You never know how or from what place cooking inspiration will come. Today’s dish arose from an unexpected find: a 10 pound box of loosely packed dried guajillo chiles in our food bank’s warehouse. Whatever entity had donated the box didn’t realize that it would be considered a reject. Dried chiles offer little in the way of real food to people who don’t have a viable kitchen or the means to prepare them. Unless anyone at Second Harvest wanted them, ten pounds of dried guajillos were destined for the dumpster.
Of course, we (meaning the staff and volunteers of Second Harvest’s Culinary Arts Center) wanted them. You can’t imagine how many peppers filled the box. Thousands, I’d say! We portioned them into ziplock bags and now have a seemingly inexhaustible supply.
It set me to thinking about molés, those rich complex sauces from Oaxaca, Mexico that have layers of flavor from chiles, fruits, nuts, spices and chocolate.
With our potluck on the horizon, and a turkey breast in my freezer, I deemed it time to make Pavo con Molé—turkey mole. CAC Director Mark gave me a ziplock of chiles and wished me success.
All these many many years of cooking, and I had never made a molé. I’m not sure why. Likely I thought that it was too complicated. Likely I’ve never had a big bag of dried guajillos.
In either event, it’s a project long overdue.
I didn’t have a recipe. Research on the ‘net and some of my cookbooks turned up scads of molé recipes. I cobbled together my own version, which was gleaned from the stellar likes of Diana Kennedy, Susana Palazuelos, and Rick Bayless, tempered by what I had in my pantry.
The common threads:
–Pan-toasting the sesame seeds and spices, to bloom their flavors, before grinding. The same is true for the almonds.
–Steeping the guajillos in boiling water. I add the bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and dried currants to the batch. The resulting liquid is infused with intense tastes.
–Stirring in the unsweetened chocolate at the end of the cooking process–the final bass note of flavor to the molé.
Don’t be daunted by the lengthy ingredient list. Believe me, there are molé recipes out there with lists twice as long. This mole possesses wonderful fruity heat and complexity. Its texture is lush.
The method has a few steps, but it is not difficult to make. At all. In fact, it was a pleasurable process to undertake.
In the time it takes for the turkey breast to braise in a Dutch oven, the sauce comes together, filling the kitchen with heady aromatics.
An immersion blender is a life-saver, making the puree a breeze. If you want the mole ultra-smooth, you may run it through a sieve, post-pureeing. I didn’t. I liked the minute bits of guajillo skin, which give the thick, mostly smooth sauce more character.
This makes a lot of molé—plenty to cloak the turkey, with a few cups to spare. That extra will keep up to a week in the fridge, or three months in the freezer.
At potluck, we all were over the moon about this dish, which I served with corn tortillas. Sparks of clove and cinnamon, toasted nuts, fruit and heat, bitter depth of chocolate: The tastes revealed themselves from the front to the back of the tongue, slowly, leaving a mild, contained fire in the mouth. So satisfying to eat!
We were also psychically connected in our potluck preparations. We never assign dishes, or share ahead of time what we are going to bring. And yet, asparagus salsa, Mexican rice and lentils, and black bean-corn salad all turned up on the table–fabulous molé accompaniments.
MOLE SAUCE FOR TURKEY
12-15 dried guajillo chiles
3 bay leaves
2 sticks cinnamon
1/3 cup currants or raisins
1/3 cup sesame seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1/2 cup almonds
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
1 bulb (about 10 cloves) garlic, minced
1-28 ounce can plum tomatoes in sauce
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped or broken into pieces
Place a kettle of water on to boil.
Break off the stems of the dried chiles and shake out the seeds. Break the chiles into pieces and place into a large bowl. Add the bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and currants (or raisins.) Pour boiling water over the ingredients to cover. Allow the chiles to rehydrate for 30 minutes.
Place a large skillet over medium heat. Add the sesame seeds, peppercorns, coriander seeds, and cloves. Add a teaspoon or two of the guajillo chile seeds. Toast the mixture, shaking it occasionally, for a couple of minutes. Remove from heat and place into a separate bowl. Add the almonds to the skillet and toast them in similar fashion, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat.
Place cooled almonds, sesame seeds, peppercorns, coriander seeds and cloves into a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse an process nuts, spices and seeds into a fine grind.
In a large pot, heat the olive oil on medium. Add the onions and sauté until translucent, about 7 minutes. Add the minced garlic and continue the sauté.
Open the can of plum tomatoes and add the juice to the onion-garlic mixture. Season with salt.
Coarsely chop the tomatoes and add them as well.
Discard the bay leaves and cinnamon sticks from the steeped guajillos. Pour the chiles, currants and liquid into the pot. Add the ground nuts, spices, and seeds. Stir in the 4 cups of stock.
Finally, stir in the unsweetened chocolate.
Reduce the heat to simmer and cook the mixture for 30 minutes. Remove from heat. Using an immersion blender, puree the mixture until it is smooth and glossy. It will still have texture, and will be thick.
Makes 2 quarts molé
PREPARING THE PAVO (TURKEY)
1 turkey breast (6-8 pound)
juice from one lime
Rub the inside and exterior of the turkey breast with lime juice. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper.
Brown the breast on both sides in a Dutch oven set on medium heat. This will take several minutes—6-8 minutes per side. Add a cup of water (or stock.) Cover and reduce the heat to low.
Braise the bird for about an hour. When done, remove the breast and let it sit, undisturbed, for 15 minutes. Remove the skin and pull the breast meat, in lobes, from the carcass.
Place a base of mole, like a thick blanket, over the surface of a serving platter.
Slice the turkey breast and place the pieces on to the blanket of sauce.
Add more sauce over the top.
Garnish with sesame seeds and slices of fresh lime, if you like.
Serves 10-12 generously