To further explore Episode 20, the Columbian Exchange, we’ll be making some classic recipes that were only possible once Eurasia and the Americas began mixing their ingredients.
To start, I can’t think of a better example than Mexican mole sauce. Mesoamerican chocolate and chili peppers bring the strongest and most unique flavors to this dish, but they’re used with Old World bread, sugar, spices, nuts, and seeds, and of course pork. Pork is ubiquitous in Mexican cuisine today but wasn’t around until Spanish colonists brought their pigs en masse to the New World, shaping a new cuisine in the process.
Mole has a reputation for being complicated, but it’s really not. It just has a lot of ingredients. Basically though, you just need to cover five bases for a good mole sauce: spiciness (from chilis), acidity (from chocolate, tomatoes, and citrus), sweetness (from dried fruit and cane sugar), spices, and thickeners (nuts, seeds, and bread).
To be extra authentic, pick up a cone of pilonciillo sugar from a Latin grocery store. Also, a more classic chili for this recipe would be pasilla negro chilis, but I am using the varieties I grew in my garden and dried this past summer. I’ve got chipotle, ancho, and cayenne.
MOLE ROJO DE PUERCO
2-3 lbs. pork shoulder, cut into strips or cubes
1 cup high quality dark chocolate
6-7 dried chili peppers, seeds removed
1 cup almonds
1 cup pumpkin seeds
2 cups white bread croutons
1 onion, sliced
1 head garlic, peeled and crushed
2 fresh poblano peppers, sliced
3-4 ripe tomatoes
10 dates, pitted
1 quart or more chicken stock or water
1/2 cup pure cane sugar (or half a cone of Mexican piloncillo if you have it)
1 cinnamon stick, 2 star anise, 1 teaspn coriander seeds, 1 teaspn cumin
To start, we have a little prep work to do. We’ve got to get our chilis rehydrated and most of everything else toasted.
De-seed the chilis and bring a few cups of water to a boil. Pour it over the peppers and let them soak for at least 30 minutes.
Tear up about two cups work of white bread, drizzle with olive oil and toast in a 350F oven for 15-20 minutes until they are crunchy croutons. Also, go ahead and preseason your pork shoulder with salt, black pepper, paprika, and oregano.
In a saute pan over medium heat, toast nuts, seeds, and spices until fragrant and golden brown. Set aside.
Keep the pan on and turn up the heat to high. Add just a little oil and sear the pork shoulder until lightly browned on all sides. Set aside. Turn the heat back down just a little and saute the onions, garlic and poblano peppers until soft and a little browned.
Add the tomatoes, sugar,dates, bread, all the things we toasted, and water or chicken stock. Season with salt. Bring to a boil then then turn down to a simmer, cooking for 10 minutes or so just marry everything together.
Now, all ingredients should be in play except for the chocolate. We’re saving that for the very end. Separate liquid from solids and mash the solids in batches in a mortar and pestle in batches until very smooth…… Just kidding. Put everything in the blender. We’re after historical flavor, not historical arthritis.
Pour the blended sauce back into the pot and bring back up a simmer. Add the pork back in and preheat the oven.
Cook pork in sauce in a 325F oven for one hour or until the the meat is very tender. Taste for salt. Stir in the chocolate until melted, and add more water/stock if necessary to adjust consistency. You want a thick but pourable sauce.
Often, mole is served over rice, another ingredient from the Old World that is now prevalent in Mexican cuisine. But you can stay Mesoamerican and eat with tortillas or grits as well.
Garnish with yet more old world ingredients, cilantro leaves and a wedge of citrus (you should also probably garnish with the traditional coating of sesame seeds, but this chef has a hole in his head and forgot at the time of plating), displaying once and for all that this dish would never have been possible if Eurasian and Mesoamerican ingredients hadn’t come together.
As we discussed in the podcast, there is plenty of tragedy that went with those societies mixing. But in food we can always find silver linings to the darker parts of history. And delicious, spicy, creamy, deeply flavorful mole sauce is certainly one of them!