

4. In a medium dutch-oven type pot, heat 1.5 tbs. of the oil over medium. Add the almonds and cook, stirring regularly, until lightly toasted - you'll smell them! Using a slotted spoon (to preserve the oil in the pot) remove the almonds to the blender. Add the onion to the pot and cook, stirring often, until richly browned, about 10 minutes. Use the slotted spoon to scoop the onions into the blender. At this point, you might need to add a little more oil to coat the bottom of the pan... if so, let it heat, and then, add the raisins. Stir for a minute and when they puff, scoop them into the blender.

5. Add the cinnamon, chocolate, and bread to blender along with 1 cup of the broth and puree until smooth.

6. Return your pot to medium-high heat and, if needed, add a little more oil to coat the bottom. When very hot, add your ancho chile mixture and cook, stirring constantly until dark and very thick, about 5 minutes. Add the pureed almond mixture and cook, stirring constantly for another few minutes, until very thick again. Stir in the remaining 4 1/3 cups of broth, partially cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, over medium-low for 35 minutes.

7. Taste and season with salt and sugar - you'll want the sauce to taste slightly sweet.

8. Heat another pot of about the same size over medium-low, adding a little oil to coat the bottom. Dump in about half the mole sauce and all of your chicken. Stir everything together and continue adding sauce to the chicken until you have a mixture that seems to be a little over half sauce. You want to use perhaps a little more sauce than you think is correct... All the better to soak up with tortillas and rice! Cook this mixture just about 10 minutes total so that everything is evenly distributed and heated through.

9. To serve:

You really must serve chicken mole with Mexican rice! There is something alchemically divine about the mole soaking to the rice. You can use my favorite recipe (here, which is another Rick Bayless adaptation) or if after all that mole making you're feeling little lazy, I'm pretty sure Our Lady of Soliitude won't be offended if you want to use a mix.

For each serving, spoon a heap of the chicken mole into a bowl or dish, along with the rice. Sprinkle with cilantro.

Serve with warm corn tortillas to wrap that gooey mess of goodness up into manageable tacos:

Now thank Our Lady of Solitude for riding that donkey to death into Oaxaca and bringing you this crazy amazing meal!

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