In college, I embarked on an exchange program to study Spanish at a local university in the mid-sized town of Queretaro, Mexico. Living with a host family in the crisp mountain air of the Sierra Madres, I feasted on scrambled eggs with stacks of piping hot tortillas for breakfast, aquas frescas and tacos for lunch, and the sweet baked goods from the corner bakery washed down with steaming mugs of chocolate atole (Mexican corn sweet drink) for a late night snack.
For Christmas dinner that year, Beatriz, my tall, voluptuous host mother made mole. She worked in her tiny, windowless kitchen all day stirring an enormous pot of silky red sauce while taking long, slow drags on her cigarette. Occasionally, ash from her cigarette would fall in the silky sauce. Even with a few flecks of cigarette ash, it turned out to be the most exotic, earthy dish I had ever tasted.
For years I thought there was no way I could recreate this dish. Then I discovered Rick Bayless and other chefs offering up recipes that made it look doable. Now, broiling the tomatillos, chopping dark Mexican chocolate, and frying anchos and pasillas has become a tradition in my home.
This recipe is inspired by Rick Bayless' red mole recipe in “Mexico One Plate at a Time.” Rick says this about mole: “Think of it this way: If you want to make mole, you’re in the mood for cooking.”
Traditional Red Mole with Turkey
Five medium tomatillos, husked, rinsed
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup (or slightly more) canola oil
4 dried cascabel peppers*
4 medium to large dried ancho peppers*
4 medium to large dried pasilla peppers*
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup almonds
1 whole boneless turkey breast
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon anise seed, ground
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground cloves
1 slice darkly toasted bread
1 ounce Mexican chocolate, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons of sugar
Cilantro leaves for garnish
*Many combinations of mild to hot chile peppers can be used for mole. I also enjoy a mix of four anchos and six New Mexican. Guajillos are a good choice too. If you like your sauces milder, choose New Mexican instead of guajillos or pasillas, which pack double the heat on the Scoville scale.
Mise en place is the French term for prepping all the ingredients in advance of cooking. With long, complex recipes like mole, advanced prep is essential to a smooth cooking process.
I suggest getting organized up front: grab a big tray, then measure out all the ingredients and place them in little 'mise' bowls on the tray.
Stem and seed all the dried chilies. Make sure to get ALL the seeds removed during this step so they don't get mixed in with the hot oil when you fry them.
Toast the sesame seeds in a heavy-bottomed pan, stirring frequently for about five minutes.
Turn the broiler to high and broil the tomatillos under the broiler flame until they start to blacken, flipping them once mid-way, about 10 minutes total. Remove from the oven and place tomatillos into a medium-sized metal bowl. Add the toasted sesame seeds to the tomatillos, reserving two tablespoons of the sesame seeds for garnish.
Heat the oil in Dutch oven and fry the dried chili peppers, in batches, about 30 seconds each batch, until they puff up slightly. Do not let the oil get so hot that it smokes.
When finished, place the peppers in a bowl of piping hot filtered tap water, cover with a plate so all the peppers are completely submerged, and soak for 20 minutes.
Using the same oil from frying the peppers in the Dutch oven, saute the almonds and garlic until the garlic is golden brown, about five minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and add to the tomatillo bowl. Now add the raisins to the Dutch oven oil and fry them until they are puffed and browned slightly, about 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and add to the tomatillo bowl.
Season the turkey breast with salt and pepper on all sides. Heat the Dutch oven over a medium flame and, when hot but not smoking, brown it five minutes on each side. Remove the breast to a clean plate.
Using tongs, transfer hydrated chilies to a blender. Taste the soaking water; if it’s not bitter, measure out 2 1/2 cups and add to the blender. If it is bitter, toss it and use 2 1/2 cups fresh filtered water instead. Blend until the mixture is a smooth puree. Using a medium-mesh strainer, strain puree into a large bowl. This removes any bits of chili skin, leaving a silky puree.
Use the same blender (no need to wash it) and add the tomatillo mixture along with 1 cup water, cinnamon, pepper, anise, cloves, toasted bread, and chocolate. Blend to a smooth puree.
Pour any excess oil out of the Dutch oven, leaving a thin film. Heat the Dutch oven over a medium flame. When it’s hot, add the chili puree. Stir frequently for 6 - 8 minutes. Then add the tomatillo puree and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add 5 1/2 cups of water to the Dutch oven and simmer on low for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Season with salt (about 1 3/4 teaspoons) and sugar. Add the turkey breast to the Dutch oven. Insert an instant read thermometer into the largest portion of the turkey breast and cook until it reaches 165.
Remove and place on a cutting board. Slice into 1/2 inch thick pieces and serve. Pour the mole around the meat and garnish with fresh cilantro and sesame seeds.