A friend of mine was invited to a Cinco de Mayo potluck, and needed an authentic recipe to show her appreciation of the lively Mexican cuisine. The meaning of this May 5 celebration is misunderstood, many believing it to be the country's Independence Day when it cut the colonial apron strings from Spain. Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates the nation's victory against Emperor Napoleon III's French army in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, emblematic of the sheer grit and pride of the Mexican forces against a formidable enemy.
But back to the potluck fiesta.
Of course, the guacamole and assorted salsas, along with quesadillas, chile rellenos, enchiladas, Mexican rice and beans had already been chosen, so I suggested my friend prepare chicken smothered in a zesty mole sauce with rich notes of dark chocolate and chiles. Coincidentally, the dish has ties to the mountainous town of Puebla, where culinary folklore lays a claim to its creation 300 years before the May 5 battle there.
During the 16th century, nuns at the Santa Rosa convent were expecting the arrival of the venerable archbishop for dinner. In a dither as to what to serve his eminency, the creative nuns started concocting a sauce using assorted ingredients from their pantry. With mortar and pestle they ground a variety of nuts, spices and chiles, roasted them, then simmered these in a soup pot with stock, and a precious piece of dark chocolate they had been hoarding for a special occasion like this one.
While the mole or "mixture" was stewing the nuns captured and roasted the resident tom turkey, and poured the decadent chocolate sauce over the bird. The archbishop was impressed by this unusual feast, a mouth-watering indulgence that has since become a celebratory dish called mole poblano, the cornerstone of Mexican cuisine.
Apparently, there are as many mole versions as there are Mexican cooks — all labor intensive with long ingredient lists. While not all moles incorporate chocolate, all are enlivened with chiles. The land of Oaxaca showcases seven signature mole recipes with different flavor profiles. Here's the sassy line-up:
1. "Mole Negro" or black mole is the sweet, spicy and savory version that blends dried chiles, onions, garlic and cilantro with a heap of spices, including cinnamon, cumin, cloves, oregano and black pepper with pepitas and sesame seeds, bread crumbs as a thickening agent, and dried fruit to counter the bitterness of the dark chocolate.
2. "Rojo," a fiery rendition of the black one, amped up with dried red chiles, including ancho, pasilla and guajillo along with ground peanuts or almonds is also lighter on the chocolate content. Rojo is typically braised with chicken or pork, served with warm tortillas and a chewy Mexican cheese for a breakfast delight.
3. "Amarillo," an all-purpose chocolate-less mole is equally delicious paired with chicken, beef or roasted veggies, such as Mexican chayote squash and roots, and traditionally served with empanadas. The sauce has a kick from the mother lode of chiles (chihuacles amarillos, anchos and tomatillos), and hint of anise flavoring from fresh hoja santa leaves.
4. "Mole Verde" pops with bright green color and fresh flavors of tomatillos, jalapenos, pepitas and cilantro.
5. "Coloradito" is a hybrid containing the basic ingredients of traditional moles (chocolate, chiles, nuts, dried fruits, spices) along with mashed plantains to add a dose of sweetness and thickness.
6. "Chichilo" although it's another chocolate-less sauce, it derives its rich heartiness from beef stock, arbol and ancho chiles and white corn flour. This mole's ideal for braising.
7. "Manchamantel," the English translation for "tablecloth-stainer" is the bright red mole notorious for its soiling powers from the chipotle chiles, charred pineapple, tomatoes, fried plantains, and unctuous chunks of chorizo sausage.
Recipe: Mole A-Go-Go
• Ingredients: 6 chiles (ancho, pasilla, your choice), seeded; 1 sweet onion, quartered; 4 garlic cloves; 3 ounces (1 tablet) Mexican chocolate, chopped; 3 tablespoons raisins; 1/3 cup dried apricots; 2 tablespoons olive oil; 4 tablespoons almond butter; 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano; 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon; 1.5 to 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth; 1 tablespoon sesame seeds.
• Method: Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. On a sheet pan, drizzle chiles, onions, garlic with olive oil, and roast 20 minutes. Soak raisins and apricots in hot water until plumped. Drain. In blender, combine roasted vegetables, dried fruits, almond butter, chocolate, broth, spices. Blend well.
Pour into saucepan over medium heat, and bring to boil. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to decorative bowl, and garnish with sesame seeds. Drizzle over enchiladas, chicken or pork, or serve with warm tortillas for dipping.