“Seven are your burning fires, seven your desires…”

by Katie Pizzuto on February 12, 2010

in Uncategorized

Mole is one of those countless thousands of things that Americans have managed to oversimplify as it seeped its way into our mutt-like culture. I use the term “oversimplify” in the most generous way possible since what I truly mean is that we’ve assigned it whatever the hell definition we feel like, and have begun to accept that bastardization as mantra. Mole is not merely “that dark Mexican sauce with chocolate in it” any more than gumbo is “that Creole soup with cayenne in it,” but no one on Food Network will bother correcting the misnomer because if it can’t be done in 30 minutes or less it’s not worthwhile. Food pundits have wound themselves so tightly around Western Europe that half the information they spew out about Mexican or Latin American cuisine is dead wrong. Then, like a chain email gone horribly awry, their huge, Stepford-wife-like audiences take that disinformation and make it the de facto. Ah, America.

The most popular Mexican moles (some tell you it’s derived from an Aztec word meaning “sauce” and others will tell you it comes from the Spanish term moler meaning “to grind”) hail from either Oaxaca or Puebla. In fact, Oaxaca has inaccurately (what else is new) been dubbed the “Land of the Seven Moles.” Supposedly the seven moles that originated in Oaxaca are mole negro, mole colorado (or rojo), mole coloradito, mole amarillo, mole verde, chíchilo negro and manchamanteles. But others include mole nogada, mole Istmo and mole de Cacahuate. Mole Poblano, which is actually the most commonly seen here in the US, hails from Puebla, not Oaxaca.

As to its origin, there are of course several legends. The most widely accepted has a nun from the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla, creating it for a visiting archbishop sometime during the 1600s. Another version involves friar Pascual, who supposedly was angry with the nuns for being messy as they cooked for the archbishop. He gathered up all the spices, put them together on a tray, and then a sudden gust of wind swept across the kitchen and the spices all spilled into the cazuelas. Don’t laugh…it’s more plausible than a fat guy getting down a chimney to dole out gifts.

Here’s what I find interesting, though. The idea of using chocolate as a flavoring in cooked food would have been horrifying to the Aztecs. It was sacred, and would have been met with about as much approval as Christians trying to use communion wine to make coq au vin. Yet, today many consider pavo en mole poblano, which contains chocolate, to represent the pinnacle of the Mexican cooking tradition. The dish and its sauce, you see, originated in Puebla, which, unlike other cities in central Mexico, has no Aztec foundations!

The key aspect of any great mole’s complexity is the methodology—the searing, the cooking time, the quality of your ingredients, etc. And although chocolate is definitely an ingredient in some moles, if cooked properly, only a mysterious hint remains when the sauce is served over the entree. Mole negro usually uses six kinds of chile (the only ingredient all moles have in common), and may or may not contain almonds, raisins, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, tomato, garlic, onions, plantains, thyme, chocolate, canela (true cinnamon), chile seeds, chicken stock, and/or lard.

But what I love most about the artistry of mole is how it keeps your senses honed and demands your complete attention. If you want to put something on the stove or in the oven and be able to give your focus to something other than food, go make some short ribs and forget the mole, because it’s about submission…about blowing off everything else. It will ask you to do things like bring all the ingredients to the edge of being burned—without burning them. It’s a fine line that can’t be crossed, and to be honest, we don’t usually know where that line is until we’ve accidentally crossed it once or twice, which inevitably means that you will screw up your mole until you learn to listen, watch and smell the edge. Only then will you master it. Or maybe it’s a matter of it mastering you.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jim February 12, 2010

Reminds me of watching Rick Bayless on Top Chef Masters, when he said it took him like 10 years of trying every day to master mole. Might of been more or less (I had a beer or two in me) but you get the idea. He was reverential about it.

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2 Katie Pizzuto February 12, 2010

yeah, totally remember that episode…i’ve always wanted to check out his cookbook to see how his recipe compares to what I have! The dude is a master.

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3 Jim February 12, 2010

Next time I’m in Chicago I’m hitting Frontera for sure. His stuff looks amazing, now I want to TASTE it!

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4 Linsey February 12, 2010

There is a guy in the uk who is passionate about cacao as a savoury and sweet cooking item – he has his own cocao farm in venezuela

his site is worth a look

http://www.williescacao.com/

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5 Coupe 60 February 12, 2010

You know, when I think of moles, I think Marilyn Monroe….

…I’m also an idiot so use that information accordingly

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6 Don February 12, 2010

I gotta say I’m not a fan of Mole. Perhaps that is because I’ve never had a good one.

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7 The Wine Commonsewer February 13, 2010

Puebla is where the Mexicans kicked the Frogs butts on Cinco de Mayo.

But, with respect to Mole, meh.

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8 Kimberly February 13, 2010

Ah, Mole. I would never attempt making it myself, but damn I’ve had some good Mole in Mexico City! Two experiences come to mind: one was in some out-of-the way restaurant around UNAM, where I was taking Spanish classes, and which I don’t remember all the details of, except that it was a damn near transcendant mole experience. The second was when visiting my then-husbands parents in Mexico, and having my mother-in-law make mole for me on my birthday. A better birthday meal was never, ever had. I simply could not believe my husband got to grow up eating this amazing food at home!
(His sisters told him not to marry me, because, they said, I wouldn’t cook for him the way a Mexican wife would, and he wouldn’t get to eat the food he grew up with. They were right! Turns out, HE was the cook in our house, and a damn fine one at that. Aaah, mole and memories. . . .)

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9 Katie Pizzuto February 15, 2010

@Don & Mike….like I said, there are tons of moles out there, not just the Mole Negro so don’t give up, not to mention that you very well may NOT have had a good one yet, either. Oh, and I’ll bet you like guacamole, right?!

@Kimberly….thanks for sharing the memories. I think perhaps all Americans should take a road trip to Mexico to experience the cuisine authentically!

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10 Rob February 16, 2010

Hey Babe
Have you ever had Millbrook’s wine from the Hudson Valley NY region? Just got back from a wine tasting and found a couple of nice Cab’s that were really great!!!

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11 Katie Pizzuto February 16, 2010

I have had Millbrook’s stuff, and it’s actually one of the Hudson Valley’s wineries I enjoy most. Should have stopped at Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner…their bourbons, ryes, etc. are phenomenal!

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12 Don February 16, 2010

I love guacamole. Is that bad?

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13 Katie Pizzuto February 17, 2010

LOL, No Don, what I meant is that obviously you have found a mole that you do like…guacamole. There are tons of variations out there. Just gotta keep trying!

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14 Coupe 60 February 17, 2010

I believe Millbrook is William Selyem’s sister winery. Never been up there, but may have to try it

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15 Don February 24, 2010

Katie: I went out to dinner tonight and on your recommendation I tried the Mole again. I must say I liked it a lot better than the only other time I tried it. It was creamy and spicy with the consistency of melted chocolate and the flavors of cinnamon and spices. I don’t know all the spices they used, but it seemed as if they took them all the way up to almost burnt but then backed them down just slightly so you had all the wonderful roasted flavors without any bitterness. I quite liked it, but I think I would like one better that was more spicy and less sweet. This was good, but just a little sweet for my palate. But I’m glad you prompted me to even ask if they made it themselves (which they did) and to give it another chance. All moles are not created equally. This was good. Thanks for opening my eyes and my palate to new and unique flavors.

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16 Katie Pizzuto February 24, 2010

So proud of you Don!! My guess, if it was too sweet for your taste, is that they may have burnt the spices a bit, which makes for a bitter flavor, and thus tried to cover it up by overcompensating with sugar and chocolate. Like I said, the chocolate (which is unsweetened) should just become a background note. And no, all moles are most definitely not created equally. Keep trying different ones and perhaps one day you’ll get up the desire to make your own at home 😉

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17 1WineDude March 2, 2010

Did you just quote Iron Maiden in that title?

AWESOMENESS!!!

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