In the years that I've been writing on this blog, I've made pork, pork, and legumes for my birthday parties. This year, I wanted to try something different, something a little out of my comfort zone. I'm not as impoverished this year as I was last, so I could afford to buy and serve flesh, and I decided on something that most meat eaters deem commonplace, even mundane: chicken. You see, I've been eating mostly vegetarian for the past few months, and I found that the first thing to disappear from my diet with me hardly even noticing was chicken. It's always been my least favorite meat: I prefer proteins that pack a wallop of flavor, like pork, lamb, and game such as rabbit and venison. I simply find chicken dull, and before my party I honestly can't remember the last time I cooked or ate it. So, of course, that meant that I was sort of craving chicken, after all this time. But since it takes a lot to make chicken exciting, I wanted to impart as much flavor as possible to the meat. Here are some of the ingredients I used in the dish; can you guess what I made?
Not sure yet? Maybe this will clue you in:
Chocolate...? In a savory dish...? Why, it must be mole! Yes, for my birthday I prepared chicken mole poblano, meaning that the recipe comes from Puebla, in Mexico. You see, most people are familiar with mole poblano because of its inclusion of sweet chocolate, which most people wouldn't ordinarily associate with a spicy, savory dish. But in actuality the chocolate forms only a very small proportion of the ingredients, which also include (from top) three types of dried chiles; a spice blend made of whole toasted spices (sesame seeds, chile seeds, cloves, anise seeds, peppercorns, cloves, thyme, oregano, bay leaves, and cinnamon) which are then ground; fried almonds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and raisins; and fried bread and corn tortillas. Only at the very end of the hours-long cooking process is a small amount of chocolate and sugar stirred into the nearly-completed sauce.
Another misconception about mole is that poblano--the best-known type--is the only type. In fact, there are many many types of moles--really just a base sauce that meat is then cooked in--prepared all over Mexico, depending on the region and which ingredients are available there. Some other types include negro (black, includes similar ingredients to the poblano but adding dried prunes and ripe plantain); rojo (red, heavier on the tomatillos and also including not a small amount of rendered pork lard); amarillo (yellow, with ground cumin and corn flour); colorado ("colored," with fresh herbs); and verde (green, with fresh green chiles, cilantro, and green pumpkin seeds), among many other varieties. So...now you know. Tell your friends about mole.
I did, however, want to stick with the classic and widely recognized poblano version of this dish. Always served over chicken or turkey, this sauce is incredibly complex-tasting, thanks to its many ingredients. It's not an easy thing to make--it's very time consuming and demands a measure of organization and thoughtful planning--but neither is it as complicated as it might first appear when you read through the recipe. Very basically, you first create a spicy chile sauce made from the fried, then rehydrated and puréed dried chiles, and then you make a sweet sauce from the nuts, dried fruit, and floral spices. Only at the very end do you combine these two sauces and then reduce the result into a silky mixture that is both hot and sweet at the same time.
I talk a lot of game on this site about how I don't follow recipes, preferring instead to follow my muse wherever she might lead me and charting my own way as I go. It's a talent I'm proud of, because it's pretty much my only creative outlet: I don't play music, make art or write anything that's nonfiction. As important as that skill is to me, though, it's also immensely satisfying, once in a while, to cook from a recipe, particularly one that's foreign to me and that I probably wouldn't be able to riff on my own. The mole was a perfect example of such a dish. In the initial stages of the cooking process, I was kind of groping along blindly; I had an idea of where I needed to go, but I wasn't altogether sure how to get there. As I progressed, though, I began to see how everything would come together in the end. A recipe like this is really like a puzzle: you can taste the separate components (basically, the two "mother" sauces) as you go along, but even so, it will be incredibly difficult to imagine how they'll taste when they're finally wedded together. But when they are, they fit perfectly. A recipe that keeps even an experienced cook guessing until the very end? That's certainly my idea of birthday fun.
Chicken Mole Poblano
Adapted from Rick Bayless via Saveur
Serves 15 - 20
A few notes about this recipe. You'll need to visit a Mexican grocery store to get a number of the ingredients (the dried chiles, the Mexican chocolate, and possibly the tortillas). You'll need access to a few appliances: a spice/coffee grinder and, if you want to cut your labor load (as I did), a food processor. I condensed a few of the steps in Bayless's recipe to make things go a little faster. The amount of oil called for seems like a lot, but you'll need it all, because many of the ingredients get fried. You can pour off whatever seems like excess later on.
- 12 dried ancho chiles
- 12 dried guajillo chiles
- 6 dried pasilla chiles
- 6 tbsp. sesame seeds
- 1 tsp. whole aniseed
- 1 tsp. black peppercorns
- 1⁄2 tsp. whole cloves
- 1 tsp. dried thyme
- 1⁄2 tsp. dried marjoram or oregano
- 3 dried bay leaves, crumbled
- 1 1⁄2" stick cinnamon, broken into pieces
- 2 cups canola oil
- 7 1⁄4 cups chicken or turkey stock
- 1⁄2 cup skin-on almonds
- 1⁄2 cup raw shelled peanuts
- 1⁄3 cup hulled pumpkin seeds
- 1⁄3 cup raisins
- 2 slices white bread
- 2 stale corn tortillas
- 10 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
- 2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
- 5 tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and halved
- 2 large tomato, quartered
- 12 whole chicken legs, skin removed and separated into thighs and drumsticks
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 1 cup ﬁnely chopped Mexican chocolate
- 4 tbsp. sugar, plus more to taste
- Tortillas, plain white rice and cilantro sprigs, for serving
1. Stem chiles and shake seeds into a bowl. Set chiles aside. Measure 4 tbsp. chile seeds (discard the rest) and 4 tbsp. sesame seeds into a small skillet set over medium heat. Toast seeds, swirling pan, for 2 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder. Toast aniseed, peppercorns, and cloves; transfer to grinder along with thyme, marjoram, bay leaves, and cinnamon. Grind into a powder and transfer to a large bowl; set spice mixture aside.
2. Heat oil in an 8-quart Dutch oven set over medium heat. Working in small batches, add chiles and cook, turning, until toasted, about 20 seconds. Using a slotted spoon and reserving oil in skillet, transfer chiles to paper towels to drain. Transfer fried chiles to a large bowl; add boiling water to cover (about 4 cups). Let chiles steep for 30 minutes. Strain chiles, reserving soaking liquid.
3. Place the chiles, 3⁄4 cup soaking liquid, and 3⁄4 cup stock into the bowl of a food processor; blend until smooth. Set a sieve over a bowl and strain chile mixture, pushing it through sieve with a rubber spatula; discard solids. Rinse food processor; set chile purée aside.
4. Return pan with oil to medium heat. In quick succession, fry the almonds, then peanuts, then pumpkin seeds, then raisins until toasted, about 1 minute from the time you add the almonds. Transfer all ingredients to paper towels to drain. Return pan to medium heat and fry the bread, turning once, until golden brown, about 3 minutes; transfer to paper towels. Repeat with tortillas. Break bread and tortillas into small pieces and transfer to bowl, along with the almonds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, raisins, and ground spice mixture; set aside.
5. Set a fine strainer over a large bowl. Strain oil and return it to Dutch oven. Remove 2 tbsp. of the oil and heat it in an 8” skillet set to medium-high. Place onions, garlic, tomatillos and tomatoes into the bowl of the food processor; pulse until finely chopped. Rinse food processor. Add mixture to skillet and cook, stirring, until mixture has softened and the liquid has evaporated, about 12 minutes. Transfer to bowl with spice mixture along with 2 1⁄2 cups stock. Blend onion/nut/spice mixture in food processor until smooth. Press through the strainer into a bowl; set purée aside.
6. Heat reserved Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Season chicken pieces with salt. Working in batches, brown each piece, turning once. Transfer chicken to a plate. Pour off all but 3 tbsp. of oil in Dutch oven and return to medium-high heat. Add chile purée; cook, stirring, until thick, 10–12 minutes. Add spice purée, reduce heat, and cook, stirring, for 30 minutes. Stir in 4 cups stock and chocolate; simmer, partially covered and stirring often, for 1 hour. Season mole sauce with salt and sugar to taste; remove from heat.
7. Heat oven to 350°. Nestle chicken in mole sauce, dividing among oven-safe dishes if necessary. Bake, covered, for 2 hours. Remove from oven and sprinkle with remaining sesame seeds; serve with tortillas, white rice, and cilantro sprigs.