A few years ago I spent a couple of weeks in Oaxaca, the Mexican city famous for its mole sauces. Of course, I ate more than my share of them!–and of the seven different traditional Oaxacan moles, mole negro became my favorite. Since then, I’m occasionally tempted to order chicken mole in restaurants, but I never really believe I’m as well fed as I was there.
Enter chef and cooking instructor Suzanne Hunter! (–that’s her in the white chef’s jacket). Last week I attended her Mexican cooking class (offered through Bon Vivant School of Cooking), and unbelievably, chicken with mole negro was just one of five different traditional Mexican dishes that we made. Why “unbelievably?”–traditional mole negro is very complex, and she doesn’t stray far from that path: her version has 27 different ingredients (five different kinds of dried chile!), and just about as many steps. As if that wasn’t enough!–We also made tamales, shrimp with tomatillo sauce, and two flans. But let’s talk about the showpieces!–the mole and tamales.
Authentic Mexican food wraps you up in its fragrances and flavors like a warm serape. I grew up in South Texas eating standard Tex-Mex fare, and I still love it and cook it all the time. But “cooking Mex” with traditional techniques and ingredients takes you to an entirely different world. I can’t walk you through all the details here (it would be a chapter, not a post, and anyway the recipes are Suzanne’s, not mine!), but let’s take a quick tour just to give you a feel for the (laborious!) process.
To make the mole, first you have some prep to do. To start, make about 10 cups of homemade chicken broth. (If you go with a store-bought product here, why not just buy a mole mix and save yourself the rest of the day?) Next, you are going to split your chiles (that’s about 25 separate pieces to work with), take out the seeds, and toast the pods. Then, after soaking the toasted chiles, puree them and press them through a strainer (then repeat). Now toast the seeds and give them the same treatment. Next, you toast your spices and grind them up fine.
Moving on to your aromatics, sauté your onion and garlic. Do the same to the tomatoes, tomatillos, herbs, and raisins, and puree them too. Toast the nuts (four different kinds). Then puree the nuts with the seeds you toasted earlier, and add enough broth to make a paste. Do the same to a banana and some fried bread.
Next you begin to layer your separate pastes and purees into the pot with broth, cooking each before adding the next, until you have a thick, dark sauce. Finally, you add the chocolate and cook until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Done! We had it over poached chicken–delicious.
I’ve actually left out lots of detail! But I hope you’ve gotten a feel for the meticulous layering of flavors that goes into an authentic mole. If you want to make it, search on “authentic mole“–I found a couple of similar recipes. Or, find the best, most traditional restaurant you can and order it there!
Compared to the mole, the tamales were a slam-dunk! (And there are good recipes out there in blog-ville.) We used fresh masa and freshly rendered lard to make the dough. To assemble, you spread a small amount of the dough on a banana leaf or corn husk, add a bit of shredded pork and a dollop of mole, and fold them up! Then you steam them for say an hour and a half. You can make homemade tamales easily; invite a couple of friends over, maybe whip up a batch of margaritas, and get an assembly line going! Make sure to make enough to eat now, with more to freeze for next time.
So, finally getting back to the title for this post, I’m guessing that by now you have a pretty good idea why I say that cooking authentic Mexican cuisine is all about your larder. Let’s review. For whole chiles, we had Pasilla Negros, Guajillos, Chilhuacles, Mulattos, and Chipotles. We had Mexican cinnamon (true canela, not cassia bark), Mexican oregano, and Mexican unsweetened chocolate (Ibarra is one brand). The broth recipe called for adding the chicken’s feet. The flan recipe asked for Mexican brown sugar, called “piloncillo” for its cone shape, but also known as panela or panocha. The tamales called for fresh masa (although masa harina works), plus banana leaves or corn husks.
Wait!–Don’t click yet! Let’s talk. Lard is rendered pork fat. It has less cholesterol than butter (and a higher ratio of good cholesterol), and it has the same good fatty acid as olive oil. Suzanne completely convinced me that lard is a good ingredient, but don’t believe us!–Google it yourself. The tub of lard (I know, I know) that you buy at the grocery store is hydrogenated, so it is better to home-render some. (Suzanne home-rendered the lard that we used to make the tamales.) I haven’t tried to do it yet, but I will soon and write it up for you. Unless lard is a dietary taboo for you, I hope you’ll give it a try; it also does magic things for re-fried beans and (my baker friends tell me) for pastries and pie-crusts.
Suzanne gave us some leads on Mexican grocers in this area; it may take some research, but I bet you can find at least one in your area too. If not, a quick search will turn up a range of mail-order suppliers.
And if you are really lucky, you’ll find a great cooking instructor with the same total respect for ethnic culinary traditions that we’ve got in Suzanne!