28 January 2014

Food Lab 26: Mole

Every year for our Super Bowl party, Chef Spouse creates a Tex-Mex extravaganza (with the assistance of Made Kitchen Scientist, The Executive Committee, and me). Every year for the past few years, the Tex-Mex extravaganza has been getting more complex. We now make all our own tortillas (corn and flour of course) to wrap around Chef Spouse's delicious fajita fillings and homemade guacamole. We are likely to add homemade salsa this year, too, and we have talked about doing all the tortilla chips from scratch, since we have a deep fryer.

While we were prepping this year's New Year's Eve feast, we were chatting with MKS and TEC about what might add to the Super Bowl deliciousness, and we arrived on mole. Mad Kitchen Scientist has made mole before, but Chef Spouse and I have not. Hence, a Food Lab.

MKS posited that, if we were going to do this right, we would have to start the Lab with a field trip to the legendary Penzey's Spices, since we were going to need a wide variety of dried chiles and interesting spices. To date, Chef Spouse and I have been, well, resistant is not really the word. Slow to get on the Penzey's train, mostly out of fear for our bank account. Turns out, that fear was well founded. We got chiles, for sure, but Chef Spouse and I also dropped over $100 on

In case you can't see it all, that basket contains:
  • Star anise
  • Crystalized ginger bits (pre-chopped to perfect baking size)
  • Red chile flakes
  • Brown mustard seeds (Chef Spouse has been doing a lot of Indian cooking lately and could only find yellow at the local megamart)
  • Juniper berries
  • Vietnamese cinnamon (SOOOO spicy!)
  • Chinese cinnamon (sweet, rich, and warm)
  • Galangal (for Thai cooking, and also hard to find at the local megamart)
  • Cumin seed (NOT ground, also useful in Indian food and hard to find)
  • Green cardamon seeds (GORGEOUS and impossible to pass up)
  • Ceylon whole cloves (bright and fresh)
  • Madagascar whole cloves(darker and richer)
  • Smoked paprika
  • Sumac
  • a GIANT bottle of high quality Mexican vanilla extract (hey, it's not like it goes bad)
It was a bit of a frenzy, and required reorganization of our spice storage when we got home.

Then, when we got back to Chez Executive Committee, Chef Spouse played with Mad Kitchen Scientist's new toy from Santa. We already have four different knife sharpening tools/systems, and we live less than one mile from a butcher who can professionally sharpen your knives in 24 hours or less for, like, $3 a knife. But apparently, we need another knife sharpening tool in the house. Of course, Chef Spouse is going to have to get the fancier, more expensive kind because he has both German and Japanese knives, which sharpen at different angles. Sigh.

We also parboiled five pounds of chicken thighs so we'd have something to eat all this mole on (and which provided a few quarts of a very light chicken broth that turned out to be quite helpful).

Anyway, we eventually started work on the mole, guided by MKS's house recipe, Rick Bayless, and Diana Kennedy (who, if you weren't already aware, apparently hate each other, which led to much trash talking about "team Bayless" and "team Kennedy").

I quote Rick on mole (thus revealing my team preference):
...when you say mole poblano, non-natives immediately think "chocolate chicken," while natives' mouths water to visions of a dark, complex sauce made of dried chiles, nuts, seeds, flavorings, vegetables, spices, and, yes, a bit of chocolate. 
Whereas Diana Kennedy insists that mole does NOT include chocolate.

From what we could determine, basic mole consists of chiles, nuts, allium, some sort of fat (traditionally lard), spices, and a binder (generally stale tortillas). It may, but does not have to, include fruit, tomatoes, and/or chocolate.

So after some debate and comparing of recipes, we decided to lab four varieties:
  • Dried chiles, no chocolate
  • Dried chiles with 2 TBP cocoa powder
  • Dried chiles with 2 oz. chopped 60% cacao bar chocolate
  • Fresh chiles only, which also got 2 oz. of the bar chocolate
For each of the three dried chile varieties, we used:
  • A little more than 1 chipotle (which are jalapenos that have been allowed to ripen to red before being dried, and were the hottest of the four)
  • 5 cascabels (sweet and vegetal)
  • 8 guajillos (smoky and mild)
  • 3-4 anchos (meaty, and, incidentally, MKS's favorites)
If you're doing the math at home, that's four chipotles, 15 cascabels, 24 guajillos, and 11 anchos, so 54 chiles total, all of which had to be stemmed, seeded, de-veined, and torn or cut into small pieces before being cooked briefly in lard and then reconstituted in chicken broth. Who processed all those chiles? Yours truly, which took about an hour and a half.

(According to both Bayless and Kennedy, mulato chiles are traditional, and are supposed to be "widely available." Maybe in Texas and California, but we had NO luck locating any in the DMV.)

Those three versions also got 1/2 c. of pulverized, dry-toasted almonds each as their nut component.

The fresh chile version used four jalapenos and six anaheims, all of which we roasted in the oven then peeled, seeded, and de-veined before using. The fresh version also got 3/4 c. pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds) for its nut component.

All the varieties also got the following:
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • ½ tsp anise seeds, toasted
  • ½ tsp coriander seeds, toasted
  • 3 TBSP sesame seeds, toasted
  • ½ tsp mixed seeds from the dried chiles
  • 3 oz. tomato paste
  • 4 cloves, ground
  • 1 whole onion and 1 clove garlic, chopped and browned in lard
  • 2 cloves raw garlic, chopped
  • ¼ c. mixed brown and golden raisins
  • 2 corn tortillas (which, of course, we made fresh and then staled-out in the oven)
We had all that prepped and standing by in four bowls before we started cooking. For each of the three dried chile batches, first, we stick-blended the dried, reconstituted chiles in their chicken broth, then poured that into a Dutch oven to brown in lard before adding that list of ingredients above plus about 1/2 c. homemade smoked chicken stock (that MKS just happened to have on hand), whirring with the stick blender again, then simmering for about 30 minutes, adding the parboiled chicken thighs, and simmering an additional 30 minutes. The only difference with the fresh chile version is that we just put the above ingredients and the roasted chiles in the Dutch oven together with the last of the chicken broth and more like 1 c.  of the homemade smoked chicken stock, then went through the same whirring, simmering, chicken, more simmering process as above.

When the chicken was done, we pulled it out, shredded it, and served each with a bowl of its sauce on the side, thusly:

All together, the process took more than five hours, which is actually pretty fast considering that Rick Bayless opines that it takes multiple days to make a really good mole.

Both Chef Spouse and The Executive Committee found the fresh variety too hot, although, chile-head that I am, it was my favorite. I liked the brightness of no chocolate variety as well, finding both the chocolate varieties a little too rich. Surprisingly, the cocoa variety had a smoother mouth-feel than the bar chocolate variety. But I wouldn't, as the saying goes, kick any of them out of bed for eating crackers.

"But was there a drinks lab?" you ask. Of course! Aside from wine with the mole, we also enjoyed two tasty cocktails.

Mad Kitchen Scientist made us delish fresh mango ginger margaritas to start the day. He muddled 1 mango, 2 limes, and a thumb joint-sized piece of fresh ginger, chopped fine, then used that as the base for drinks, each of which were 1 part Tequila, 1/2 part Cointreau, and 1/4 part agave nectar.

Chef Spouse responded with a yet-to-be-named pomegranate drink, consisting of 1 part simple syrup, 1 part lemon juice, 2 parts Aperol, 3 parts gin, and 3 parts 100% pomegranate juice. I, of course, didn't find it bitter enough and added orange bitters to mine.

So was it worth the time and effort? Absolutely, because each recipe makes a lot of mole, which, according to Mad Kitchen Scientist, freezes really well. We had quite a bit of the chicken left, too, which is going to show up at the Super Bowl party as filling for a fresh corn tortilla taquito appetizer.

01 January 2014

Food Lab: Update

Happy New Year, Foodies!

Checking in on your valiant Food Labbers, although we haven't done a formal lab since September, we have all been busy with food and non-food activities.

As usual, of course, it gets tougher to schedule Labs in the fall due to one of my other leisure activities, and things were further complicated this fall by Labbers traveling domestically and internationally and changing jobs and looking for jobs and several house renovation projects and ANOTHER one of my leisure activities, among other things.

Chef Spouse and I did join Mad Kitchen Scientist, The Executive Committee, and some of their friends at the family homestead in Catawba, OH Thanksgiving week. We did a LOT of cooking, and sort of half of a lab looking at making aspics, but Chef Spouse and I had to leave before that finished up, and we mostly forgot to take any pictures, which makes things a little tough to write about.

What I learned:
  • REALLY good meat is REALLY cheap in Ohio. We got a huge, beautiful beef tenderloin (yes, the WHOLE tenderloin) for $30. Not joking.
  • Pressure cookers are awesome for making stock - they speed up the process and extract a LOT more gelatinous goodness.
  • If you feed and use your sourdough starter to bake bread daily, you stop needing any sort of recipe pretty much immediately. Now I just make bread.
  • Those old-fashioned pizzelle irons that require you to cook the pizzelles over a gas burner are a BITCH to use, but remind everyone how delicious homemade pizzelles. Fortunately, Santa was reminded, too, and brought me one of these.
  • Chef Spouse is the cocktail MASTER (I already knew that, but he worked his magic for us nightly to good effect, including using hibiscus blossoms we found at the local market).
  • Aperol is YUMMY.
  • Brining a turkey is not that hard as long as you have a spare cooler you can use.
  • 8 people need at least 10 pies (we did have two each of pumpkin and pecan).
  • DO NOT attempt to chop the leeks before you've had your coffee. You may lose a bit of the end of your thumb. Which hurts like HELL but does get you out of helping with the cleanup.
  • A snug house, two happy dogs, hot buttered rum, and conversation with good friends around the fire is an EXCELLENT way to spend an evening.
We've had some great foodie moments since then, too, including the annual Old Ebbitt Grill oyster riot, an afternoon teaching a group of friends that will be traveling to Jamaica with us in the spring how to make pasta from scratch, meals at some great new restaurants in the DMV, attending the annual Feast of the Seven Fishes Italian (of course) friends of ours put together, and our traditional New Year's Eve helping Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee prep and then joining a bunch of their other friends for their fantastic house party featuring our delicious food and Mad Kitchen Scientist's top-quality homebrews.

Food Lab will return soon now that the 2013 NFL season is winding down. In the meantime, happy New Year to you and all your loved ones. I wish you a 2014 full of amazing food, fun, laughter, love, learning, and good friends - in other words, that you'll have a Food Lab kind of year!

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