I tasted mole for the first time at a roadside eatery in Central Mexico when I was a sixteen-year-old tourist. At first I wasn’t sure what to think, but the lustrous, mahogany-colored sauce and bits of meat intrigued me. One bite led to another, and by the time I’d finished, a passion had been born.
These days, when I talk about mole to North Americans, many immediately respond, “Chocolate chicken, right? Not for me.” But in Mexico, mouths water at the thought of this dark, complex sauce made from dried chiles, nuts, seeds, spices, and, yes, a bit of chocolate.
Mole (pronounced MOH-lay) belongs to a family of sauces that has deep roots in Mexico. The name itself is Aztec for sauce, reflecting the influence of the original inhabitants of the land. Every town, every family, has its favorite versions. They span the spectrum of colors, textures, and flavors. (Oaxaca boasts seven moles that range in color from spring green to yellow, rust, and black). All moles are thickened with nuts and seeds, but they don’t all have chocolate in them (in the best versions that do, chocolate is used only in small proportions, as you’d use a spice), and homemade moles, if prepared with care, avoid the bitterness often associated with the commercial versions.
But of all the varieties of mole, none surpass the rich, dark-skinned beauty called mole poblano. This famous dish from the Mexican state of Puebla takes its surname from its place of origin. The toasted, rehydrated red chiles that are the soul of this mole create a core of fruity depth, spice, and complexity that is embroidered with almonds, coriander seeds, anise, cloves, and chocolate.
Mole’s flavor is developed in stages
Mole-making begins with toasting or frying the individual ingredients, puréeing them, and then searing and reducing the purée. Broth is added and the sauce is left to simmer. Each step, each ingredient, adds a different dimension to the sauce, yet the whole sings in beautiful harmony. Mexican cooks say that the best mole is one from which no individual flavor stands out.
Mole poblano (pronounced poh-BLAH-noh) takes about six hours to prepare. About three of those are relatively unattended simmering or baking. Making the mole all in one go, however, doesn’t allow it to develop the most flavor (nor does it leave the cook in much of a mood for a party). It’s easiest to spread the preparations over three days.
Day 1—Complete the recipe through puréeing the chile and tomato mixtures. Make a turkey broth. Cover and refrigerate the two purées and the broth.
Day 2—Sear the two purées, combining them to complete the sauce. Brown the turkey and bake it in the sauce. Cool the turkey and the sauce separately, cover, and refrigerate.
Day 3—Skin and slice the turkey, heat it with the sauce, and serve.
Making a mole with turkey signals a festivity
In Mexico, mole on the stove usually means a fiesta is in the making. A whole turkey, which can feed at least twelve people, is a traditional choice for mole poblano, but almost all moles are flexible about which meats they can be paired with. Chicken, duck, pork, and beef are all delicious with this sauce.
When you bake the turkey, take care not to overcook it. The USDA says to cook turkey to 170°F, but I’m willing to assume responsibility for eating my turkey cooked to 150°F, the right temperature, I believe, for the moistest breast. The turkey will be reheated in the sauce and if cooked to too high a temperature, it could easily dry out.
Chiles are the cornerstone of all moles
To prepare an authentic mole poblano, you must have the traditional triumvirate of chiles: mulato, ancho, and pasilla. Without these chiles, your mole just won’t have the breadth of chile flavors essential to the dish.
If your only experience with chiles has been a little jalapeño added to salsa for spice, you’ll be shifting gears here. First, not all chiles are picante (certainly not as hot as a hot jalapeño), and second, the less hot ones (fresh poblanos and reconstituted dried anchos, for instance) are used as the base of many sauces, in the same way we’re accustomed to using tomatoes. This is a uniquely Mexican approach, made possible by the wide variety of chiles—in all heat levels—available in the Mexican marketplace.
Each chile has a unique flavor, and it’s the flavor of chiles that makes mole poblano unique. Ancho (pronounced AHN-choh), the common dried chile in the Mexican kitchen, gives the sauce earthy and fruity flavors (you’ll taste hints of cherry, prune, and fig) and mild to medium heat.
The tangy woodsiness of the true pasilla gives depth to the sauce. Not at all sweet and quite astringent, pasilla (pah-SEE-yah) has a deep, complex flavor that goes on and on. It’s sometimes labeled chile negro or chile pasilla mexicano.
Mulato chile distinguishes mole poblano from most other moles. Though many moles include some mulato, only in mole poblano does it play a major role. Mulato (moo-LAH-toh) offers a slightly anisey tartness, the taste of darker fruits like prunes and cooked cranberries, and the earthiness of coffee or bitter chocolate.
When shopping for dried chiles, be aware that mulatos and anchos look almost identical and are occasionally confused by those who label them. Tearing open a chile and holding it up to the light will help you tell the difference—the ancho is reddish and somewhat translucent, while the mulato is almost opaque black-brown. Or to be sure you’re getting the right one, buy them from a reliable mailorder source.
The optional chipotle chile brings smokiness and a little extra heat to the mix. Chipotle (chih- POHT-lay) is simply a smoke-dried jalapeño. It has a great sweet, smoky flavor. For this recipe, use canned chipotles en adobo—the tomatoey, vinegary sauce in which chipotles are commonly preserved.
Lard lends an authentic roasty flavor
Since most of mole’s essential ingredients are first browned, the browning medium—lard—plays an important role in the final flavor. This doesn’t mean mole must be heavy or greasy. Good cooks work carefully, completely draining each ingredient, so that there’s little fat in the finished mole. Mexican butchers render lard over a fairly high fire so it has a roasted flavor not found in the milder American versions. Just a little of that Mexican lard adds tremendous roasted pork flavor. For authenticity, look for good-flavored lard at an ethnic butcher.
If lard is not for you, use vegetable oil—an adequate substitute when you consider that there are so many other flavors at work. Whichever fat you use, just be sure to skim any that remains from the surface of the sauce. The flavor will stay in the sauce even after the fat is gone.
A blender is the best tool for pureeing mole
Historically, mole ingredients were ground on a sloping, basalt grinding stone called a metate (pronounced meh-TAH-tay). The effect is the same as stone-grinding through a mill, and indeed nothing can compare with the texture and flavor of a mole made with a metate. But easy-to-use blenders, not back-breaking metates, are the grinding tools of choice in today’s Mexican kitchen, even though they’re actually finely chopping—rather than crushing— the ingredients.
Food processors can also be used to make mole. You’ll trade convenience for a less smooth, less flavorful sauce, however, since processor blades neither move as fast as nor grind as well as those of a blender. It will be clear when you’re straining the purées: the nut-and-seed mixture puréed in a food processor will leave considerably more unwanted bits in the strainer than a purée from a blender.
These hints will help you get the smoothest texture for your mole:
• Don’t purée more than half a blenderful at a time.
• Don’t add more liquid than is necessary to keep the mixture moving through the blades; if it’s too thin, the entire mixture won’t be drawn through the blades.
•Stir the ingredients, blend on low until everything is uniformly chopped, and then blend on high until the purée is smooth when rubbed between your fingers.
• Always strain the mixture.
• If the sauce looks coarse or gritty after simmering, reblend it until smooth.