Flash in the Pan 

Holy mole

It wasn’t Valentine’s Day when Tita prepared a mole (pronounced “mow-lay”) with chocolate, almonds and sesame seeds in Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate. It was a mole that she wanted to eat alone with Pedro, the man she loved. But instead of that fantasy, she made the mole for a banquet honoring the firstborn child of Pedro and his wife Rosaura, Tita’s sister.

“The secret is to make it with love,” Tita tells a guest who wants her recipe. She means it. As Tita grinds the almonds and sesame seeds together, Pedro walks into the kitchen and is transfixed by the sight of Tita’s body undulating as she works the stone with energy and grace. They share a passionate gaze, and can no longer hide their love.

The word mole comes from molli, a Nahuatl word that translates into sauce, mixture or concoction. There are as many ways to make mole as there are kitchens in Mexico, but essentially it’s a ground paste of roasted chile peppers, nuts, seeds, fruit and spices.

Mole is a celebratory dish served at the best of occasions, where it often headlines the meal. The idea of chocolate in a main course might seem odd, but historically chocolate was served bitter and spicy, like the Aztec brew Cortez drank from a golden cup. Sweet chocolate as we know it comes from Europe, while modern mole, in its myriad forms, incorporates many ingredients the Europeans brought to the New World.

I’m going to share a mole recipe that was inspired by Tita’s, though I’ve tweaked it for V-Day by increasing the chocolate, and served it with chicken instead of the walnut-fattened turkeys Tita used. (This mole is spectacular with wild game birds, as well.)

Remove the skin from a chicken and simmer it with a carrot, an onion and two stalks of celery, all whole. When the chicken is falling-apart soft (after 1–2 hours), remove from heat and let cool. Pull out the bones and stuff.

Meanwhile, heat a heavy pan on medium. Toast, and then set aside, the following: 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted until they start to pop, 1/4 cup almonds, 1/4 cup pecans, 1/4 cup sesame seeds, 1/4 cup cocoa seeds or nibs, and 1/4 cup peanuts, all toasted until brown.

(If you want to follow Tita’s recipe more closely, omit the pecans and pumpkin seeds, as well as the raisins listed below.)

Remove the stems and seeds of 3 dried pasilla chiles, 3 dried anchos, and a mulato (or substitute with poblano or guajillo). Break the chile skins into pieces and then toast in the pan until crispy, but not burnt. Set aside.

Toast the chile seeds until dark brown, set aside.

Add 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan, and fry a half-cup of raisins, stirring often, until they puff up.

Add more oil, sauté 5 cloves garlic and a medium onion. Tear apart a bread roll, toast and then fry the chunks for 10 minutes with the garlic and onions.

In a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, grind 2 inches of cinnamon stick, a teaspoon each of black peppercorns and coriander, half a teaspoon of anise seeds, and 5 whole cloves.

Put the roasted nuts and seeds in a food processor and run it until they’re pulverized. Begin adding the shards of chile. If at any point the food processor’s contents get too thick, add broth from the chicken pot. Add 3 tablespoons chocolate (double that if you couldn’t find cocoa seeds or nibs to roast). Add the fried onion garlic bread, and half of the ground spices. Keep adding just enough chicken broth so it all keeps getting sucked through the blades.

Tease apart the chicken flesh and reheat it in enough stock to cover it.

Scoop a cup of your mole paste into the cooking chicken, and mix everything really well. After it’s simmered together 10 minutes, taste it. Add more ground spice from the mortar and pestle if you want. Add sugar, 1 teaspoon at a time, stirring, mixing and tasting, until it starts to taste sweet. Mole, like love, is bittersweet, and its flavor depends on this delicate balance.

Salt to taste. Cook another half-hour, until it starts to thicken.

Chicken mole is often served with rice or tortillas. I prefer to tear a few corn tortillas into pieces and add them to the mole 5 minutes before it’s done cooking, and then serve it in a bowl, garnished with chopped onions. A glass of red wine makes a great accompaniment. The wine’s acidic earthiness enhances the flavors of the mole.

Or you can skip the chicken, use water or stock to facilitate the food processor stage, and serve it any number of ways—including straight, with a spoon or combined with equal parts mayo to make molennaise, a great spread, dip or edible body paint.

Tita’s mole did not create the passion that she and Pedro shared, but allowed it to surface. Your interpretation of the spicy chocolate paste will also fan the coals of passion between you and your Valentine, if they indeed exist. But hopefully this love will be less star-crossed than Pedro and Tita’s.

Ask Ari: Counting your eggs

Q: Dear Flash,

I’m interested in raising hens for eggs, but we have a tiny backyard. Does 2–3 sound like a good number? Also, will the eggs hatch if we let them? And what’s the best way to get chickens?

—Hen Quest

A: It sounds like there are about 50 more very good questions behind the ones you’ve asked. You’re considering raising a flock of hens for eggs, and there are a few things you need to know. Raising hens is basically pretty easy, but requires more guidance than I can give in this space, so I’ll refer you to urbanchickens.org, where you will find a community of hen-philes that obsess about all things backyard chicken to a degree you may not have thought possible. There you will find detailed instructions on the many issues a chicken-raiser must consider, including what a good number is for the square footage you have available.

I’d advise you to order more than you think you’ll need, since chickens tend to die—from succumbing to illness, predators or other dangers.

Probably the best selection of mail-order hens can be found at the Murray McMurray Hatchery catalog (www.mcmurrayhatchery.com), but you may have to combine your order with a neighbor as the minimum order is 25 chicks. In springtime, baby chicks will be available in local hardware stores.

Most urban areas don’t allow roosters, because they make noise and can be pretty aggressive. And unless your hens are in contact with roosters, the eggs they lay won’t be fertile. They will be, instead, the rough equivalent of chicken menstrual product.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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