by David Cecelski
When my sister and my brother-in-law arrived yesterday, I had the chicken broth ready for them. Following my brother-in-law’s instructions, I had boiled a chicken with onions, garlic, carrots, and cilantro. As soon as he took off his coat, he removed the chicken from the pot, put it in the oven to keep warm, and strained the broth. Then he began to stir the broth into mole paste that he had brought from San Miguel de Allende, a colonial city in the lovely hills ofGuanajuato, Mexico, where he was born and raised.
The paste was a rich, dark, fabulously complex mix of dried chiles, ground nuts, chocolate, and as many as 20 other ingredients. It’s the foundation for mole poblano, one of Guanajuato’s most revered dishes. His sister’s in-laws had made the paste by hand.
While the rest of the family arrived, my brother-in-law gently stirred spoonfuls of the chicken broth into the mole paste. He simmered the sauce on low heat while he stirred. Before long, the mole was as thick as cake batter and had the color of dark chocolate.
As he prepared the mole, my sister made Mexican-style rice, frying it in oil and then boiling it in chicken broth. She also marinated sliced onions in lime juice, salt, and water. While they cooked, she and my brother-in-law told me how the markets in San Miguel are filled with little shops and stalls that sell handmade moles. The venders offer their customers pinches of the various mole pastes, so that they can taste and compare them. Every recipe for mole poblano is a little different, they told me. And there are other kinds of mole, too—mole rojo, mole negro, mole coloradito, mole cacahuate, and others. My brother-in-law especially likes his sister’s mole verde (green sauce), “a whole other thing,” my sister said, made with a base of toasted pumpkin seeds.
My brother-in-law told me that mole poblano is a special meal in San Miguel. Because of its complexity and the difficulty of gathering all the ingredients, the cooks in his family mainly prepare the dish for holidays, feast days and other special occasions. In San Miguel, he said, people often put mole poblano on the little altars that they build for their loved ones on Day of the Dead. Here, in his adopted home, he fixes the dish for us once of year, usually around Christmas or New Years.
When everything was ready, he and my sister ladled the mole over the chicken and rice. They sprinkled the plates with toasted sesame seeds and then garnished them with the marinated onion slices. The dish was beautiful. We called the family together, all 15 or 16 of us. My brother-in-law’s face beamed with pride as he served the mole with fresh tortillas, still warm, and we celebrated his gift to us, an unforgettable taste of his native land.
I’m sure other Mexican stores here carry fresh mole paste, but the only place that I have seen it is at Panaderia la Favorita de Oaxaca on Chapel Hill Road in Durham. That little bakery carries mole negro (literally “black sauce”) paste and mole rojo (red sauce) paste. They’re not homemade, but they’re made by a company in Oaxaca. My family likes them quite a lot, and they’re as close to homemade as we’ll ever get when my brother-in-law isn’t cooking.
Photo by David Cecelski