Shiftwork Bites: Mole

In honor of the recent celebration of International Hot and Spicy Foods Day, I decided to heat things up for my most recent Shiftwork Bites adventure. I settled on molé. The blessing, and the curse, of molé lies in the fact that there are so damn many versions of it. Molé is one of those dishes that changes from household to household and cook to cook. This means that, as long as you're following the format and the spirit of the sauce, you can't really make it the "wrong way." It also means that everyone who knows anything about mole will tell you all the ways in which you've done exactly that.

While I may not have followed any particular recipe, more or less making things up as I went along and adjusting seasoning and consistency on the fly, I think I did a pretty good job of hewing close to the spirit of the dish.

I started out by toasting dried chiles, four each of pasilla, ancho, and guajilo. I also threw in a handful of dried chiles pequín. The combination of chiles allowed me to begin building a complex flavor base, bringing in heat, smokiness, and hints of chocolate and fruit. Once toasted (a dicey proposition in a small office kitchen with no exhaust system), the chiles were tossed in our crappy office blender and pulverized.

Next in were spices: coriander, cloves, and cinnamon. Go easy here, as these spices could easily overpower the sauce. A quick toast, a quick buzz through my boss's coffee grinder (shhh!), and they joined the chiles. The same treatment was given to a few large handfuls of sesame seeds, and a handful of pepitas.

I roughly chopped a medium onion and a red bell pepper (replacing the tomatoes and tomatillos, which were mealy hot-house affairs) and tossed them in, buzzing the blender and adding a touch of water and just a splash of OJ (a bit of acid helps brighten the flavor of almost any dish) as necessary to keep things running. A banana I had lying around went in, too.

When the sauce was smooth, after a good 8-10 solid minutes of blender time, I began on the protein. Chicken leg quarters went into a hot pan with a bit of oil, getting nicely browned on both sides. These were set aside, and the mole was added to the pan. After giving the mole a few minutes alone, I added the chicken back in, popped a lid on it, and let it braise on low heat for about an hour, melting in a few ounces of very dark (85 percent) chocolate and allowing it to meld with the other flavors for the last 10 minutes or so of cooking time.

Once the chicken was cooked through, I plated it up, topping each portion with additional toasted sesame seeds and a bit of freshly chopped marjoram. It was deeply flavored and complex, with different aspects emerging through each bite. It was smoky and spicy, just a touch bitter, and almost (but not quite) a touch sweet. The herbal kick helped bring the whole thing together, adding a wonderful perfume on top of everything else. It wasn't the best molé I've ever had, but it was damn good.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall