Friday, July 29, 2016

Pollo con Mole

Pollo con mole. Tortillas. Refried beans topped with cheese. ©2016 Mason West.
Tonight I made pollo con mole, which was easy to make, and it turned out quite delicious. Mole (pronounced like moe-lay) has a unique, earthy flavor that arises from the many dried chili peppers ground into it along with that legendary trace of cocoa powder—but it is not, contrary to blasphemous rumors afloat in the United States, a chocolate sauce for chicken. The chilis are not spicy—there's just a faint piquant nibble—but their flavor, like a warm symphonic chord resounding in cellos and bass, creates a space in the dimension of the palate that, from the first time I tasted it in Oaxaca, left me craving to return again and again. The sauce is very dark brown. A pool of darkness on your plate signals a visual analog of the depth of the flavor. If fruit were a song sung by sopranos, cheese in the range of tenors, and meats in the octaves surrounding Middle C, mole would lurk ominously on the bass clef. There is nothing like it in any of the Mexican-inspired cuisines of the United States, neither in the traditional Tex-Mex nor in the neo-hip styles desperately forging authenticity in Austin and San Antonio; not in the fashion-conscious, fusion-confused eateries of California; nor in the green chili sauce slathered dishes of New Mexico and Arizona. The best mole doesn't wander far from its origins deep in central and southern Mexico, and the best mole takes all day to make. I hate to be a chauvinist here, but mole is a tradition out of the days of a strict division of labor: the woman of the house rises at dawn to start preparing mole that, come dinnertime, she will serve on chickens still crowing to greet the sun. She grinds chilis in her molcajete, renders lard, and simmers the sauce that ever go gradually evolves into the mole. She tastes, she tweaks the seasonings, and simmers some more. By mid-afternoon she tells one of her sons to bring in a couple of chickens, and she and her daughter pluck them and clean them.

Yet there is a shortcut that I used tonight, so I can tell you how to come up with... Well, not a perfect mole, but a reasonably good approximation for a half hour of preparation and an hour of baking. But let's start with the linguistics:

Spanish Word
Pronunciation
English Meaning
pollo
pó-yo
chicken
con
cōn
with
mole
mó-lā
A sauce made from soybean oil (in old traditional family recipes they used lard), pulverized chili peppers, peanuts, a bit of sugar, and, yes, just a trace of cocoa powder.
frijoles
free-hólies
Beans, usually pinto beans, unless they say something like frijoles negros, black beans, which are popular in Cuban and Caribbean dishes.
cebollas verdes
Say-bō-yas bare-days
Green onions
queso
kā'-so
cheese

Doña María Mole Sauce
It seems cheating to buy a little jar that bypasses that long, loving process at the hearth, but for me, that little jar of Doña María Mole Sauce makes tonight's meal possible. The stuff inside the jar is a concentrate that has to be emptied into a sauce pan and diluted with a four-to-one ratio of liquid—preferably a stock, but water, the label says, is acceptable. I haven't heated up a saucepan in a long while, so I had forgotten about the stock, but I would have preferred to use chicken stock.

The jar that the sauce comes in is designed to be reusable as a small glass. As someone who likes to accumulate household goods from scratch at each new address, glass containers that double as juice and whiskey glasses, offer a decisive feature when it comes to shopping. I move in with my old friend, the Gandhi cup, and a set of bamboo eating utensils—fork, spoon, knife, and chopsticks—but after a few months I've got a cabinet full of mismatched glasses, random bowls, and plates, and a drawer of a few forks and knives, including a decent kitchen knife. The kitchen may not look like much, but it is functional and affordable, and when it comes time to go, I can walk away from it.

Easy-opening lid.
The top of the Doña María jar says "Nueva tapa. Abre fácil," and perhaps I'm being naïve, but I figure this is a new top that really does open easily, but nowhere in the labeling do I find any further instructions on how to apply this easy opening to the new top. First I try the two tried-and-true methods of opening glass jars with metal tops: I try a bottle opener, but the lower tooth of the opener doesn't find enough rim on the lid to lift. Bottle openers are most often used with jars that will serve as small juice glasses after they're emptied of their original product.

Then it's time to try twisting off. I find that I can twist the lid—which works with many jelly jars—but there are no threads on the glass, which is how you want the rim of a drinking glass: smooth, uniform, and without threads.

Then I try pushing a butter knife up under the edge of the lid, and that's hard. So I find Doña María's Web site and call their customer support number, but they say they're closed today (a Thursday!), so I fill in the form on the Web site to explain my conundrum, though this won't help. Then I go back to work with the knife and the lid, and gradually a bump appears on the edge of the lid. Finally, after about ten minutes, the lid pops off. Fortunately I did this inside the 12-inch-square pan I'm going to use to cook the chicken, so the little bit of spillage is contained where it won't be wasted.
The jar, the knife, and the stubborn lid.

With the jar open, I scoop it's contents, which has a consistency somewhat like wet clay, into a saucepan. Then I add four cups of filtered water from my Brita pitcher, and turn on the burner to a low slow flame. I don't want this to boil, but I want the block of concentrated mole sauce to dissolve into the water to make a thick viscous sauce with its rich, characteristic mole flavor. After ten minutes or so the sauce has dissolved into the water. There are a few lumps left, but I decide that an hour in a hot oven while the chicken is baking will take care of those.

Then I open up the fresh package of boneless chicken thighs and lay them side-by-side (no layering) in the pan. I pour the mole sauce over the thighs. Then I slice an onion and lay the slices over the chicken, and pour more mole over the top. Finally I cover the pan with aluminum foil so that the moisture and steam will stay inside. I want the chicken to cook thoroughly until it is extremely tender and saturated with the flavors of the mole.

The clay-like concentrated mole
fresh out of the jar. ©2016 MW.
The chicken laid, unlayered, in
the roasting pan. ©2016 MW.

With sliced onion floating in the mole
sauce over the chicken thighs, I feel
condident that this will be a tasty
dish.  ©2016 MW.

Finally, I cover the roasting pan with foil to
keep the steam inside during the cooking, and
I nest the roasting pan in a larger pan to
catch any dripping and boiling over. This
proved to be a good idea because it's much
easier to clean the outer pan than it is to
clean my oven. ©2016 MW.

I stirred chopped green onions into the canned
refried beans, covered them with microwave-safe
Saran Wrap, and heated it in the microwave oven.
When I put it on the plates, I sprinkled shredded
Mexican cheese over the beans, and served with
ample tortillas to wrap around the chicken and beans
as mole tacos. The tortillas also served to scoop up
bits of beans, mole, and cheese off the plate. ©2016 MW.