I am not an expert on making mole (pronounced MOE-lay), nor am I one on making garam marsala. Still, I’m going to speak of both today.
Why? Well, first because I wanted to talk about mole a bit anyway (I like it). But why garam marsala at the same time? That’s a bit of a story.
Way back when I was an undergraduate, a few of us did a bit of cooking and showing off. For example there was the time the Texan, Indian and Thai students got into an argument of who made the hottest dish.
I got roped into being a judge being one of the few who could eat that intensely – and knowing a bit about food even then. I added the rule that the dish had to have taste beyond just hot — no ‘pureed pepper soup’. The Thai took ‘hottest’ from two of the five judges and second hottest from two of the others, so it won. (At 2 points for a 1 and 1 point for a 2 and 0 for a three, the scores Thai 6, India 5, Texas 4. Even today I wince in pain even considering the chili – it was a very, very close thing.) But as is typical, I digress.
Anyway, on a particular day the Indian classmate showed me how she made her garam marsala. A couple of weeks later I was invited to the house of a Mexican friend, and his mother made Chicken Mole – mole poblano. And here’s the story. You see, the core of the mole was pretty much the garam marsala.
I got to digging a bit into Moles after that and discovered all the simple things we know about them here in the US are wrong. For example we think all of them have chocolate. Well, most do but not all. And if it’s not spicy hot it’s not a mole. Again, not always. All that said, the word “usually” applies.
I do want to add one minor thing from the mole I was taught that I’ve discovered is pretty common – and which makes the greatest change in taste from garam marsala. That’s the fact the spices are toasted. No, that’s not quite right. They’re brought to the very edge of burning.
If you’ve ever made brick roux for a real gumbo or ‘real’ caramel you’ve run into the problem. A little toasting is easy and adds some flavor. But the closer you take it to the edge of burning the richer, deeper and more complex the flavors. A GREAT roux, caramel, or mole spice mix (or a few other things for that matter) run right up to the edge of burning – but not quite. Not quite into the zone of “Oh, crap, someone emptied the ashes into this.”
I’m going to walk you through making a mole – mine, which is not traditional (I’m not Mexican) but which has some traditional elements. In the process I think you’ll begin to understand why moles are traditionally festival or other Major Event dishes. Actually I’ll cut to the chase there — If I literally have to spend all frigging day cooking, it’d better be darn well worth it. Let’s get started.
The first thing I’m going to do is start my peppers. I’m going to use some pasillas (preferably smoked – pasillas de Oaxaca), chipotles, chilhuacle negro (warning – a more expensive pepper), and ancho peppers. Two of all but the chilihuacles – since I’m paying the price anyway I use four of these. Pop out the stem and discard it. Use scissors to open the peppers (they’re all dried, by the way) and shake the seeds into a container (they’re going to get used). Cut the peppers up into chunks and put them in a bowl. Cover with about two cups of hot water, and move on.
Now things are going to start getting fun. You’re going to set up your blender and add half a cup of cold water or veggie broth. From here on what you’re going to do is take almost every spice and toast it (I use a small, dry cast iron skillet) to just short of black (see above about dark toast), and add it to the blender. When they’re all added we start doing other fun stuff but this is our start.
Begin with the seeds from all the peppers. Follow with (in no particular order):
cardamom (about 2 tbsp);
coriander (again about 2 tbsp);
cumin (and another 2 tbsp);
black peppercorns (yep, 2 tbsp);
cocoa beans (back to the 2 tbsp);
cinnamon (one stick of about 3 inches).
Please realize that all of these can be done using powder instead, but if so it toasts FAST.
Add without toasting a teaspoon or so of nutmeg (this you’ll have to grate), half a dozen allspice berries, and half a dozen cloves.
PAUSE. Look at the above stack of spices. If you take out the pepper and cocoa and don’t toast it quite so heavily you have a garam marsala – a basic indian spice. You can take the toasted spices, grind them to a powder, and pack them in an airtight container for later use. Let’s continue, though.
You’ve got all these spices and a bit of water in your blender. Go ahead and run the blender for a bit to try and break up some of the seeds. Alternately you could have run the toasted seeds through a spice mill or small grinder before adding – I’m just reducing dishes by a step or two.
Take a break from the skillet a moment. Take a tomato. Stem it, and broil it till it’s lightly charred. No, don’t seed it, don’t juice it, broil it pretty much whole. When it’s browned, toss it into the blender. Go ahead and run it for a moment.
Now you want to add some thyme (half a dozen sprigs worth of leaves only), some oregano (about a teaspoon), some cilantro and basil, and (you guessed it) blend till smooth. If it’s a bit too dry to blend add another half a cup of water or veggie broth.
We’re at a pause point. We’re about to get a bit frantic trying to do two or things at once, so take time to consider the next things. We’re going to fry what’s in the blender (I know that doesn’t make sense but it will). We’re going to puree our peppers and add them. And we’re going to add a pumpkin seed thickener. Knowing this is going on will help as I start having you go back and forth in a minute.
Lightly toast (hey, NOT dark toast) half a cup of hulled pumpkin seeds. Now since it’s pumpkin time again you should be able to get a bunch of them. The easiest way I’ve found to hull them is to roll over them a lot with a heavy rolling pin to try to crack the hull, then pour it all into a bowl of water and stir. Hulls will float, seeds will sink. Look for uncracked hulls to pull out and crack with your rolling pin. No, this is not “easy”, it’s just “easier” than individually picking and peeling the hulls off the seeds. But you’ve got the seeds, you’ve toasted them. Put them in your spice grinder and turn into a meal or flour, put it into a container, and hold on that.
Heat about half a cup of lard (Yes, I said lard) in a large skillet or saucepan. Once it’s melted, pour the blender contents in and start cooking, stirring often to prevent burning. (See why I called it frying?) In your copious free time, pour the peppers and water into the same blender and start it going to make a puree. When it’s smooth, add it to the mole.
After about ten minutes of cooking add about 2 cups of vegetable or chicken broth. Stir in the pumpkin powder, bring back to a simmer, and cook for 3 to 5 more minutes or till it thickens. Yes, the pumkin seeds will cause this sauce to thicken.
Congratulations, you have a black mole. You may now use it to make a meal. (grin). If you want you can put it into a container and put in the refrigerator for up to a week.
The two most frequent uses of a mole is to use it as a stewing liquid and as a braising liquid. A distant third is to use it as a dipping sauce. If you want to give it a basic try, cut up a chicken, clean it, put it in a stew pot, cover with some or all the mole, and cook (stove top or oven) till the chicken is done.
Oh, I need to point out that I have seen a lot of other things go into moles. These include plantains, raisins, peanuts, blackberries, tomatillas, tequilla, … It’s a thick, very complexly flavored sauce and I’ve come to think there at least half a dozen recipes for every person who makes it. Note that I was making a black mole – a mole negro. There’s green and red and brown and… yeah, you get the idea.
Hopefully you’ve gotten a bit of an idea. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to try making your own even if you haven’t tried one. And hopefully the next time someone tells you something about how a mole is ‘only’ this or the only real mole is found in Mexico you’ll give them exactly the attention they deserve.