On the 5th of May, Americans and Mexicans alike will be celebrating the festival "Cinco de Mayo", the commemoration of the Mexican army's surprise victory over occupying French armies in 1862 at the Battle of Puebla, Central Mexico.
“We like to celebrate at the restaurants with music and a special menu from Puebla with mole, tinga and other Pueblan specialties,” says Hugo Ortega, chef/owner of Hugo’s and Caracol restaurants in Houston, Texas. “Cinco de Mayo is an important holiday for folks from Puebla, Mexico, but is not near as big a holiday in Mexico as it is here in the US.” Benjamin & Shannon Gonzales from Nuestra Cocina restaurant in Portland Oregon are also celebrating "Cinco de Mayo means to us a collaboration of Americans & Mexicans celebrating Mexican heritage & pride. But most importantly, it’s about The Battle of Puebla. Around here, it also means a festival of mariachis, Mexican dancers & margaritas. Everyone enjoys a good celebration!"
Mexican dancers at Hugo's restaurant, Texas
Americans are taking to Cinco de Mayo festivities with the same enthusiasm and upbeat appetite for celebration that they bring to St Patricks Day.
Cinco de Mayo is important for folks from Puebla, Mexico, but it is much bigger in the US
Chefs Jaime and Ramiro from La Casita Mexicana Restaurant in LA are a little more sanguine about the celebrations "It is a day that the US has dedicated to Latinos (specially Mexicanos) and as such we embrace it - even though many people confuse it with Mexico Independence Day in September. Cinco de Mayo showcases the culture of Mexico in the US, and we appreciate the effort given the absence of other more authentic days."
The festivities across the USA will certainly be jolly. Ortega has a tequila based tasting menu planned, and Chefs Jaime and Ramiro serve more ceviche-style dishes which pair well with Mezcal. Yet the most famous dish for the day is from Puebla itself, mole poblano. Mole poblano is attributed Sister (or 'Sor') Andrea at Santa Rosa Convent in the seventeenth century, who wanted to honour a visiting bishop by blending ingredients from the Old World and the New World together in one dish.
Mole poblano is famed for its depth of flavour and sheer number of ingredients. Chef Ortega shares: "The secret to a great mole is to get all the ingredients ready on one day and prepare it the next. No shortcuts." Of course in the quest for the perfect mole, it is possible to do everything from scratch including making the chocolate. Ortega laughs, "We also toast and grind their own cocoa beans. That really takes the mole to the next level.” Jaime and Ramiro agree authenticity is paramount "The secret to a great mole is to use fresh and authentic ingredients - no substitutions."
The secret to a great mole is to get all the ingredients ready on one day and prepare it the next. No shortcuts.
The Gonzales from Nuestra Cocina also emphasise heritage, "The secret behind a great mole negro is your grandmother's recipe". And share the importance of a dark rich mole "Be sure to and toast all the ingredients to almost black but not burnt stage."
Mole poblano is traditionally served with turkey, braised in the sauce itself, however the mole works equally well with chicken. There is no consensus about precise ratios for the ingredients in mole poblano - Diana Kennedy's excellent book 'The Essentials Of Mexican Cuisine' notes that recipes in La Cocinera Poblana published in Puebla in 1877 use at least seven different spices, but not one includes cacao or chocolate. Mulato, ancho, and pasilla chillies appear in most recipes, though in different quantities, and occasionally with one chipotle blended in towards the end. Onion and garlic crop up, though sometimes one or the other, and tomatoes are occasionally replaced by tomatillos.
Mole Poblano at Hugo's, Houston, Texas
All mole poblano recipes follow a similar process. Firstly toasting and soaking the dried chillies. Second, blending together the toasted chillies along with aromatic vegetables (onion, garlic, tomato, tomatillo), warm heady spices (cinnamon, coriander seed, cumin, pepper, cloves), thickeners (almonds, sesame, pumpkin seeds, bread, tortilla), and a final few ingredients for sweetness and depth (raisins, chocolate, sugar). Third, the blended paste is cooked - simmered for up to an hour to develop and intensify the flavour, and finally the sauce is thinned a little with stock and poured over a jointed chicken or turkey to roast. Presentation of the final dish is neater if the sauce and meat are cooked separately, however some argue this reduces the intensity of flavour.
The recipe below makes plenty to use with a medium turkey, or three whole chickens, serving 12-18 people. If you are just cooking one chicken, the cooked mole sauce can be divided into three and two thirds frozen for up to a month.
Many thanks to Hugo's for the images of traditional Mexican dancers in the restaurant.
Recipe: Mole Poblano
Makes enough mole to serve with three chickens or one turkey (or for 12-18 people). If using just one chicken, to serve 4-6 people, separate the cooked mole paste into three. Use one third of the paste to finish the dish, and freeze the remaining two thirds.
Chillies Serves: 4
Flavours & Thickeners
- 3 tbsp sunflower oil
- 1/2 medium onion, sliced
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 tbsp (20g) raisins
- 2 tbsp (20g) ground almonds, or 10 whole almonds
- 3 tbsp (25g) white sesame seeds
- 75g breadcrumbs or white bread
- 1 medium tomato, quartered
- 120g dark chocolate (54% cocoa solids) (if using different chocolate, you may need to adjust the quantity of sugar to balance it)
- 100g caster sugar or dark brown sugar
- 3 tsp salt
- 750ml chicken stock
To finish the dish - for 4-6 people
- 3 tbsp sunflower oil
- 1 large chicken, jointed
- 1/3 of the mole sauce made from the ingredients above
- 280ml chicken stock
- White sesame seeds, to garnish
- Cooked rice, to serve
First prepare the chillies
- Cut a slit down the side of each chilli - mulato, ancho and pasilla - to remove the seeds and reserve 1 tbsp. Discard the stems and remaining seeds.
- Heat a dry skillet. Sear the chillies one at a time, skin-side-down for 10-15 seconds until the surface starts to bubble or blister but doesn't burn.
- Pour boiling water over the chillies, and cover with a small plate to keep them submerged. Leave to soak for 1 hour.
Preparing the remaining ingredients
- Grind the spices in a spice grinder or pestle and mortar. Set aside.
- Heat the oil in a skillet until smoking. Add the onion and garlic. Fry until browning at the edges, and remove to a mixing bowl - leaving much of the oil in the pan.
- Fry the raisins for 20-30 seconds until puffed up. Lift out with a slotted spoon, and add to the mixing bowl with the onion and garlic.
- Fry together the ground almonds, sesame seeds, and breadcrumbs until toasted. They will absorb all the remaining oil. Pour into the mixing bowl.
- Wipe out the pan, and dry toast the spices for 10-15 seconds, and add to the mixing bowl. Finally toast the 1tbsp reserved chilli seeds, and add to the mixing bowl.
Blending and cooking the mole
- Drain the soaked chillies, and add half to a blender along with half the onion, garlic, breadcrumb mixture and half of the stock, sugar, chocolate and salt. Blend until smooth. Pour into a bowl, and blend the remaining chillies, breadcrumb mixture, stock, sugar and salt. Combine the two blends together. You will have around 2 litres of paste, with the consistency of a thick yoghurt. Note: At this stage, if your blender is not very powerful you can sieve the mole mixture to make a smooth paste.
- Pour the paste into a saucepan and leave to simmer for 45 minutes. It will bubble and spit so cover or use a splatter guard.
- At this stage you can divide the mole into three and freeze two thirds to use another day.
Finishing the mole and cooking the chicken
- Heat oven to 180°C or 160°C (fan)
- Brown the chicken pieces on all sides in a hot skillet.
- Whilst the chicken pieces brown, thin the mole sauce by adding the stock a little at a time, until it reaches the consistency of double cream.
- Remove chicken pieces to a medium roasting dish - the chicken should fit snugly - and pour over mole sauce. Cover tightly with foil, and cook in the oven for 1 hour.
- Serve each piece of chicken with a generous helping of sauce, and rice. Garnish with sesame seeds.