Saturday, 18 February 2012

Mole Poblano 4: verdict and meaning revisited

[First published 18 February 2012]

The last instalment in my mole poblano series is something of an anticlimax in that, once the sauce is made, there isn't that much work left to do.

What had been worrying me (besides the flavour) was how I was going to make the dish look nice.

It's difficult to make a big lake of brown sauce look beautiful.

To add to the trouble, I'm not really much of an artist. I love being served beautiful plates of food in restaurants, but I'm not sure it's my calling to design them.

So I basically ripped off the common technique of resting the dish's main component on a neat round pillar of accompanying rice, with extra sauce around the edge.

Choosing the rice was tricky.

 I wanted something with colour, to relieve the brown of the mole. But the recipe I usually use for arroz verde has tomatillos, which are very tart, and would probably clash with the dark, rich sauce.

Luckily I found an alternative version of arroz verde in Thomasina Miers's Mexican Food Made Simple. She excludes tomatillos, cuts down on the coriander, and ups the quantities of common green leaves and herbs like spinach and parsley.

This is most likely because her book is written for British cooks, and she is mindful of what ingredients are available in the UK.

Tomatillos are especially hard to get here, though, as expected, Lupe Pinto's sells them tinned, and you can even order fresh ones from The Cool Chile Company when they're in season. The website currently promises them in July 2012, and I will definitely be ordering some for fresh salsa verde.

By the way, the basic recipe for any arroz verde is:

1) blitz whatever green leaves and herbs you're using together with some green chiles

2) sweat some finely chopped onion in an oven-proof pot over medium heat

3) add plain white rice to the pot and fry for a few minutes, until all the grains are coated in oil

4) add minced garlic to the pot and fry for a minute or two longer (you want the garlic to get lightly brown, but don't let it burn)

5) add the pureed greens to the pot and fry for a minute

6) add stock (about twice the volume of rice) and bring to the boil

7) either turn the heat down and simmer for a half hour or cover and place in a 150°-170° C oven for a half hour

Anyway, the other thing I wanted was a salad of some kind.

The Romans apparently invented salad, and it's really a European thing.

In Mexican dining, vegetables are included in the main dish, or there is a separate vegetable course. But because American dining is largely based on European dining, I feel compelled to have an accompanying salad.

My original plan was to use the sweet corn salad from Thomasina Miers' book. It's delicious. But then I discovered an even better idea from an unlikely source: Jamie Oliver.

One of the books my wife uses is Jamie's 30-Minute Meals. Though we never really get the food cooked and served within a half hour, the recipes are amazing. I know people have mixed views about Saint Jamie, but you have to admit he's got it in the flavour department. I'd take him over that twat Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall any day.

The salad is meant to have an Indian feel to it, and consists of shredded courgette (zucchini) and carrot, in a dressing of plain yogurt, fresh red chiles (yay!), and red wine vinegar.

As I was eating this bomb-ass salad, it ocurred to me that with minor alterations, this salad could be completely Mexican.

Courgette is native to Mexixo (where it is called calabacita). And though carrots originally come from the Middle East, they are a popular vegetable in Mexico. Check your jar of pickled jalapenos if you don't believe me.

In fact, in 2010 Mexico produced over 346,000 tonnes of carrots.

The alterations I made were swapping the yogurt for sour cream (okay, technically sour cream isn't Mexican either, but it is the closest thing I'm likely to get to crema espesa, unless I make my own, which I'm scared to do), and the red wine vinegar for lime juice.

Now, after the epic journey to make the sauce over the preceding four days, today's work was relatively minimal.

First, I took the mole sauce out of the fridge and put it in a pot on the hob over a medium heat, stirring occaisonally. 

In a separate pan I melted some butter. Mexicans cook with lard, but I don't, and my wife also expressed interest in frying the turkey breast in butter before adding it to the sauce.

So when the butter was melted and beginning to foam, I put in the turkey breast left over from Christmas and browned in on all sides. Then I put it into the mole and left it to simmer.

Next I did the rice as described above and shredded the carrot and courgette.

I had never eaten raw courgette before I tried this salad, but trust me, it's delicious.

I also whipped up the salad dressing, but kept it separate until it was time to serve. It's not very acidic, but I didn't want to risk the lime juice (and chile acid -- see my post on cebollas en escabeche) cooking the veggies and making the salad go soggy.

When the rice was done it was time to serve. The salad went on side plates, and I spooned the dressing on at the very last minute.

I created a restaurant-style column of rice by using an ordinary cookie-cutter. I was very pleased that the rice held its shape after I gingerly pulled the cookie-cutter away.

Using tongs, I painstakingly placed slices of turky breast on the rice, spooned over a bit more sauce, and then made a ring of sauce around the edge of the plates.

Because my efforts weren't as neat as I had hoped, here's an airbrushed version of the final result:

Yes I cooked this. I also edited it using Photoshop.
So how did it taste?

I've had mole a few times before.

There was the mediocre mole with chicken I had in a Mexican restaurant in Edinburgh.

Also I have been given jars of mole paste on two separate occasions: once it was La Preferida, and once La Costeña. Both are respectable brands, the latter being an actual Mexican company while the former was founded in Chicago by Hispanic Americans.

Fortunately my homemade mole tasted more like the jarred versions than the bad restaurant one. Which is not to say I hadn't been worried.

There is so much preparation involved in this recipe, but once you get to the long simmering stage, there's not much more you can do to add or improve flavour, beyond a bit of seasoning.

I tasted the sauce several times as it simmered.

First it needed salt, because I'd used homemade stock instead of a salty stock cube.

Then I was concerned it didn't have enough rich "darkness", so I added 25 grammes more of the chocolate.

But the chocolate had sugar in it, so now it was too sweet. I added a bit more salt and a bit of the chile water.

It still didn't taste quite right, but I was now afraid to tweak it further.

Besides, the flavours apparently needed time to mingle, so I went upstairs for a shower. When I came back, I found the promised layer of fat that meant the mole was cooked.

I skimmed off the fat and tasted it again. Still not quite there, but moving in the right direction.

I cooled it and let it "mature" in the fridge overnight.

However, when I finally dug into the finished dish, I was pleasantly surprised. It tasted like mole. I had actually made mole!.

Nevertheless, if I ever make this again - and that's a pretty big if - there are a few thing I will do differently.

Firstly, I still think it was a bit too sweet, so I'll forget the brioche and substitute a stale slice of baguette.

Also, it was a bit too chocolatey in that commercial milk-chocolate way, so in the absence of solid Mexican cooking chocolate, I would use high coco-solid European cooking chocolate, for a bitter, rich base note.

Also, as a time-saver I might use more of the chile water in place of stock. It's much easier to make, and would probably make the flavour darker and spicier as well.

Overall the mole was a great sucess, though the big hit of the evening was actually the green rice.

My wife even had seconds, which she never does with rice (except for risotto, which should give you an idea of how tasty the rice actually was).

So well done, Thomasina. No wonder you won MasterChef.

This was quite an undertaking, and certainly the most ambitious thing I've attempted in the kitchen to date.

But there are actually seven types of mole in Mexican cuisine. And I intend to cook them all.