I recently traveled to Mexico City. The food scene there is tremendous, the markets are a feast for the senses and I learned quite a bit about the local culinary traditions.
Mole, often called the “national dish of Mexico,” invokes significant passion. I was told repeatedly by various people, from chefs to food stand merchants to Uber drivers, that their mama’s or abuela’s mole was the best in the world, and there is no arguing the point. Obviously, I did not argue the point.
I tried mole in various forms — an Oaxacan version over cheese enchiladas at the renowned traditional restaurant Azul; a white version topped with fermented carrots at Rosetta, a restaurant honored with “the best female chef in Latin America”; and a bunch of different blends spooned out of bins for tastes at a market from a stand that offered about 40 different types of mole.
The history of mole is disputed — some claim it was invented by accident when a bunch of spices spilled together. Others suggest that Montezuma served it to Cortes, the conquistador who the natives mistook for a god. Others claim it was created in a panic, pulling a random assortment of ingredients together to host a visiting archbishop.
Regardless of its origin, the dish is beloved throughout Mexico, and there are many different types — all include an assortment of dried, roasted, ground chilis, and then the deviation occurs. Some moles can require up to 100 ingredients — they might add aromatic spices such as cinnamon, cloves and allspice or nuts, seeds and fruits. The spices are then mixed with water or broth, heated and used as a sauce or, in some cases, as a base for stew.
Of course, I brought a large bag of my favorite blend home, but for those of you who wish to make your own, I have a simpler version. I also offer a vegetable mole stew and a cocktail or mocktail that makes a refreshing aperitif.
Mole Spice Blend
Makes about ⅔ cup
In addition to providing the base for mole sauce, this can be used as a rub for chicken or meat or mixed with oil and citrus for a marinade. The degree of spiciness can be shifted for personal preference, using less chili, more cocoa, etc.
2 tablespoons ancho chili powder
2 tablespoons chipotle chili powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cloves
2 teaspoons white or brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
Mix all the ingredients well with a fork. Store it, tightly sealed, in a spice cabinet.
Water or broth
For traditional mole sauce, mix 1 part of the spice blend with 4 parts water and heat it in a small saucepan over medium. Bring it to a boil, lower the heat, stirring constantly, and cook it for about 2 minutes. If it’s too thick, add more water or broth. (It should be the consistency of a very smooth marinara sauce or slightly thinner than barbecue sauce.)
Remove it from the heat and use it as desired — as a sauce for chicken or meat, over enchiladas, as a base for soup or stew, or as a topping for quesadillas, tacos or any Mexican dish.
Vegetable Mole Stew
This stew has a hardiness that can provide rib-sticking warmth, but it is also vegetarian, so it is light enough to serve year-round. Use whatever veggies you have on hand and serve it over rice.
1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil
⅓ cup mole spice blend
6 cups chopped vegetables (potatoes, yams, bell peppers, carrots, beans, etc.)
2-3 cups water or broth, or more as needed
1 cup crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
Cooked white rice for serving
Chopped fresh cilantro and/or scallions for garnish
Heat the oil and add the spice blend in a large soup pot. Let the spices toast for a few minutes and add the vegetables. Stir to coat. Add water or broth, mix well and bring it to a boil. Add the crushed tomatoes. Stir to blend, add the juice of the lime and throw the 2 halves of the lime into the stew. There should be enough liquid to just cover the veggies; if not, add more.
Stir, cover and simmer the stew for about 40 minutes until all the vegetables are soft and cooked through. Check occasionally to ensure there’s sufficient liquid; add more if needed.
Serve the stew over rice topped with cilantro and scallions.
Fruit Mocktail or Cocktail
I took a cooking class from a chef, and she made this drink with passionfruit. This is difficult to come by here in the Northeast, so I asked her for advice on a workaround. She suggested cantaloupe, oranges and limes. I used the whole fruits, which yielded a rather thick drink, but if you prefer a thinner texture, you can strain it.
1 orange, peeled and pitted
1 cup chopped cantaloupe or other sweet,
Juice of ½ lime
5-6 mint leaves (save 1 for each serving as garnish)
+/- 1 cup water
Tequila or mezcal if desired
Place all the ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Pour it over ice and garnish it with a mint leaf. If you’re spiking the drink, use 1 part of tequila for 2 or 3 parts of juice.