Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Mole a few parts

LESSONS IN MOLE PRODUCTION PART ONE.....fond memories con mi familia segunda en Mitla, Oaxaca - Fall 2007

I was all pumped up to do this one knowing that the women who were going to walk Lupe and I through the steps of making mole had consistently in the past produced a concoction that was rich, tasty and complex in flavour layers. The food snobs out there would say flavour profiles but to me mole is all about layers.

Our hostesses, relatives of Lupes, her Tias (aunties), had the best comal setup I have seen yet. It was in a separate prep area and for good reasons which I will point out soon enough. First I must describe this all-important piece of kitchen gear.

The comal is a concave shaped clay apparatus that comes in many sizes. Some can be several feet across but this one was about two feet in diameter. Our comal in our compound is housed in a wee building off of the courtyard and we use charcoal underneath it to heat it. That is the traditional way but now there is an easier system using a gas setup that the comal sits on top of. This makes heat regulation easier for in the construction of mole heat control over the surface of the comal is very important. If any of you have ever roasted and toasted spices and herbs in your cast iron pots at home for curries then you know what I speak of.

This comal instead of being the usual white colour was a deep earth-tone with black areas on it, no doubt the latter effect being produced from years of roasting chiles. The lack of light in the kitchen (why are so many country kitchens poorly lit?) and the darkness of the comal surface made for some challenging photography situations but I was able to document all of the steps during the first stage.


We used three kinds of dried peppers. Before we start the tostado process they must first have the seeds removed.

¼ kilo Chile Mexicano
1 kilo Chile Ancho (these are the spiciest ones)
1/8 kilo Chile Chiluacle

As we prepared the chiles the comal was set to heat up on the lowest flame setting. You do not want a super-hot surface for that will spoil the process by producing peppers that taste more of charcoal and not enough of toastiness.

Using two long sticks the duena of the house deftly tossed the peppers over the surface not allowing the peppers to linger for too long in one spot. It was within ten minutes of doing this that I noticed a funny burning sensation forming in the back of my throat. I started to cough like I have never coughed before. Pretty soon Lupe joined me racked with coughing fits. Everybody started to laugh at us because we were now brujas (witches). Local kitchen folklore has it that if you cough while roasting chiles you are a witch. Now do you understand why the comal had a separate space from the main kitchen area? These fumes were so powerful I could feel their effects from thirty feet away out in the courtyard. How the duena did not cough at all is beyond me. I told her she must be the real witch and that got everyone in stitches to be sure.

While she was working on the peppers the rest of us peasants had the joyous task of working with the garlic. We use what is referred to here as CRIOLLO AJO or country garlic, sort of like the stuff you would have in your home garden and nothing related at all to the perfectly white elephant garlic that comes out of Stockton, California. That shit glows in the dark man. This garlic however is the real thing. The only bitch is the dealing with the cloves later for they are difficult to peel being so darned small.

We used 17 of these small heads. We separated and removed the cloves, keeping the skins on. The duena would inspect our bowl and ask us for a head count. She seemed satisfied with our efforts. Supposedly garlic amounts used is one of the many secrets of a good mole.

Now you are probably wondering how we knew when the peppers were done? It is in the brittleness of the skin. They are not blackened or burned but are rendered brittle. This takes practice so do not despair okay? We were pursuing the perfect mole and when it comes time for Lupe and I to try and do justice to her granny's recipe I will be really surprised if we totally nail it down being that our comal is tricky for heat control.


Like the el vs. la discourse in Spanish, ajo vs. tostado is another one of those concepts that you have to permanently engrave onto your cooking head because yes, it does make a difference. The difference here is purely textural. For example the chiles were done TOSTADO whereas the garlic we were about to work with would be done ASADO.

After the comal was brushed and prepped for the garlic we poured the cloves onto the surface to start the asado process. Now this was an aroma I could very comfortably deal with. No choking fumes here. Once again you have to really watch and play with what is being treated on the comal. The constant swishing of the little whisk combined with deft stick movement was a dance in itself.

The garlic is easier to tell done-ness. Just think of when you roast garlic heads in the oven at home. Same thing. After cooling off the skins will be removed from the cloves. Nothing is simple with a good mole. I know for having tasted the commercial moles and then tasting the carefully crafted ones here I would never go back to a store-bought one. A few hours of torture is worth it as far as I am concerned.

ONE BIG WHITE ONION..sliced however you like but long slices are best for a comal treatment.

I can hear the garlic (ajo) popping on the comal as Lupe slices the onion. It is about four to five inches in diameter and has a lovely translucency about it. But before the onion is allowed dominion over the comal there are other treatments to do first.

½ kilo of AJONJOLI (sesame seeds)..these seeds are used in many Oaxacan dishes. I love toasting sesame seeds. Yes these will be done a la tostada. To be noted here if the flame is too hot on the comal the seeds will jump and THAT IS NOT GOOD. A delicate balance needs to be maintained. Garlic obviously can take a bit more heat than these little seeds.

Same principal here, constant whisking. Your nose has to be clear (maybe this is why we do the chiles first, to clear out our sinuses) so you can smell the exact time to remove the sesames.

Next stop, Almond City. We will be toasting a ¼ kilo of almendres (almonds). A slightly higher heat here than the sesames. Practice over time and you will develop a nose for all of this stuff. I felt like I was on very familiar territory here having worked with curries and toasting sesames and almonds for dessert uses.

After the almonds then came the CACAHUATES (peanuts), all ¼ of a kilo of them. Repeat the same process as with the almonds. A bit of smoking is permissible.

We had a big ceramic bowl sitting on the table to put this stuff into. Now the chiles stayed separate but everything else that had been treated thus far on the comal went into the deep casserole dish.

Now comes the herb and spice treatments. These do not take as long as the other ingredients but they must be handled quickly.

Thyme (Tomillo) about ten grams
Oregano about an ounce

You work with these herbs separately and as you do the stalks and other detritus must be removed. The little whisk is a handy tool for this and of course seasoned hands from years of working on a comal are quite useful too.

The spices...Canela bark (cinnamon) one piece broken up into small bits, 20 Pimiento (allspice) balls and 20 cloves. Oh yes she was very serious about counting this stuff all out.

The smell generated here was wonderful, dominated of course by the cloves, but rich, evoking some very pleasant memories.

This last bit is done ASADO and that is the 25 grams of Prunes (zuruela or pasas) and ¼ kilo of black raisins.

Making mole should never be a solo event. I could not see that happening just because the sheer amount of work and tediousness of some production aspects would make for a lonely day. Methinks the chef would be reaching for the grog halfway through peeling all that damned garlic. Like the baking of Christmas treats, thanksgiving dinner, making knishes or perogies or dim sum, this kind of cooking requires a few bodies if anything to trade artful barbs whilst peeling, you guessed it, all that damned garlic!

My favourite part of the journey was hearing comparisons to other moles and I just had to inject a bit of controversy. I told them that just about every cookbook out there and television show regarding moles stated that this concoction originated in the state of Puebla. This statement of course brought howls of derision. No no no, mole is a ZAPOTEC invention and those pinche Pueblanos are thieves!!! I was not about to argue and yes, I will look into this further and see what all the foodie anthropologists have to say. Zapotec cuisine is unique and knowing what I do about the sheer variety of chiles just in this one valley leads me to believe that these women are not whistling Dixie outta their arseholes!

Haha! Now we can ASADO the CEBOLLA (onion slices). I have grown to enjoy working with onions even though I do not like to eat them. I have found several ways to treat them and incorporate them into my dishes without causing myself too much grief. Everyone has their food peccadillos and onions are one of mine. Funny how I love to work with garlic and leeks though.

The onions are not removed until they start to get a golden colour.

The conversation switches constantly from Spanish to Zapotec and every once in awhile I can interject too with English and Spanish. How four of us fit into that tiny workspace and did not go crazy is an amazing testament to the love of the mole production. We all lamented the passing of some traditions and the need, for this is where I come in, to ensure an interest so that these traditions do not die off. I believe that there is a resurgence of interest in rustic food production and I love to share this theory with my friends down here. Perhaps this is why I get many opportunities to invade kitchens with my gear and share comparative experiences.

Roasting veggies and spices is a wonderful way to draw out flavour and the added bonus here is that there is no fat involved. Pre-Spanish conquest cuisine for the most part had no fat in it. It was with the introduction of European ingredients and methodologies that Indigenous foods almost disappeared in many regions. Not so in Mexico. Not from what I have seen.

The onions are now being placed into the pot with the prunes, raisins, sesames, almonds, spices and herbs. What a crazy, beautiful aroma!! The last ingredient to go onto the comal are six large leaves of YERBA SANTA. These are slowly toasted. At first the aroma is delicate, intoxicating but as the moisture disappears and the leaves become more brittle the smell of course changes. This is when it is time to turn off the comal for the night.

Yerba Santa is one of those crazy things that along with Epazote and the delicate parts of young squash plants I love to work with. My favourite soup to make for example incorporates only the herbs and leaves and no meat whatsoever. It is a traditional Zapotec dish and one that can only be made for about maybe a month, mid growing season…like June or July.

The dessicated leaves which have been turned over many times are now ready to go into the pot.

All of this has taken three hours. Next step which will be this afternoon, will be the tomato and tomatillo reduction and the actual mixing and blending for the mole.

I know this is gonna kick ass!

Part Two coming up.....


Heidi Walker said...

I like goat meat... I see you're having a blast. Are those sugar skulls?

It would be neat to make some skulls out of sugar.

DriveGoddess said...

thanks Heidi.....this story was written almost three years ago and it still resonates to this day....yeah, those be sugar skulls.