Monday, November 8, 2010

Slow-Simmered Sunday Mole Poblano

The weekend was long, sunny, and sweet. Some good friends got married, and many more came in from out of town. I had been so busy for the weeks leading up to this event that I had categorized it in my mind as just one more appointment, one more place I had to make sure to be. From the moment I stepped, covered in flour, into the restaurant where the rehearsal dinner took place, I shifted gears, and found myself in a joyful, emotional, festive place, that carried me through the weekend.

As much as the festivities themselves, I always treasure the slow, sleepy wake of a major holiday or occasion. As Sunday's bright, short afternoon hurried toward its early darkness (oh, the daylight we save), I let all appointments and high heeled shoes and family speeches and sweaty horas and welcome guests just float and simmer in my mind, and at the same time I simmered a batch of mole poblano. I thought about my grandfather, as I always do on marathon day, and his joyous gusto and wooden though enthusiastic palate. My grandfather, who began running marathons after his first bypass surgery, thought no challenge insurmountable and no new friend too far away. I think of living with him his second to last summer in New York, of his laughing face in the fall leaves of his house upstate, and of the late-fall sun filtering through the blinds of his hospital room as my father and I sat with him and watched the marathon pass us by. Now that I think of it, he and my grandmother may have been indirectly responsible for my first taste of mole.

My love affair with the smoky, chocolately, slow-burning black gold that is mole poblano began many years ago, at a touristy but talented upper west side restaurant called Mama Mexico. Recommended to my grandparents by a friend, it was also a good place for any kind of dinner party. I fell hard for their mole enchiladas, garnished with radishes and sesame seeds, their silly mariachi band, and their tall margaritas. Mama Mexico remained a popular birthday dinner spot during college, and since then, I've sampled many moles, but few as elegant as theirs. These days, I take my mole any way it comes, but I've never had much success in making it. To be fair, few people who aren't Mexican grandmothers really give it a go, as it involves an infinite ingredient list and many toasting, blending, frying, mashing, and simmering steps. I remember an abortive attempt in college, involving plantains, that didn't go very well, but I've never tried it since. I've ordered it, bought it in jars, received gifts of it from family members (my father has a particular fondness for Oaxaca, Mexico's debateable mole capital), but steered clear of any real urge to make it again, until this month's Saveur came in the mail.

After brief flirtations with Martha Stewart Living, Bon Appetit, and Gourmet, I decided over a year ago that Saveur was the only food magazine that I wanted to subscribe to. Although I was only occasionally inspired to cook from it, the writing was thoughtful and literate, and the photography overwhelmingly impressive. This, I decided, was the thinking cook's food porn. But, as I said, I only rarely actually cook from the magazine. Something about Rick Bayless's recipe for turkey breast in mole poblano caught my eye, though, and with the solid backing of my overstocked kitchen (make the spice cabinet sit up and take notice), and the promise of a lazy Sunday afternoon, I realized that I had almost everything I needed on hand. Projects that would have intimidated me 10 years ago now seemed well within the realm of possibility. The desireability of mole was never in question, it's the rich dark background to my foodie dreams.

I did make one change to the recipe, which may perhaps actually have nudged it in a more authentic direction. Instead of braising a breast in the sauce, I braised boneless turkey thighs from DiPaola Turkey Farm. I also halved the recipe, which gave me a giant dutch oven full of the stuff (i.e. plenty). There will be leftovers, so I may try braising other things, or making some tamales with the rest of the thighs in my freezer. Mole and turkey are made for one another, and the combination is made for rainy fall days. My father has also requested that a small amount be frozen for him to authenticate, being the final authority on all things Oaxacan.

My hands and kitchen were too messy to take process photos, which is a shame, as it was a process with a capital P. Spices were toasted, ground (in my new mortar!) and pureed with bread, tortillas, onions, tomatillos, and tomatoes; chiles were fried, soaked and pureed, and the two purees, one yellow, one deep red, were mingled, simmered with stock, and then baked with the thighs. Much blending and sieveing was done by all. Many noses were burned by chiles. As per the dictates of the pantry, I used fewer pumpkin seeds than called for, subbed almonds for walnuts, guajillo and mulato chiles for pasilla and ancho, and added a dab of tahini to replace the missing sesame seeds.

The recipe for this Sunday simmer can be found at on Saveur's website. Keep in mind that it makes a great deal, enough to feed all your hungry friends and loved ones, a tribe of starving marathoners, or just yourself after a long, quiet Sunday.


evil cake lady said...

This was a great read. Thanks for sharing your wonderful memories of your grandfather and mole.

PS: I love your dutch oven!!

Unknown said...

Make the tamales.. you will not be sorry! I love mole and like you I went the route of making it from scratch once... it was soo good, now that I read your story, I got the itch....

I need to hunt down the recipe that I have tucked away in one of my old cookbooks.

Joan said...

Can't believe i missed it. marathon and mole. What a combination. I'm drooling in anticipation of my frozen morsels


Katya said...

Monica, I love tamales. Believe me, they're on the list soon.

Dad, your pint container is frozen and awaits you. Maybe I'll save it for our time on the Appalachian Trail. Trail mix tamales?

EBL, I do love to reminisce. Glad you appreciated it.

Judith Motzkin Studio said...

Make some for me too. Rich and I learned how to make mole from a Mexican potter named Dolores Porras one long day long ago in Atzompa, a village outside of Oaxaca. Not often but blessedly, someone will bring us a bag of paste to use, but making our own seemed daunting, especially without a matate. I love hearing your memories of gene's enthusiasm.