Monday, 12 December 2011

Mole Poblano Prologue: I am insane

[First published 12 December 2011 - The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe - just before I took my Christmas break from posting. It sets out my plan for cooking mole poblano over the holidays.]

There is something seriously wrong with me.

I could spend Christmas happily eating leftovers, cheeseboards, chocolate, and other easy, unhealthy foods whole sitting on my ass watching bad television.

Instead, I'm going to cook something that has between 26 and 34 ingredients (depending on the recipe) and takes up to four days to prepare.

This Christmas I am going to attempt the national dish of Mexico: mole poblano de guajolote.

I'm not, however, planning to have this on Christmas Day. The traditional British Christmas dinner is the highlight of my year. But since we'll never eat all that turkey in one night, even with the obligatory midnight turkey sandwich, we'll still have heaps left over.

So I'm going to serve the leftovers with the traditional mole sauce. Right now, there are voices in my head saying "Be afraid. Be very afraid."

What makes this plan especially ridiculous is that I have some perfectly good mole paste in my fridge right now. It actually came from Mexico and is absolutely delicious (I've tried it). But no, I'm going to make my own.

I am a very sick man.

Amazingly, I already have all but three of the ingredients in my house, which is probably an indication of how much of MexiGeek. I even have some Mexican chocolate I got from Jordan Valley on Nicholson Street. I don't know why they had Mexican chocolate, but we found it when we went in for pumpkin mix before Thanksgiving.

What I'm missing is the holy trinity of mole: the three chiles, ancho, mulato, and pasilla, without which it just ain't mole. So it's another trip to Lupe Pinto's this weekend.

I have four possible recipes to use for this dish. The longest one, Rick Bayless's, takes 6 hours if you do it all at once, though he recommends spreading it out over several days.

The shortest one, Thomasina Myers's, only takes one and a half hours, but that's probably a masterchef-style blitz of activity that I could really do without on Boxing Day.

And in any case, all four recommend making the sauce in advance and letting the flavours mingle in the fridge. Fine by me.

However, it does put me in a bit of a bind. Ideally I would like to make a stock from the turkey to use for the mole. If I do that, I cannot start making the mole until the morning of the 26th at the earliest. But I am hoping to have the mole made and in the fridge by the end of Christmas Day.

Then all I have to do is heat it gently on the hob and serve.

There are only two options: either have the mole on the 27th (and risk having no more leftover turkey), or use a different stock. Sadly, I think it's option 2 for me, which is a shame, because I have never made stock in my like and I really want to.

In the meantime, I am reading and re-reading all four recipes and making notes, because as a further indication of my unsound mind, I don't intend to use any one recipe. I'm going to create my own variation based on the best bits of all four.

This goes even for the ingredients. I am using raisins because all four recipes call for them, but I am forgoing prunes, which are only called for in one recipe (and because I hate them).

My plan of attack so far is to prep the chiles by seeding and deveining them and cutting them into small, flat pieces on day one. Then I will toast the seeds and nuts and grind them in my molcajete.

On day two, which will be Christmas Eve, I will:
  • Get up ass-early and drive to a farm to collect our turkey
  • Fry the chiles and then soak them in hot water for an hour
  • Roast and crush a tomato
  • Fry almonds, raisins, onion, and garlic, in that order; then add them to the crushed tomato along with the ground seeds and spices, stale corn tortilla crumbs, stale brioche crumbs, and a bit of Mexican chocolate
  • Blitz the chiles, sieve them, then fry them again until the mixture gets nice and thick
  • Blitz the other stuff, fry it until it thickens, then add the chile mixture and some stock and simmer for a really long time
Once the sauce is done simmering, I can refrigerate it, or even freeze it. I plan to make a helluva lot, so I may freeze as much as half straight away.

Day three is Christmas Day. My mole sauce will be maturing in the fridge.

On day four, I will reheat the sauce gently on the hob, adding more stock if necessary. About 20 minutes before serving, I will add the leftover turkey. I am considering frying it in butter first, to give it colour and texture, and because frying things in butter rocks.

This may be the national dish of Mexico, but it can be a rustic dish in terms of presentation. Also, the sauce is unavoidably brown, and one thing I've learned from years of watching Masterchef is that it's very hard to make brown food look elegant.

Therefore I will be serving the mole on a neat stack of arroz verde, with a ring of sauce around the inner edge of the plate. The rest of the sauce will be in a serving dish on the table.

For an additional side I'm planning one of Thomasina's salads: a winter salad of caramelized pecans and goat's cheese. I would like to serve this on side plates, on a fried corn tortilla for additional texture.

Lastly, additional warm tortillas will be in a basket on the table.

Anyone who would like to join us for dinner, leave a comment.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Losing the plot

When I was in school I wrote short stories, and I never got lost. It's not that short stories are easy, but because they deal with one incident in one character's life, leading to one moment of realization (or epiphany, as Joyce called it), they are neat, succinct, and focused. There's no room to get lost because only one thing, really, is happening.

Novels, unfortunately, are not just long short stories. They have several major characters in addition to the main protagonist and antagonist, and at least one significant sub-plot. They have falling action, whereas a short story tends to end as soon as the main character has reached their epiphany. And most difficult of all (for me at least), they have much more plot going on in the middle.

All my short stories have been written with pretty much no preparation, and I've always been happy with the result. But you can't really write a "novel" by just plunging into it and hoping for the best. I learned this the hard way with my disastrous first book. The comments I received praised the writing style but complained there was no plot.

Of course, there wasn't. I never bothered putting in a plot for that book. One of the things they teach you when you study literature instead of creative writing is that plot is plebeian. What they fail to remind you is that every book worth reading has a plot, that you can't write a story that's not about something. There's an entire section of academia devoted to pretending that Ulysses has no plot, when in fact it has a very intricate and well-thought-out plot. (Academics are afraid that if ordinary people read the books they like, they will seem less clever. Academics have very low self-esteem, and compensate by making everyone else feel stupid.)

But even if I had put a plot in my first book, I probably would have got lost in the second half of Act 2. That's where I always get lost. That's where my first screenplay starts to sag, for instance. That's also where my current screenplay is stuck.

Although this book isn't a screenplay, I am trying to structure its plot along the lines I learned from screenplay writing. This is not just to make it more commercial. The "gimmick" of this book is the in-depth treatment of Mexican food. If I didn't have a clear idea of where the story was going, it could wind up being a long-winded cookbook instead of a work of fiction. Again I learned this the hard way from my first book, which ended up being a long-winded travel guide.

The three-act structure is older than Aristotle, and works like this:

Act I: we see the hero in her/his normal life, when something happens. The hero reacts to or makes a choice about that something, which locks her/him into the story.

Act II: the hero encounters setback after setback. At first s/he is usually defeated by these setbacks.

In the very middle of the story, there will be an opportunity to give up or escape without finishing the quest, like when the Goonies have a chance to ride up Troy's bucket, or when Sarah eats the forgetting fruit in The Labyrinth.

The story cannot continue unless the hero chooses to finish the quest. That's where the seconds half of Act II begins.

This consists of more setbacks, but this time the hero starts winning sometimes. Unfortunately this causes the antagonist to up their game as well, and the action reaches a peak.

Act III: everyone gets ready for the final showdown. It is the hero's greatest and most difficult test and, depending on what genre of story it is, s/he will either succeed or fail in the end.

Where I got lost is in the portion of Act II after the midpoint. With a plot as long as a novel's, it's easy to forget at this point what your story is actually about at this point. By now at least one major subplot will have come into play, which is good in that it can keep the reader from getting too bored by the main story, but I find I get easily distracted by it and start writing a completely different book.

My initial plan for the pre-writing was to do the summary, then the eight sequences and five plot points, and then the chapter outline. I wrote up to where Esteban's wife leaves him, and then predictably got stuck. Do I make this part of the story about how he gets his wife back, or should I stick with the food? And if so, should I ditch the wife leaving him bit altogether?

So I interrupted the plot summary and started working out the eight sequences early. When I got to sequence 6, I realized one of the reasons I was stuck is that I didn't actually have an Act III. This is unusual for me, as I usually see the ending of a story more clearly than the middle.

One thing about writing: never begin if you don't know the end. It's like chess: you need to see checkmate before you can make your first move. Even if you original checkmate changes, you always need to have one in mind, or you'll never know where you're meant to be going.

I did come up with a third act and, more importantly, a final image with which to leave the reader. This completed the right sequences, and I thought I'd move on to the five plot points before returning to the summary.

Then a new challenge emerged: the third act twist. Did I have one?

A third act twist is something that alters or changes the hero's goal, showing they've learned some valuable lesson and are different then they were at the start of the story. Some twists are earth-shattering. Luke Skywalker goes to Bespin to rescue his friends and kill Darth Vader. Then he finds out Vader is his father, and that goal goes out the window. Or take the kids in Stand By Me, who set out to achieve fame by discovering a dead body, but after their altercation with Ace and his gang, they decide to make an anonymous call, taking no credit for their deeds.

So what's my twist? Well, Esteban's first forays into cooking are all about uncompromising authenticity, and motivated by the death of his mother, who cooked delicious but rustic Oaxacan food. After coming to grips with her death, he finds his own identity as a chef and is able to re-invent Mexican food as haute cuisine. His food becomes an expression of himself and his pride in his heritage (which is why his restaurant is called "Patria"), and that's what earns him the Michelin star.

Anyway, that's how I spent my week. Writing is harder than it looks.