Thursday, October 9, 2008

What's in the Fridge? Holy Mole!

Do you like Mexican food? If so, Los Angeles is a great place to try your hand at cooking Mexican food yourself. Here at the Grand Central Market you can find all the ingredients you need.

I've already shown you the produce. But what about the special ingredients, the flavors and spices that make Mexican food unique?

I was at the Grand Central Market, walking down the south steps from the Hill Street side, when I noticed the display cases in front of AB Coffee/Central Bulk Foods. Behind the glass were pans of what looked like mud.

Mole (pronounced "moe-lay") may look like mud, but it's a concentrated paste of ground spices, chiles, vegetables, and other ingredients. Mole from Puebla - mole poblano - is common and often includes chocolate among its many ingredients. The state of Oaxaca is known for the "seven moles of Oaxaca." Oaxacan moles can come in a variety of colors, including coloradito (red), verde (green), amarillo (yellow), and negro (black.)

Moles are complex and time consuming to make. Dried ingredients like chiles, nuts, and herbs must be toasted, and ground. Fresh ingredients like tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and garlic must be fire or oven roasted, peeled, and chopped. Starches like masa harina, bread crumbs, or stale tortillas are added to thicken the sauce. Everything is blended together - thank goodness for food processors! - and it must be strained to be sure it's creamy and smooth. Then it's cooked down slowly until concentrated.

Many Mexican cooks use prepared mole pastes as a short cut. Teloloapan is a city in northern Guerrero state, southwest of Mexico City, that's known for its prepared mole pastes.

I asked the woman at AB Coffees which mole she recommended, and she sold me a small container of mole poblano. It cost three dollars. You could smell the touch of chocolate in the dark oily paste. She said the paste would last for six months kept in the refrigerator. I asked her how to prepare it, and she said mix it with chicken broth, and then simmer the meat in the sauce.

If you want to try your hand at making mole from scratch, you can find a lot of the necessary ingredients at Valeria's spice stall, just across from Sarita's Pupusas. Dried chiles are the basis for most moles, and you can see the variety they have.

Just standing next to the open bins makes your nose tingle with the alkaline bite of capsicum! The scents are marvelous, ranging from the smokiness of chipotles to the deeper raisin-like sweetness of anchos, and the fruity tang of guajillos.

Peanuts, almonds, toasted pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds are common ingredients for mole. Also dried fruit, like raisins. You'll find them here at Valeria's, along with the Mexican chocolate needed for mole poblano.

Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless are two well-known experts on Mexican food, Mexican cooking, and especially moles. Both of them have great cookbooks that include mole recipes.

But I was set with my little container from AB Coffee!

At room temperature, it's a thick oily paste, but just out of the fridge it's more solid, like frozen ice cream, or solidified chocolate. I let it sit to soften up while I put on some rice and opened a can of black beans to heat up.

I had some boneless chicken breasts, which I divided into four relatively equal chunks. I poached them for about 10 minutes in a cup of chicken broth in a wide pan, and then I added about a quarter cup of mole, and watched it slowly dissolve and blend into the broth. The proportion of 4:1 seemed about right - when I touched my tongue to a little dab of straight, undiluted mole, it was very intense!

I covered the pan and let the chicken simmer with the mole for another 10 minutes or so, and then I took the lid off and let the sauce thicken down a bit. By the time my rice was done, it looked like it was ready.

Here's my chicken breast in Teloloapan mole, served with steamed rice and black beans. Pardon the less-than-perfect plating - I have to confess - I was so hungry I started eating it before I remembered to take a photo!

Adventurous eating can be surprisingly easy when you have a container of mole paste in the fridge.


JCK said...

You are QUITE the cook, my friend.

Anonymous said...

This is unrelated to the post (which made me hungry!), a reply to your comments on my LJ.

The gorgeous house is The Rose Cottage in Greenfield Village. Henry Ford "imported" it from the Cotswolds in England to include an example of "ancestral" architecture in the Village. It's my favorite house there. A volunteer told me it's haunted, even.

The artifact is a Roman bottle. It's actually quite small, the size of a perfume flask.

Ilina said...

Thanks for visiting Dirt & Noise! I am so insanely jealous of your market excursion. The only mole we get in NC is the crappy jarred stuff. With our Hispanic population I am sure there's a good market here somewhere.

Queenly Things said...

Mole - I could eat it on just about anything; enchiladas, tamales, turkey, scrambled eggs - I love mole. You are lucky to be so near a market that sells freshly made mole of so many kinds. Here we are only able to get poblano. My favorite is mole negro. And yes, in Oaxaca, the mole is in-credible!!!!

Unknown said...

This looks really good! Thanks for teaching me something!

SUEB0B said...

Oh oh oh - the sight of those moles brought tears to my eyes, thinking of Oaxaca. My favorite mole name is "manchamanteles" - the tablecloth-stainer.