Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Adventures in Mole

I am a big fan of Rick Bayless. In case you don't know who he is, he has travelled extensively in Mexico over many years, immersing himself in the cuisine through street vendors, home cooks and restauranteurs. He has a show on PBS and won Top Chef Masters last year cooking what he loves - Mexican food. I would love to jump on a plane and blissfully dine in his Chicago restaurants. Perhaps
I will. I have cooked several recipes from his Mexican Kitchen book; I swear his Mexican rice is the best I've ever had. The chipotle peanut mole is unlike any mole I have ever tasted (in a very good way) and the jicama salad is crunchy, refreshing and full of flavor. I could go on but I won't.

Last weekend it was our turn to host our gourmet cooking club and I wanted to have a Rick Bayless dinner. Not only that, I was going to make a red mole, with 26 ingredients and it wasn't going to get made in one day. Rick does recommend breaking such a big undertaking up and I planned accordingly, starting with the shopping.

I'm going to tell you right now, I decided to go with real lard as my cooking fat. I'm sure you're horrified at the thought, but let me share some statistics with you about pork fat that I got from Fat, An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient... by Jennifer McLagan. Generally pork fat breaks down to 39% saturated fat, 45% monounsaturated and 11% polyunsaturated.The low level of polyunsaturated fat means the fat is more stable, which makes it great for cooking. Do I plan to use lard regularly? No, but I felt it was important to this experience. I rejected the lard packaged up in boxes; just look at the ingredients. Partially hydrogenated oils right from the jump! I went to El Dorado Market on South El Dorado (1 block north of Charter Way) and asked for lard. I rejected the packaged crap and asked for manteca de puerco hecho aquĆ­. I don't know if it was rendered there but the butcher went in the back and returned with a pint of lard in a styrofoam container. It cost me $1.29. It smelled like animal fat so I'm trusting it was the real deal. It's totally worth driving to a Mexican market for lard. I tried rendering lard once last year, and it was a smelly, yucky experience and not very energy efficient.

I spent the next evening splitting and seeding peppers. I saved the seeds, which were toasted and turned into a spice mixture with several other ingredients, like a grated avocado pit!!! I can't believe I bought an avocado just for that, but I was determined not to swerve. Sitting at the dinner table with the tv on makes it seem less like an endless task.

The next evening I spent THREE HOURS frying the chiles, and nuts and seeds, in the lard. Man, I used a lot of lard. And paper towels to soak up the lard. I used my Vita Mix blender to blend up the chiles and strain (I hate straining) and then the spice paste. (As an aside, the Vita Mix works so well that there was very little in the strainer.) By the end of the night I was fried; seriously. But the worse was over, honest.

I took a night off and on Thursday I cooked the chiles mixture (in a little lard) and added the spice paste and cooked some more. Here's where it gets dangerous. If you've ever cooked cornmeal on top of the stove, or hey, even mole, you may have experienced the popping and splattering that goes with it. Well this mole popped and it got me good. I have a lovely 2nd degree burn on my
wrist which is still tender and looks worse than it feels. What's funny is the mole only popped and spattered while I was stirring it, and you're supposed to stir it. Frequently. I just got a hot tip on burns today which beggars belief. Squirting yellow mustard on the burn stops the pain cold. I don't know how long to leave it on; evidently it starts hurting again if you wash it off. Please let me know if you try this; better yet don't burn yourself. I'm going to pledge not to burn myself either.

One more tip: if you decide to take the plunge and make mole, wear clothes that you don't care about. An apron doesn't give enough coverage. I wore my chef coat and it is now permanently stained from spilling some spice paste on it. And oh, from popping and splattering.

I'm sure want to know, was it delicious? Worth the trouble? Yes, it was excellent, you won't get that kind of mole around here except in the home of a great cook. It is rich, moderately spicy, with complex flavors from 2 kinds of chiles and 24 other ingredients like almonds, peanuts, tomatillos, tomatoes, on and on. Worth it? Well, I like a challenge to get my juices flowing and I'm happy I made it. Plus, I have lots left over resting in the freezer right now. And oh, I served it with roasted Cornish game hens. (Sorry I wasn't able to get a good picture, I was plating up birds for 8 and didn't take my time. And Yikes! I served the little blighter back side up!) Any, it was yum.

Here's the bad news, depending on how you look at it. I can't give you the recipe, it's copyrighted, but if you want a fabulous Mexican cookbook get Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen. It's totally worth it. If you want free recipes, go to Rick's website, it's loaded with great recipes. He won't mind.

I have plans to try one more mole, the mole negro. A while back I wrote about my pending chile garden, which will have the chiles required for the said mole negro. Recently my box of chile plants arrive and they are in the ground, looking happy. It will be some time before I will have chiles, and get them dried for cooking. So I have time to forget what a big job this was. And I may be willing to do it again.