Feeling Saucy: Mole Poblano

8 Oct

Growing up in the agricultural belt of the Pacific Northwest, the sheer scope and popularity of Mexican cuisine was so pervasive that it wasn’t until I moved to New York for school that I realized there were places where people actually believed Taco Bell qualified as food, let alone ‘Mexican’ food.  As a child, I didn’t take advantage of this in the same way I might, now–I couldn’t tolerate the taste of cilantro, picked at things I couldn’t recognize, and generally stuck to beef burritos and enchiladas without fail.  Nevertheless, my mother used to faithfully order chicken mole whenever it was available, while I turned up my nose and couldn’t fathom eating any sauce so unconventional.  Years later, I found myself craving it now and then, with only hazy memories of the dish to go on, and in Korea, I’m sure you can imagine it became even harder to procure.

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Mole sauce (pronounced ‘mol-LEH’), in its native Mexico, refers to a wide range of thick, richly-flavored sauces, all of which are based upon varying blends of chili peppers thrown together with nuts and other spices.  Legend has it that mole was invented more or less by accident, when a group of poor nuns found that an important visitor would be arriving, and needed something to feed him.  Chili peppers, day-old bread, nuts, spices, and a little chocolate were sacrificed to the cause, along with an old turkey, and a quintessential fusion dish was born.  Ingredients indigenous to Mexico, such as chili pepper, tomatoes, squash seeds, and chocolate may be cooked alongside Mediterranean almonds and raisins, African sesame, and even Asian spices such as anise and cinnamon.  Despite being based on dried pepper, the sauce is not hot-spicy, but features a rich, slow depth of taste that can be disconcerting to those used to milder flavors.

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Ingredients

1/3 cup sesame seeds
1/3 cup sliced almonds
handful pumpkin seeds
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp chipotle pepper flakes
2 tbsp red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 a star anise, crushed
2-3 tbsp grapeseed oil (or other high smoke-point oil, suitable for frying)
2 tbsp chopped garlic
1 cup chopped fresh tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
2 tbsp creamy peanut butter
1 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
pinch of salt

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Begin by toasting your sesame seeds, almonds, and pumpkin seeds in a dry nonstick skillet over medium heat.  Stir and toss until golden and fragrant, then add cumin, coriander, chipotle, red pepper, cinnamon, and crushed anise.  Toast until fragrant, then turn the heat to low and add oil, stirring carefully.  Add the garlic and mix well.  Be careful not to burn the spices at this stage. They should be fragrant and deep in color, but not blackened or smoky-smelling.

Next, add the onion and tomatoes and simmer until tender.  Stir the peanut butter into the spice and vegetable mix until it has softened and spread throughout, then add chicken stock and bring it back to a simmer over medium heat.  If the sauce looks exceptionally runny at this stage, it can simmer and cook down for 10-30 minutes or even longer with no problems.

Finally, stir in the chocolate for the finishing touch.  I prefer a sauce with some chunkiness and texture, but if you allow the sauce to cool, you can easily puree it in a blender to reach the standard mole consistency.

Serve over chicken, turkey, or eggs for a low-carb meal, or use as topping for chicken enchiladas if carbs are not a concern.  The ingredients I’ve used are by no means a comprehensive list–in the past, I’ve used oregano, while some might use marjoram, thyme, tomatillos, raisins, or dried cranberries.  Mole sauce will keep well in the freezer as well, if you don’t plan to use it quickly.

Makes about 3 cups of sauce.

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