Mexico: Pollo en Mole Negro

#11 Mexico /México : Mole Negro Chicken with Rice / Pollo en Mole Negro Oaxaqueño con Arroz

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Similar to Chinese food, most Americans (that I know, at least) seem to have some knowledge and opinion about Mexican food.  “Mexican food is too spicy.” “Mexican food is too greasy.”  “Mexican food is basically just tacos.”  “Real tacos use ground beef and a flavor packet.”  “Taco Bell isn’t real Mexican food.”  “You have to go to California or Texas for real Mexican.”  The list goes on.  Mostly because I am making it up and I haven’t necessarily heard these things said aloud before.  But, the point is, as one of the two bordering countries of the continental USA, most Americans are exposed to Mexican food, and either tend to think we know a lot about Mexican or next to nothing.  I stand somewhere in between.  Before researching Mexican food, I was aware that ‘real tacos’ didn’t involve ground beef simmered in a powdered spice blend from Ortega topped with shredded “Mexican cheese”… and that they typically were fresh proteins combined with lime juice, cilantro, radish, and other garnishes.  I love both versions, by the way.  But I mostly only knew about tex-mex Mexican cuisine.  I definitely didn’t know about regional Mexcian cuisine.

So moving on from my preconceptions about Mexican food I discovered that Mexican Cuisine is a UNESCO designated Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  And it is the only cuisine to be featured on the list.  So why is that?  I started to look more into Mexico itself.  Mexico borders the United States, Belize, Guatemala, the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean Sea.  Mexico has diverse weather systems due to the split in climate between temperate above the Tropic of Cancer and the tropical below.  Geographically, Mexico has mountain ranges, large valleys, and miles upon miles of coast.  According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Mexico’s racial/ethnic breakdown is 65% Mestizo (a word originating from the Spanish caste system meaning of mixed European and Native American ancestry), 17.5% Amerindian (primarily Native American), 16% White, and 1% other.  I am going to probably have to stop myself here, because I find Mexican ethnic and national identity to be incredibly interesting… but imagine you are ready to hear more and see more about the food.  But I will say that Mexico was comprised of many advanced cultures/civilizations before European settling.  The most notable were the Aztec, Mayan, and Zapotec civilizations, but there were many other intricate cultures.  But, Europe did settle Mexico and Mexico is now the largest Spanish speaking country in the world.  The integration of the native Mexicans and Europeans, combined with the natural resources, is what I believe makes Mexican food so special.  Many food items now commonplace in Europe and the rest of the world are originally from Mexico… notably chocolate and tomatoes.  Yep tomatoes.  Tomato is actually an Aztec word.

Ingredients native to Mexico make up a large part of Mexican cuisine, including: corn, rice, beans, and chili peppers.  But with colonization there was an increase in the use of herbs and spices, cheese and other dairy, and meat from farmed animals.  Mexican cuisine is highly regional.  So it’s time for a brief breakdown of some of the important regions.  Northern Mexican cuisine includes a wide varieties of cheese and grilling (influenced by European ranching techniques.)  This includes Cabrito… young goat on a spick slow cooked for eight hours, which looks a bit like something from a horror movie – but I am sure tastes delicious.  Yucatan cuisine comes from the Yucatan peninsula on the east coast.  Yucatan cuisine has roots in Mayan cuisine influenced by the Caribbean, the Mexican Valley, France/Europe, and the Middle East.  Some distinctive dishes and flavors include tropical fruits, cochinita pibil, achiote paste, and even Schwarma Tacos.  Western Mexico has one of my favorite stews, posole – a pork stew with hominy (a preparation of corn/maize used for centuries, most frequently to make masa harina) and carnitas (pork slow cooked in lard/my favorite option at Chipotle).  When did lard become such a stigmatized word? Western Mexico is known for menudo, the tripe stew, not the band that gave us Ricky Martin.  Oh, and don’t forget tequila (unless you feel the need to purposefully forget tequila).  Veracruz and Ciapas both are worth mentioning, and as I write this entry, I promise myself I will return for more Mexican dishes.  But some of the most striking areas for Mexican cuisine are central Mexico/Puebla and Oaxaca.  Mexico City and Puebla are where you find the most famous of Mexican foods and the most influence from the rest of Mexico and the world at large.  This area is home to Mexican adobos, pipian salsas, and moles.  Adobos are the Mexican version of Iberian (I can’t tell you if it is Portuguese or Spanish) sauces with vinegar and chiles.  Pipian salsas use toasted/fried seeds and nuts(usually at least pumpkin seeds) and grind them to thicken complex sauces.  And moles, or at least Mole Poblano, is the national dish of Mexico.  Which brings us to Oaxaca: the land of the seven moles.  Or six moles, or one hundred moles, it all depends on who you ask.  Oaxaca could have its own blog entry (or book) but we will just say, here, that Oaxaca maintained much of its indigenous cuisine while embracing contributions from Spain and other empires.

So what is a mole?  I tend to think of mole as similar to the mother sauces of French cuisine.  A mole is a traditional Mexican sauce made of chiles and pretty much anything else you want to add.  Mole poblano is, by far, the most well known, and includes chocolate (in addition to several chiles, nuts, and seeds), and is probably why many people believe a mole is just a Mexican sauce with chocolate.  But there are seven famous moles in Oaxaca: amarillo, chichilo, coloradito, negro, manchamanteles, rojo, and verde.  I decided to make negro, which does happen to use chocolate.  We deserve a little chocolate with dinner, right?  Also, as a side note… moles are typically saved for holidays and special occasions… which I came to understand better when I tried to follow a traditional preparation.

Mole Negro:

 Ingredients:

  • 1 whole chicken cut into parts, or legs and thighs (you want something with some bones to get more flavor into the stock)
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 stalk celery
  • 2 medium sized onions
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 whole allspice berries
  • a few peppercorns
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 dried chile de arbol
  • 5 dried chihuacles negros chiles
  • 5 dried guajillo chiles
  • 4 dried pasilla chiles
  • 4 dried mulatto chiles
  • 2 dried chipotle chiles
  • 1 ripe plantain
  • 1/4 cup almonds
  • 1/4 cup pecans
  • 1/4 cup peanuts
  • 1 stick cinnamon (preferably Mexican canella – but I forgot to stock that)
  • 5 tomatillos, husked and halved
  • 3 plum tomatoes
  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • 2 slices pan de yema, or other mexican bread – or just any bread if you don’t have access, or want to make bread just to throw it in a blender)
  • 4 oz. mexican chocolate (you can use the types marketed as hot chocolate tablets)
  • 1/2 cup lard or vegetable oil

Directions:

There are many steps, and many ingredients, to making a mole, but my preparation can roughly be divided into:  preparing the chicken and stock, preparing the chile mixture, preparing the everything else mixture, and combining/cooking it all.  So let’s start with the chicken.  Wash the leeks you happen to have in your fridge and want to use in something even if it isn’t authentically Mexican, and give it a very rough chop.  Quarter the onion, and roughly chop the carrots and celery.

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The leek looks pretty too, right?  Anyway, combine the vegetables with the bay leaf, allspice, peppercorns, cloves, and chile de arbol, in a large saucepan or stock pot.  Add about 10 cups of water to cover all the ingredients by an inch or so.  Bring the pot to a simmer, and let cook for 40 minutes to an hour, or until the chicken is cooked and tender.

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Strain the soup, discarding the vegetables and putting the chicken aside.  I apparently didn’t take any pictures of the finished stock or chicken… but I can assure you it looked incredibly average and soup-like.  So let’s move on to the chile mixture.  I started off by trying to remember which chiles were which, and if I had the right types.  I’m pretty sure I was close, but probably not totally on point… but (spoiler alert) the dish ended up tasting delicious anyway.  So, I would advise you not to stress too much about making sure you have all the right chiles, I am sure there are plenty of substitutions you can make.  My second piece of advice is to either use rubber gloves, or just be careful not to touch your eyes/face/any part or any sensitive part of your body.  And be sure to thoroughly wash your hands when done working with the chiles.

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Slice open the chiles, remove the stems, and deseed them, reserving the seeds in a separate bowl.  This step alone takes more time then I realized.

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Then heat a large heavy skilled over medium heat until hot.  Add the chiles and toast, pressing them down and flipping them over, with tongs.  You want the chiles to blacken in spots, but not burn.

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Place the toasted chiles in a large heat-proof bowl.  Cover the chiles with boiling water and let sit for 30 minutes.

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While the chiles are soaking, toast the seeds in the same skillet and return to a bowl.

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Cover the seeds with boiling water.

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After 30 minutes, the chiles should be pretty soft.  Blend the chiles in batches with just enough of the soaking water to totally puree them.

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Add back a cup or so of the chile mixture to the food processor, and blend with the seeds.

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Mix the rest of the chile puree with the batch in the food processor.  Remove the mixture from the food processor and press it through a fine mesh sieve.

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First up, grab the plantain, peel it like a banana, and cut into half inch slices.  Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat with the oil.  Once the oil is hot, fry the plantain, flipping once, until golden brown on both sides.

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Remove the plantains and add to the bowl of stuff to be pulverized.  Then fry the nuts and cinnamon stick for a few minutes, until the cinnamon open up and nuts take on some color.

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Then add them to the bowl.

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Next toss in the garlic cloves, tomatillos, and onions.  Fry them until they start to char a bit, but don’t incinerate.

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Do the same with the tomatoes, but they will take less time.  Then fry the sesame seeds until browning, this will only take a minute or so.  Try to scoop the sesame seeds out with a strainer, and try not to throw your camera into the hot oil.  After almost burning yourself and your possessions, throw everything in the bowl.

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Next, toast the slices of bread.

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Add the bread, along with the contest of the bowl and about half a cup of stock, to a food processor or blender and puree to a paste-like consistency.

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Almost looks a bit like a loose peanut butter, like one of those organic natural peanut butters.  And now we have all the components to actually cook the mole.  Heat two tablespoons of oil or lard in a dutch oven or heavy pot over medium heat.  Once the oil is hot, add the chile mixture and fry, stirring constantly, until the mixture has reduced by about one third.  This should take about 15 minutes.

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The mixture should start to darken and actually look like something that should be called mole negro.  At this point, stir in the blended mixture and cook for another 10 minutes.  Then stir in a cup of the stock, reduce the heat, and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

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The lighting got worse as the night went on.  The mole wasn’t as red and ketchuppy looking in person.  Next roughly chop the chocolate and stir into to the mole.  Allow the mole to simmer  for another 20-3o minutes.  Mole should be thick enough to coat a spoon but not too gloppy (that’s a professional word).

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Luckily I took some pictures of the chocolate before it got dark.  And before I inhaled it.

Reheat the chicken, cover with the mole, and garnish with some sesame seeds.  Serve with rice… I added some Goya Sazon into my rice water and it turned bright yellow, salt packed, tasty, and more legit looking.

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Bonus Recipe:  Pan de Yema!

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I took the recipe straight off of this GourmetSleuth.com website, who got it from a cookbook called Mexico the Beautiful Cookbook. I just changed it around a little for my bread making tastes.  I am a big fan of making my own fresh bread, and feel comfortable enough to mess around a little with ingredients, but there was no problem with the original recipe.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tsp instant yeast
  • 1/2 cup  lukewarm water
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 6 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 cup (or one stick) unsalted butter (melted)
  • 1/2 tbsp salt
  • eggs
  • egg yolks
  • 2 tsp fennel seed
  • One extra egg for egg wash
  • Sesame seeds for garnish

Directions:

Mix all the dry ingredients (yeast, flour, sugar, salt, fennel seed) in a large mixing bowl (or the base of a stand mixer).

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Then lightly whisk together the wet ingredients (eggs, water, and melted butter).  Mix the wet ingredients into the dry, until it forms a rough ball.  The knead for about 5-10 minutes, or use a dough hook in a stand mixer for 15 minutes or so.  The dough should be a smooth, elastic, and greasy ball.  Transfer the ball to a large bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let it rise for about an hour, or until it doubles in size.  Remove the dough from the bowl, and knead for a second, cut into two equal sized portions, and form into balls.

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Place the balls of dough on a parchment line sheet pan.  Make an egg wash by whisking an egg in a small bowl.  Brush the egg wash over the dough.  Then cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let it rise until it doubles in size again.  When the dough has doubled in size, brush it again with the remainder of the egg wash.  Slice the top of the bread with a knife, and sprinkle with sesame seeds.  Place on the middle rack of an oven preheated to 375 degreed fahrenheit. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until golden brown.

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Remove from oven and let cool.

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The Verdict?  Mole is phenomenal.  Mole is all about balance and a lot of different flavors working together.  Despite a ridiculous amount of chiles and chile seeds, the end product isn’t too spicy.  The seeds and nuts give the sauce a very earthy taste, and the chocolate is subtle – which can be a positive or negative thing, I suppose.  If I went for a less traditional approach, I would consider grilling or roasting the chicken… boiled/simmered chicken isn’t my favorite preparation.  But it was nice that it fell right off the bone.  As another side-note, you could put this mole sauce on pretty much anything without a strong flavor (I wouldn’t put it on swordfish or steak or something that could stand alone, as it easily dominates what it covers.)  The recipe also makes enough mole to cover your next five meals.  So I suggest you freeze some, and reheat for a ridiculous luxurious weekday meal.

Also – I suggest serving it with a traditional (?) Mexican cocktail.  I went for the Paloma:  a combination of grapefruit juice, lime slices, and tequila.

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The finished cocktails disappeared too quickly to take pictures of them.  I dare you to tell Sous Chef or Sous Chef’s coworker (who was witness to this Mexican adventure), “Sure, you can have your cocktail as soon as I take several pictures of it.”  Or to tell me the same.

Up next:  A change in the blog.  As you may have noticed, or as my Mom and a few loyal readers may have noticed… I suck at updating this blog frequently.  So I am changing things up!  Cooking international dishes has never been my issue, just writing the posts and trying to research the countries to my own approval.  Since I spend so much time just writing and getting ready for a country, I am going to start posting more than one recipe for each country, with less lecturing.  You are welcome.  So next post:  Mas Mexico!  This time, the Yucatan Peninsula.

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