Friday, March 23, 2012

Holy Mole

A rich, velvety Mexican mole (pronounced molay) poblano sauce is such a rare treat.  I had no idea how rare or the appreciation of how complex until I decided to make it a project by making the sauce from scratch.

Last weekend was the perfect rainy day excuse to tackle the mole creation and John was a willing participant.  While researching recipes, I discovered there was a myriad of variations of the sauce.  Curious as to why that would be, Wikipedia came up with the answer. 

So the tale goes, a convent in Puebla, Mexico in the early colonial period received word the archbishop of the time would be paying them a visit.  The convent nuns went into panic mode because they were poor and had almost nothing to serve him.  With a little prayer and an inventory check, the nuns used the little bits of items they had, chili peppers, spices, day old bread, nuts and a bit of chocolate.  Their creation was a mole stew, drizzled over an old turkey they sacrificed.  The archbishop gave their culinary creation rave reviews.  The nun's approach was very much like the Italians and their strategy of putting a putannesca together.

Given the improvisational nature of its original making, different regions in Mexico would use different ingredients; some as many as over 30 different ingredients!  Our aim last weekend was to make the classic mole of Oaxaca.  I merged two or three recipes and set off for the San Fernando Valley's own Vallarta Supermarket which caters to the Latino population here in Los Angeles.

North Hollywood Store
All kinds of ingredients could be used including almonds, walnuts, peanuts, pine nuts, sesame seed, pumpkin seeds, raisins or other dried fruit, plantains, tomatoes, garlic, onion, cinnamon, peppercorns, coriander seeds, anise, Mexican chocolate and more.  Typical chilies used could be ancho, pasilla, mulato, tomatillo and chipotle.   Thickeners could be flour or corn tortillas and bolillo rolls with broth as the saucing agent.  Vallarta had most of these ingredient choices.

My choice of seeds
Chose dried anchos, a quick pan fry releases oils then soak for 30 minutes
Torn bolillo rolls and tortillas.  Hang in there...this will make sense!
Fruits & Nuts (I am from California after all)
Making a decision on which ingredients to use was labor intensive enough.  Had the weather been more enticing, we may have been dissuaded once we realized we had to now toast all the dry ingredients.

"Toasting" in a skillet the seeds
Same for the fruits & nuts
Roasting the tomatoes releases the skin for chopping

Plantains, Onion and Garlic get their time in the skillet

Only then to grind all the seeds/nuts into a fine powder and later food processed with the bread and chilies to create a paste.  Just think how long all this took "back in the day" when everything was done by hand!

Roasted seeds grind best in an old coffee grinder
Blend or food process everything
The paste is then mixed with a liquid and simmers until the sauce melds all those ingredients simmering until the sauce is fragrant and thick.  Some recipes call for all day simmers, others less than an hour.

The chocolate bits just dropped in
In our case we simmered about 30 minutes and then added the chocolate to give it its final color and sweet flavor.  While the sauce was simmering, we browned some chicken in an oven proof skillet.  Once browned to our liking, we drizzled half of our mole creation over the chicken to braise in the oven for an hour.   We put leftover sauce in the freezer for a future meal.

The final outcome tapped into my memories of previous mole meals. 

Oaxacan Mole Over Chicken
With so many ingredients to use, there can be tweaks to our recipe to make it your very own.  Most Mexicans now only make this on special occasions such as Cinco De Mayo, Christmas or birthdays.  Should you make an attempt at making mole, you will become part of a homemade tradition that is in danger of becoming extinct due to its time consuming nature.

My Version of Homemade Oaxacan Mole

3-5 ancho chilies
1/3 C sesame seeds
3/4 t anise seeds
1/2 t cumin seeds or a couple of pinches of cumin powder
1/2 t coriander seeds
2 cloves
12 black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
5 T vegetable shortening
3 T raisins
20 almonds
20 walnuts
1 plantain, chopped
1 white onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
3 plum tomatoes
1 flour tortilla ripped into small pieces
2 bolillo rolls
1 bay leaf
5 C chicken stock
4-5 oz Mexican chocolate
Cotija cheese, additional sesame seeds and green onion slices to garnish

Toast anchos in skillet for 2-3 minutes, then seed and soak the chilies for 30 minutes.  Gently toast the sesame, anise, cumin, coriander, cloves, peppercorns and cinnamon stick.  Let cool.  Once cooled, then grind the toasted seeds to a fine powder. 

Add 2 T of vegetable shortening to skillet to melt.  Add raisins and nutmeats, frying for 2-3 minutes.  Set raisins and nutmeats aside to cool.  Add more vegetable shortening to pan, then fry the plantains, onions and garlic another 2-3 minutes.  Roast tomatoes till skins bubble.  Peel and roughly chop tomatoes.

Place all the toasted and fried ingredients in a blender or large capacity food processor.  Add torn tortilla and rolls to blender.  Blend everything till it resembles a paste.

In a sauce pan, place the paste, chicken broth and bay leaf to make a thick, rich sauce.  Simmer for 20 minutes.  Place broken pieces of the Mexican chocolate into the sauce.  Stir well till all chocolate has melted.  Simmer an additional 10 minutes.  Pour sauce over your favorite prepped meat or enchiladas and bake as required.

Garnish with cotija cheese, sesame seeds and sliced green onions.  This is worth all the effort!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

To B&B or Not To B&B?

I've had a reoccurring daydream for years...own and run a bed & breakfast.  And why wouldn't I?  Almost every experience we've had visiting an inn has delivered a memorable, homey and personalized experience.  That's more than I can say for staying at a chain hotel if I'm aiming to take in the local spirit.

The beauty of running an inn checks off my top passions, starting with my love of design.  Below is just a small sampling of places we have actually stayed at...

The Berry Manor Inn in Rockland, Maine
Green Cat Bed and Breakfast outside of Poulsbo, WA

So many of the B&B's we've visited reflect the historical architecture of the area.

Hotel Convento (converted Convent) in Arcos De La Frontera, Spain

Ryokan Asakusa Shigetsu, Traditional Guest House in Tokyo
Hotel Pension Elisabeth Garni in Fussen, Germany
Most owners have done a loving job of embracing the period of the home through their interpretation in their furnishing choices.  Fun for me is a blank canvas to express my take on interior and exterior design which is in keeping with the home.  (Freud would probably say that's why we've moved so many times over the years.)

Landscaping always makes either a strong or weak first impression.  Oh to have the time to create the gardens I've seen at some of these bed & breakfasts...sigh.

Standard English Garden in Bath, England

Let's get to the crux of the matter, the breakfasts!  We've had some spectacular, top rate meals at bed & breakfasts.  Usually the inn keeper uses ingredients that are native to the area, are scrumptious and home made.  I would love to create menus and lose myself to cooking those dream concoctions.

More than one person can (should) eat
What I would make at my B&B
A charming home in a great location, a space for gardening, cooking a fabulous breakfast, a little socialization and then sending the guests on their merry way.  I could indulge in it all and make a living.  If it seems to mark off everything I am passionate about, what would it take to make the dream a reality?  Research!

Enter the big bubble bursting pin, stage left.

Last year I decided to get serious on studying the possibility and bought "Running a Bed and Breakfast for Dummies".

Courtesy of Wiley Publishing

The reality is we would be running a small business.  Like any standard small business, we would need to have 3 years worth of reserves to buy us time for getting our business off the ground.  That does not include the cost of buying the property, funding the improvements, paying for marketing, covering our own health insurance or putting away for retirement.  Add to the mix a sudden, unexpected downturn in tourism and one could find yourself doing the gardening, laundry, web design and a host of other odd jobs.  Vacation?  What vacation?

Buying the property is probably the biggest challenge of all.  Identifying a destination and affording the best location within that destination which would have at a minimum 4 bedrooms with private baths along with owner's quarters is an extremely pricey proposition.  Scale back the dream you say?  To even begin to make the numbers work, you need at least that many bedrooms to make it fly.  What if the destination is a seasonal stop?  Then it's really difficult to make the numbers work.

Now if money were no object, well, let's face it.  If money were no object, you don't have much need of running a small business!

Final conclusion?  A good way to kill my hobbies is to try and turn them into a business.  I think I'll just enjoy the pure pleasure of decorating, gardening, cooking and all the rewards they have to offer.
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