I’ve walked through my gramma’s house at least a thousand times. I could tell you about the newspaper clippings that were on her fridge, and the pictures of all her grandkids that sat atop the desk in the living room with the gold shaggy carpet. Of course, I remembered those pictures because there was one of every grandkid, but me – there were two! I could tell you, years ago, about every hair product in her bathroom, because as she used to say, I liked to “plunder”, and plunder I did, every time I visited. I loved gramma’s house, every corner of it.
Without fail, there was a pound cake on the edge of the counter every Sunday, unsliced, guarded by a heavy glass dome that I couldn’t reach without assistance, or a chair. There were oatmeal cakes in the cupboard, and there was a trashcan made of egg cartons in my dad’s old room. I can still see it all – as if looking at a snow globe, those details never changed. And while the sights were always so clear in my head, I also remember a distinct smell, a smell that emanated from the kitchen, for sure, but one that I could never identify. Until this weekend.
It was lard. That’s probably weird to at least some of you, right? Okay, most of you. And not just regular lard from a container, but hot, almost smoking lard. I’d be willing to bet that most people who cook with lard don’t enjoy that smell, but for me, it took me back like no other. Strangely enough, it was the first time I’d ever cooked with it, and I’m not quite sure why, really. But as is customary for a Sunday around here, I awoke with an idea in my head of what I wanted to make for dinner that night, with expectations of spending a decent amount of time in the kitchen.
I decided that I wanted to make a mole sauce.
So that’s what I did. And so, I consulted the first person that comes to mind when I think of authentic, time-consuming Mexican food, and that’s Rick. Rick Bayless, that is. Now, most authentic moles take days to make, I know that, but Rick said this one is a good start for only a few hours work. There are oodles of iterations of moles, but this one is loaded with chiles, and as a result is a mole rojo. Moles use a ton of ingredients, including lots of dried but rehydrated chiles, chocolate, nuts, and even raisins. Moles are complexity at its best – spicy, rich, chocolatey, vibrant – flavors that most certainly take some time to develop. The better your ingredients, the better your mole. And in that respect, I finally broke down and bought lard, because Rick said to.
The lard got hot, and immediately I recognized the smell as something that was really prevalent in my life, but this time I couldn’t remember right away where it was coming from. A couple of whiffs later, it was crystal clear. Yeah, you could say the Southern ladies in my family don’t mess around in the kitchen, and if the taste of their food has anything to do with the fact that they use lard in their cooking, well, now I’m sold. I can’t believe it took a cookbook from a Mexican-influenced chef to do the trick, but hey, you take it where you will, I reckon.
Anyway, I’m happy to report that, even though I cut this recipe in half (the book I used is for fiestas, not two-person dining, you see), there is plenty left over after generously using the other half to sop up some mole-painted chicken. I tweeted Rick and he said he’d make enchiladas with the leftovers, and I think he might be on to something. For now, there’s a container in the freezer, just waiting for enchilada inspiration. And hopefully, it won’t take nearly as long to get around to that as it did to use lard. I doubt it will.
Lacquered Chicken in Classic Red Mole
adapted from Fiesta at Rick’s; serves 4 with leftover mole
time commitment: long. 4 hours, most of which requires active attention, minus 30 minutes or so. but don’t let that deter you!
5 oz tomatillos, husked and rinsed (2 large)
3/4 c roasted sesame seeds
1/2 c pork lard (or vegetable oil)
5 medium dried mulato chiles (~3 oz)
3 medium dried ancho chiles (1.5 oz)
4 medium dried pasilla chiles (1.5 oz)
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 c almonds
1/2 c raisins
1/2 t ground Mexican cinnamon (canela)
1/4 t black pepper
1/4 t ground anise
pinch of g cloves
1 slice toasted white bread, torn into pieces
1 oz dark chocolate, roughly chopped
1.5 quarts lo-sodium chicken broth
1/3 c sugar
1/4 c agave nectar
4 pieces of chicken (I used leg quarters)
cilantro, for garnish
turn broiler to high. broil tomatillos about 4 inches from flame until black and soft, about 5 minutes per side. put in a large bowl and set aside. add half of sesame seeds to bowl with tomatillos, and save the other half for garnishing at the end.
turn on your exhaust fan; it’s about to get smoky in here! using a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the lard over medium heat. meanwhile, seed and stem the chiles, and break into large pieces. once the lard is hot, fry the chiles in 3-4 batches, flipping them constantly until aromatic and the insides are lightened (20-30 seconds for each batch). be careful not to over-toast. put them in a large bowl and cover with hot water; seal the bowl with plastic wrap and let rehydrate for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to ensure all parts become submerged.
meanwhile, remove any chile seeds from the pot. add garlic and almonds to pot and fry, stirring regularly, until browned, about 5 minutes. remove and add to tomatillo bowl. add raisins to hot pot and fry until puffed and browned; add to tomatillos. set pan aside, away from heat.
to the tomatillo mixture, add spices, bread, and chocolate. add 1 cup of water and stir to combine.
pour the chiles, 2 cups of water from the bowl, and 1 cup of tap water into a blender, and blend to a smooth puree (you may want to do this in 2 batches, depending on the size of your blender). pour out the rest of the chile water. press puree through a medium sieve into the same large bowl and discard pieces that don’t make it through.
reheat the lard in the pot over medium heat. add more lard if there isn’t much in the pot. once the lard is very hot, pour the chile puree into the pot. the pot should simmer loudly, then die down some, but should continue to keep a low boil. continue to boil, stirring every couple of minutes until reduced to tomato paste consistency (~15-20 minutes). (If you have a splatter screen, use it, or you’ll be cleaning up a lot, like I did.)
meanwhile, puree the tomatillo mixture as smoothly as possible, adding a little water if needed. Strain back into the bowl. Once the chile puree has reduced, add tomatillo mixture and cook, stirring every few minutes until darker and thicker, about 10-15 minutes.
add broth to pot and simmer over medium to medium-low for about 1.5 hours. if the mole becomes thick (Rick says thicker than a cream soup), add some water. season with salt and the sugar.
heat oven to 350 F. place chicken on a rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle with salt. baked chicken for 25 minutes. meanwhile, mix together 1/2 c of mole and the agave nectar into a small saucepan, and heat until glossy and reduced to 1/2 c, about 15 minutes. once chicken is baked, remove from oven and increase oven temp to 400 F. brush chicken with mole/agave mixture and sprinkle with remaining sesame seeds. bake for 10 minutes. removed from oven and let sit ~7 minutes. serve each portion with extra mole and garnish with cilantro.