Friday, 27 January 2012

Evening Well Spent

After last week's mammoth post, I'm interrupting the mole epic (believe me, there are more chapters) for a post about what I did on Monday night.

First, a bit of background. Last Spring my wife and mother-in-law planted coriander in our back garden. I paid absolutely no attention, because I didn't expect it to grow. Coriander comes from hot places, and we live in Scotland.

Well, it shot up overnight into a bloody great triffid of a coriander bush and I was completely caught off guard. I didn't have any Mexican or Asian food planned, so I barely got to use any of it before it went to seed (which, again, it seemed to do overnight).

This year, I'd like to plant it again, and actually use it this time. But how do I useso much of it, when you apparently have to prune it constantly?

Even under normal circumstances, when we buy some coriander from our local supermarket, I can never manage to use the whole bag before it goes off. The smallest bag they sell is still way too much for two people, considering most recipes only call for a handful or so.

So what do you do with the rest of it?

Well, I got this idea from my novel. When Esteban begins creating his Mexican haute cuisine, he often reinterprets traditional Mexican dishes and sauces as refined European dishes (or reinterprets European dishes with Mexican ingredients and flavours, depending on how you look at it). One of these creations is coriander pesto.

Pesto, as most everyone knows, is a traditional Italian sauce made of basil, crushed garlic, crushed pine nuts, and grated Parmesan cheese. That's the basic, traditional recipe anyway. Nowadays you can buy pesto made of most anything.

I first thought of coriander pesto when trying to think of a refined version of salsa verde. I love chunky salsas, but they are rather rustic. I wanted to think up a smooth-textured sauce that could work in a fine-dining restaurant. By ditching the tomatillos, I hit upon a pesto made of coriander.

I was disappointed to learn that I'm not the first person to think of this. Google "coriander pesto" and you'll find heaps of recipes. Still, at least I knew it was a good idea.

Initially I was just going to use coriander, chile, garlic, and olive oil. My wife then reminded me about the pine nuts. Pine nuts ain't Mexican, but pumpkin seeds are, and I still had some left over from the mole. (I also considered using sesame seeds or almonds, which I also had left over from the mole; you definitely could use these if you wanted to.)

Also, there is a Mexican hard cheese similar to Parmesan, but I thought it would clash with the coriander, so I left it out.

For the chiles I chose one of my leftover chiles de pasilla (just one, because, for my first attempt, I wanted to see how hot the pesto would be). I also had a bog-standard fresh green chile from Tesco (it looked sort of like a jalapeño) and I decided to throw it in, as it was meant to be mild.

To use a dried chile like the pasilla, cut off the stem. Then cut it in half and remove the seeds and white veins (they should tear out easily). Make sure you wear clean rubber gloves if you're not used to handling chiles, or the acid will burn your fingers. It won't cause lasting harm, but it can be painful. Also, chile acid doesn't wash off with soap and water, so the pain can last for days.

Now put a dry, flat frying pan on high heat. When it's really hot, lay the chile halves flat on the pan and press them down with a spatula until they change colour and start to release their aroma (this should take a few seconds). Then flip them over and do the same to the other side.

Now place the chiles in a bowl, cover with boiling water and weight them down with a plate. Leave them to soak for about twenty minutes.

For the fresh chile, just place it whole on a hot, dry frying pan until the skin starts to go black. Keep turning it until it has black spots on all sides. Then let it cool, cut off the stem, de-seed and de-vein it, and chop it finely.

Now, I have some tips on chopping coriander:

1) Sharpen your knife

2) Seriously, sharpen your knife

3) Is your knife sharp?

4) You probably need to wash the coriander before you use it, but it's easier to chop if it's not too wet. So wash it under cold water and place it on some paper towels to drain and air-dry. This will take a little while, so you'll have to occupy yourself in the meantime. Perhaps you could sharpen your knife.

5) When the coriander is dry (enough), place it on a wooden cutting board. Always use a wooden one because it has some natural give that will allow the knife to penetrate it and chop through the herbs. A glass chopping board will stop the knife and you'll end up with some bashed up herb-mush at the bottom.

6) Use a (sharp) kitchen knife with a wide blade and a rounded edge, like the one Michael Meyers used to kill his sister. Do not use a knife with a serrated edge.

7) Place the bunch of herbs longwise on the board, with the leaves at your right hand and the stems at your left. "Slice" the coriander using a back-and-forth motion, moving toward the stem in roughly equal intervals.

If the coriander is to be blitzed or cooked down, you can chop up the stems as well (they're full of flavour), but if it's just a garnish or to be stirred in at the last minute, leave them out (they can be tough to chew).

Now, using the round edge of the knife, rock the blade quickly back and forth to finely chop the herbs, like the TV chefs do. Though it looks easy, show no mercy. Use all your might and try to make a loud thumping noise, like a drum-and-bass song from the late 90s. You will be pleasantly surprised at how much you feel like Jamie Oliver.

That should do it for the technique, so on to the actual recipe.

1 bunch of coriander (including stems), finely chopped

Chiles (pickled, roasted or dried), chopped, to taste

40 g pumpkin seeds

1 clove roasted garlic, minced

Olive oil

Heat up a dry frying pan. When it is very hot, add the pumpkin seeds and stir them constantly (to stop them burning) until they start to pop: about 3 to 5 minutes

Put the toasted seeds in a bloody great pestle and mortar (pestle and pesto have the same root word) with a pinch of rock salt and grind to a fine powder. This is really hard, by the way. But you definitely want to grind the seeds, firstly because grinding is one of the most typically Mexican methods of preparing food, and also because blitzing the seeds will chop the seeds rather than grind them. The texture won't be quite right, and also the seeds won't release their natural oils which will affect the flavour of the pesto.

Put the coriander, garlic, and chiles into a food processor and blitz to a fine paste. You can do this in the pestle and mortar too if you really want to, but it takes ages.

Add the coriander paste to the seeds and mix together. Taste for seasoning and add more if necessary.

Now add the olive oil one tablespoon at a time, mixing well in between, until it reaches the right consistency. If you don't know what the right consistency is, maybe you should buy some Italian pesto before attempting to make this.

I was well-chuffed with the pesto, especially considering it was my first attempt. I was particularly impressed with how spicy it was, so watch out for that if you try this at home.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Mole poblano 2: ingredientes

[First published on 22 January 2012]

So if the legend of the invention of mole is true, what did Sor Andrea choose from the larder of five continents?

There is no reliable surviving record of exactly which ingredients she used and in what quantities. I have recipes for mole in for several cookbooks and find no agreement of a definitive ingredients list.
There are some things which are guaranteed to be in mole, many others which are very likely to be, and a few things which can be in mole, but aren't always.

As I wrote Chapter 1, the ingredients of mole reflect the extent of Spanish power and influence in the 16th century, especially the unique riches of the newly-discovered Americas. I will list the ingredients of the mole I made, arranged by place of origin.

The Americas

1 tomato

This red fruit, which is usually eaten as a vegetable, is indispensable to European, especially Mediterranean, cuisine. But tomatoes come from the Americas. They are native to South America and were imported into central and North America by the Aztecs. The Spanish discovered it there and spread it throughout the world. Even Indian cuisine has embraced it in dishes like rogan josh.

1 corn tortilla (stale)

With the possible exception of chiles, this has got to be the most typical Mexican food. Aztecs and other native peoples of pre-Colombian central and South America had been cultivating corn for literally millennia.

Corn was a dietary staple of many Northern Native American tribes as well, but it was the central and South Americans who discovered that by washing corn in slaked lime they could break down the outer husk and make it easier to digest.

This transformed corn into a highly nutritious super-food (rather than something that would pass through your digestive system relatively unchanged, and destroy your teeth in the process).

Corn tortillas became the fuel of the Aztec Empire and citizens could count on a daily ration of them. In mole, one stale tortilla is used to thicken the sauce

Pumpkin seeds

This is an optional ingredient, and one more typical of pipián, the green mole. But rest assured it is 100% native to the Americas.

In fact, archaeological evidence suggests the first cultivators of pumpkins were really after the seeds. If you've ever eaten toasted pumpkinseeds, you'll see why.

Mole is a seed-thickened sauce, and the main seed is actually sesame, but I used about 60 grammes of pumpkin seeds because I love them, and to maximize the prehispanic ingredients.

epazote - This is considered a weed in the US but is a much-valued and delicious herb in Mexican cooking.

Not only is it indigenous to North America, it doesn't seem to grow anywhere else at all, so I can only get it in dried form here in the UK.

Mexican oregano - This herb is similar to common oregano, but not actually related to it. Its scientific name is Lippia graveolens; "graveolens" means "heavy scent", because it smells like a much more potent version of European oregano.

These two herbs were a revelation to me and have totally changed how I perceive the flavour of Mexican food. Technically they are used in the turkey stock which is used to make the mole, rather than the mole proper.


But even more than the herbs, this dried berry has changed my view of Mexican food.

The name allspice was coined by the English in the seventeenth-century because thought it tasted like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. And so it does, which is lucky, as those other spices come from Asia.

This little berry, however, was born and bred in central America. It's presence in the mole is welcome, but it must be pure showing off, as cinnamon and clove are also used, so presumably the allspice is redundant.


Chef and cultural anthropologist Rick Bayless poses the question of whether "mole" refers only to the sauce or also to what's in it.

Non-Mexicans probably assume the former (which would be in line with European cuisine and its derivatives), but Bayless writes that Mexicans do not perceive the sauce and the meat as being separable.

Whenever I have seen mole on restaurant menus, chicken has always been the meat, but the traditional choice is definitely turkey.

Chicken was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish (and Mexico immediately embraced it), but Mexico had long been domesticating turkeys for consumption, as well as hunting wild ones.


More than chiles, more than turkey, more than tomatoes (and more than even vanilla, which also comes from Mexico), chocolate is probably Mexico's greatest culinary gift.

Before Columbus landed, this was nature's best kept secret, and afterwards became the world's most highly praised culinary discovery. Everyone loves chocolate.

But most people don't put it with meat. Chocolate is the blessing and curse of the mole, because nearly all non-Mexicans who have heard of mole say "Chocolate chicken? Gross!". But there are three things to consider:

1) If the mole is to be a celebration of the riches of the new Spanish Empire, it must include the most valualbe thing in it (besides gold, which is edible, but not very tasty).

2) There are only about 50 (and certainly not more than 90) grammes of chocolate per 2 liter batch of mole. That' really not a helluva lot. It doesn't taste like a Mars bar. Trust me.

3) There are actually several recipes for mole poblano that do not include chocolate at all (which I learned from Diana Kennedy's books).
Nothing can ruin a mole faster than using too much chocolate. I would recommend using some, however, do give it that dark, bitter richness. 
If you can't get real Mexican chocolate, use high-coco solid (70% or higher) baking chocolate, with some ground cinnamon and maybe a (very little) bit of ground almonds, and NO SUGAR. 
Once the mole is simmering, you can sweeten it to taste (I prefer it very un-sweet); but you want to remain in control of the sweetening, and chocolate with sugar added could give you a bit of "stealth sweetness".
That raps it up for the New World. But mole wasn't meant to be just a statement of New World supremacy. It also celebrates ingredients that Mexico wouldn't have without Spain. So with that, we move to our next continent...

1 Onion

Just as the ubiquity of the tomato belies its culinary importance, so the humble onion can often be overlooked. Yet it is essential to most European cuisines. It's even the answer to an Anglo-Saxon riddle.

But it's native to the Old World. It was brought to the Americas by none other than Christopher Columbus, and Mexico took it to heart. With the exception of the Yucatecan cebollas en escabeche, it is usally white onions that are used in Mexican cooking.

3 cloves of garlic

Another staple of European cooking that was introduced to the Americas by colonists.

Garlic, however, has not been so thoroughly integrated into Mexican cuisine. Diane Kennedy, the Julia Child of Mexican cooking, writes that garlic is not widely used in Mexico. Therefore there are only three measly cloves of garlic per 2 liter batch of sauce.

This begs the question of whether you can even taste the garlic in the finished mole (it is certainly not the strongest flavour, I can tell you). I can only think that Sor Andrea used it because she couldn't conceive of cooking anything for a Spaniard without starting with onion and garlic.


When Americans think of Mexican food, they think of burritos. (When Brits think of Mexican food, they think of fajitas, which aren't Mexican.)

This is because most of the Mexican food that made it into the US comes from northern Mexico, where the European imports of wheat and beef thrive.

In the rest of Mexico, the corn tortilla is king, and chicken, pork (and even goat) are the major meats.

But there is one wheat product that can be found throughout Mexico: a European-style leavened wheat bread called bolillo. I have not tried it, but it is supposed to be a lot like what Americans call French bread.

One stale slice of this is used to thicken the mole, along with one stale corn tortilla. I imagine this was used precisely to balance the traditional Mexican ingredient with a traditional European one, and prevent the sauce having some kind of independence or home rule agenda.


There are two things the Spanish cannot live without - wine and olive oil.

So imagine their dismay when they discovered that neither grapes nor olives grow easily in Mexico.

Olives are not represented in mole at all, probably because there was no way of preserving them long enough to transport them from Europe to the New World in the sixteenth-century. But how could Sor Andrea contemplate her magic sauce in praise of the Spanish Empire without including at least one of Spain's culinary dynamic duo?

Of course, fresh grapes were not to be had, but they could get dried grapes or raisins. About 80 grammes of these are used in mole, almost twice the amount of chocolate, and much of the sauce's sweetness is undoubtedly due to the grapes.

Amazingly, you fry the grapes in hot fat for a few seconds until they puff up and turn golden (they really do that; I've seen it with my own eyes).

Stacked up against the exotic riches of the New World, Europe's contribution to mole may seem a bit bland. And I guess that's the point. All the world's most famous spices and herbs come from Asia or the Americas. Which is not to say that European cuisine, on its own, would just be meat and potatoes. Because potatoes come from South America.


Four or five centuries ago, if you had a couple of nutmegs, or some cloves, you could buy anything you wanted. If you had a ship full of these spices, you would be richer than most European governments of the time. The Dutch East India company, for instance, could afford to employ a private army larger than the army of any one nation in the world, at its time.

Today, any of these spices, with the possible exception of saffron, can be had for chump change at any chain supermarket in the developed world.

Some which were once the most valuable are now the cheapest and least appreciated. Black pepper is given away free on most restaurant and cafe tables, and sits gathering dust in practically every cupboard in the Western world.

"Vanilla", once one of the world's rarest, most exotic, and thus highly-valued spices, has become a synonym for "bland".

We take these things for granted so habitually that it's hard to imagine how they were once so valuable. Wars were fought over them. People risked their lives and happily took the lives of others for them. And they created virtually from scratch the wealth of huge new empires.

One of these empires belonged to Spain, and when creating the famous mole, Sor Andrea made sure she put a good helping of the newly acquired wealth of Asia into the mix.

Cloves and cinnamon

As I said above, these are two of the three tastes found in allspice, so presumably Sor Andrea could have just doubled the amount of these two and added a bit of nutmeg.

Perhaps she was trying to show off native Mexican spices in including allspice.

Or maybe there was a financial consideration. Cloves and cinnamon were two of the most expensive things on the planet at the time.

As it is, there's not a lot of these spices in the mole. However, unlike the garlic, onion, and tomato, you really can taste their presence. Partly this is due to the inherent power of these spices. That power is intensified by toasting the spices before you grind them. This makes your kitchen smell wonderful as well.


When I was a kid, liquorice was my most hated of all sweets.

Over the last ten years, though, I have developed a great appreciation for the taste of aniseed, when used in the right amounts.

There are few people, I think, who would like to be (as Greg Wallace has it) "smacked around the face with a big bag of liquorice allsorts", and when aniseed goes wrong, it's invariably because it is overpowering (like in all those disgusting spirits they sell in duty-free shops).

I was very keen to have aniseed present in my mole, because it provides the much-needed top note. Chocolate and the "darker", richer spices form the base notes, even the chiles are the mid-range; aniseed is that high pitch that completes the harmony of the dish.

You can use anything that tastes strongly of aniseed. I chose star anise because I had some left over from when I made the carrot and star anise soup.

And finally there are a series of ingredients which are hard to assign to a definite place. Such as:


There are about 80 grammes of crushed almonds in mole.

Almonds certainly aren't native to America, but they don't come from Europe either.

They are originally from the Middle East. But they have been known in Europe since the Middle Ages, so they aren't part of the newly-acquired spice cabinet of colonial exploits in Asia.

Almonds are, after all, the main ingredient of marchpane, which was a sweet popular among the artistocracy of Tudor England.

Sesame seeds

This is the main seed used to thicken mole. Whole sesame seeds are even sprinkled on top of the finished dish, a visual indicator of the importance of the ingredient.

Sesame seeds come from Africa. But the thing is, although Spain did have territories in Africa (Morocco for one, and they still have the Canary Islands), that's not the reason they had access to sesame seeds.

The word "sesame" comes to English by way of Ancient Greek, which means it had made its way into Europe by in the ancient world.

1/8 tsp of coriander seed

So much of what I love about Mexican food is down to indigenous ingredients (chiles, corn, pumpkin, etc).

But if there is one herb which is absolutely intrinsic to Mexican food, it is what Mexicans and Americans call cilantro, but everyone else calls coriander. And coriander does not come from Mexico.

Of course, listing it under Europe would be kind of a stretch. I mean, it's not a big part of European cuisine, after all, unless you count the fusion food that was popular in the early noughties.

On the other hand, it's indigenous to southern Europe and the Middle East, so presumably it must have been exported to India and other parts of Asia, where it is most familiar.

In any case, it is the seed, rather than the leaf, of coriander which is used.

Coriander seeds can give a slightly citrusy top note to a dish, but it's doubtful whether you can really detect an 1/8 teaspoon of ground coriander seed in a 2 liter batch of mole. So once again I'm going to hypothesize that Sor Andrea, if she existed at all, used it because she felt obliged to use this gift of Imperial Spain that was probably already asserting its importance in the local cuisine.

She probably used seeds because the leafy herb part would have completely clashed with the other flavours, and she probably used so little of it because she didn't want it jostling with aniseed for the role of top note.

Recalling that there are three different types of chile used in mole, plus chle seeds, we're up to 22 ingredients. You also need some fat to fry things in and some water to make the stock.

Below is a photo of some of the seeds and spices which are to be toasted and ground. The stuff in the dish is ancho chile seeds.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Mole poblano 1: The Meaning of Mole

[First published on 9 January 2012]

I have made the mole poblano. It really does take four days.

Out of respect for the epic (or baroque) undertaking that is mole, I will be posting this episode of my culinary adventure in several parts so you can experience, as much as possible, what it was really like to create this dish.

I would also like to point out that I prepared the sauce entirely from scratch with the following three exceptions:

1) the turkey was leftover Christmas turkey, which I didn't cook (that was my lovely wife)

2) the slice of stale brioche was from a store-bought loaf; I don't know how to make brioche (though I did make some killer French toast over the holidays)

3) the stale corn tortilla I bought from Lupe Pintos (Cool Chilli Company brand); I do know how to make tortillas, but  I didn't want to make a entire batch of tortillas just to let one go stale

I didn't end up making the mole on Christmas Eve as I originally intended. I was busy making carrot and star anise soup (our starter for Christmas dinner), and the rest of the time the kitchen was a flurry of prepping the Christmas veggies, making bread sauce, and preparing Christmas Eve's dinner (saumon en croute).

Mrs MexiGeek also made port wine jelly for dessert, so it was definitely worth delaying my own cooking plans.

So my ingredient odyssey begins on 30 December, when my wife picked up some tomatoes, onion, and garlic for me from the local shop, along with the brioche, pumpkin seeds and whole almonds.

The next day was Hogmanay, and I a trip into town to visit Lupe Pinto's. As expected, they had the holy trinity of chiles: anchos, mulatos, and pasillas (and if they hadn't, no one else would've).

I also picked up some unground coriander seeds and, from the Co-op across the street, raisins and sesame seeds. That, combined with what I already had, completed the ingredients list. It doesn't sound like a lot now, but a full catalogue follows in the next instalment.

Now, I hope you will forgive me a moment of baroque grandeur when I insist that the meaning of mole is manifest in its ingredients.

Mole poblano may be Mexico's national dish, but it is not its most frequently eaten and is certainly not its oldest.

Instead, mole dates back to the colonial period, when Mexico was ruled by Spain. The factual origins of mole have long vanished behind a much-questioned but oft-repeated legend that a nun called Sor (Sister) Andrea was tasked with preparing a special dish for a visiting Spanish cardinal.

She tried to concoct something new. Something that no one had ever tasted before. Something that no one could have tasted had Spain not established a great empire in five continents (two of which were entirely new to Europe), and spread the culinary riches of each throughout their territories.

Mole, you see, combines the best of the New World with the best of Africa, Asia, and good old Europe. It is both an expression and celebration of the extent of Spanish power. How strange that it should in time become an expression of national pride for Mexico, which fought so hard to free itself from Spain.

Next time I will list each of the 20+ ingredients of mole, along with their significance.

In the meantime, here is a picture of the three chiles. The large, somewhat reddish bunch on the left are the chiles anchos (wide chilies). The smaller, black chiles in the middle are chiles mulatos, which I don't have to translate. The long dark chiles on the right are pasillas ("little raisins").

And lastly, for my non-Scottish readers, Hogmanay is New Year's Eve. It is a noun, not a greeting. And though its etymology is unknown, it is probably not Gaelic.