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July 8, 2008

Almonds (Recipe: Señora Gonzales' chicken with mole colorado)

Almonds2

Though I've been writing The Perfect Pantry for two years, and have adopted two blogs, and managed to figure out (stumbled upon, really) a few truths about what makes a blog work, I'm always surprised when new or would-be bloggers seek my advice.

The key to a successful blog, I tell them, is to keep a sharp focus and stay on topic.

Don't get sidetracked on stories about New Year's Eve in Mexico, I tell them, when you really mean to write about almonds.

Good advice. And yet...

You already know a lot about almonds: that they are one of the world's healthiest foods, high in antioxidants and Vitamin E, and may help lower LDL (the bad cholesterol) and control blood sugar; that they're related to roses, but commercial growers graft the rootstock onto peach trees; that Spanish missionaries brought almonds to California, which is the only state in the US to produce them.

You probably know, too, that almonds taste great in everything from rhubarb sponge cake to chicken with almonds and green olives, to chocolate almond buttercrunch toffee.

What you don't know is how Ted and Cousin Martin and I spent New Year's Eve in 1992.

Five thousand feet up in the mountains of Central Mexico, Oaxaca is one of those magical places where anything can happen. In our dusty rented Volkswagen Beetle, we drove to the small village of Tlacolula, an hour outside the city, because we’d heard there was a special celebration to usher in the new year. All of the villagers parade through the streets to the church on the zocalo (town square), we were told, carrying models of their houses, to be blessed, and gifts to be offered.

When we arrived in the village, in late afternoon, the only thing open was the grindery, where people bring their coffee, chocolate and grain to be ground. We walked up and down the main street, to the church and back, and didn’t see any signs of preparation for a festival that evening.

We asked everyone we met, “When is the celebration?” Midnight, we were told. Eight o’clock. Ten o’clock. It’s tomorrow. What celebration?, some said.

Finally, we found a taxi stand near the zocalo, and we asked the taxi drivers, because taxi drivers everywhere know everything.

“Huh?” they replied.

Confused and disappointed, we decided to eat. Could they recommend a restaurant?

They nodded and pointed down the street to the Restaurant Regis which, as it turned out, consisted of three Formica-topped card tables on the ground floor of a small, run-down hotel.

Soon after we sat down, Señora Amparo Gonzales appeared. In our very limited Spanish we asked for a menu. She said no, there was no menu, but she had enchiladas. And cerveza (beer). Okay, we said. A few minutes later out came three plates of chicken enchiladas in the most amazing mole (MOH-lay) sauce we’d ever tasted. Wow! We had to have the recipe.

The señora was delighted, and flattered, and she began to list the ingredients as I wrote down what I could understand. When we didn’t know the word in Spanish, she would run into the kitchen and bring the ingredient to our table. Ah, saltines! Raisins! Cloves! Almonds! Soon we had a list of ingredients, but when we asked for quantities and cooking instructions, our language skills failed us.

A few weeks after we returned home, we decided to recreate the mole while our taste memory was intact. We invited ten friends, all of whom are adventurous and experienced cooks. With the list of ingredients in hand, and our taste buds primed, we worked and worked, adding here, stirring there, until at last we created the sauce we remembered from a magical New Year's Eve at the Restaurant Regis in Tlacolula.

A sauce that, I promise you, would not be the same without almonds.

Señora Gonzales' chicken with mole colorado

Don't be intimidated by the long list of ingredients. That's typical for a mole, but the cooking method is simple. Here the rich sauce is served over chicken, but it’s great with rice, enchiladas, leftover cooked turkey, or steamed vegetables. Serves 12 or more; can be frozen. [Note: recipe updated from the archives.]

Ingredients

12 chicken thighs, bone-in and skin on
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2-3 Tbsp canola oil
10 ancho chiles (smoked dried poblanos)
2 Tbsp raisins
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper, or to taste
1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
3 whole cloves
2 tsp dried thyme leaf
1/4 cup lightly toasted sesame seeds
1/3 cup crushed oyster crackers (or soda crackers -- something with low salt content)
1 cup canned ground tomato (or tomato puree, or fresh peeled, seeded chopped tomato)
A 3" x 1/2" piece of semi-sweet chocolate (Ibarra or other Mexican or Oaxacan chocolate is best, because has sugar mixed in)
2 cups or more chicken broth
Salt and sugar to taste (if the chocolate is sweet enough, you won't need sugar)
1 package smallest size corn or spinach tortillas (or whole wheat, or flour, whatever you prefer)

Directions

Preheat oven to 325°F. Rub chicken thighs with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place skin side up in a roasting pan just large enough to hold them. Add 1/4 inch of cold water. Cover with aluminum foil. Roast in the oven for 1-1/2 hours or as long as it takes to complete the rest of the menu. (Believe it or not, the chicken will not overcook. It will get more and more tender.)

Soak the ancho peppers in warm water to soften, then remove stems. Drain and chop roughly, and set aside.

In a small dry frying pan, toast the sesame seeds until they turn light brown, 2-3 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.

In a deep stock pot (6-8 quart size), sauté the onion and garlic in canola oil until the onions are translucent. Add the chiles and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add raisins, almonds, spices, sesame seeds, and crackers. Stir constantly over low-medium heat for a few minutes, until you have a thick paste and all ingredients are cooked through. With an immersion blender (or in a food processor), purée mixture with a few tablespoons of broth, and return mixture to the pan. Add tomatoes, chocolate and enough chicken broth to make a smooth sauce. Continue stirring, and cook until the chocolate is melted and the sauce is thickened, but still a little bit runny. Add more broth (or water) as needed to achieve desired consistency. Taste, and add salt and sugar if needed.

In a dry skillet or griddle, heat tortillas on both sides until lightly browned but still pliable (1 minute on each side on a hot griddle).

Remove chicken from the oven and place on a serving platter. Cover with mole sauce, and serve with tortillas.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]


More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Cod with raisins, nuts and apples
Tagine of chicken with prunes and almonds
Mixed grain salad

Comments

Incredible dishes like that mole always have a story - or they wouldn't taste as good! Looks like an unusually terrific recipe (and a great tale, too!)

A perfect combination: travel adventures and a recipe. I can see the village, the grindery and taste the mole. As it happens I have some leftover chix thighs and this will be today's meal
Ole!

Now, see... I always love the story behind a recipe. There are a million blogs and sites out there that just stick a (usually bad) photo up and then a recipe with no narrative whatsoever. So thank you for a lovely morning diversion.

And how I would have loved to taste that mole!

What a great story, from start to finish. I love how you worked as a group to recreate the recipe. I'll have to try that sometime with a group of friends; it sounds like fun. Thanks for sharing!

I agree with the earlier comments, that food is so much more than ingredients and a method! But I think a photo is always a wonderful thing.

Well, I didn't know that almonds are related to roses, but that's why I love reading the Perfect Pantry! What a fantastic recipe, and such a wonderful "souvenier" of your trip!

I certainly agree that nothing beats a good recipe and a good story..plus a wonderful photo..:-) that almond photo i must admit looks stunning!

Sounds like a fun adventure and a great way to get an authentic recipe!

Just as an FYI, the word mole doesn't have an accent.

When I close my eyes I can still see the scene in my mind when we took a photo of Sra. Gonzales and her family. Just before the shutter snapped, the family assumed a very straight-up, serious pose. It was just like one of the sepia photos of a classic rural Mexican family taken during the Pancho Villa era. Then, in an instant, they were all smiles and milling about. Quite an authentic Mexican experience. And the mole was to die for!

That's fun Lydia! Advice is good when it works for you! The mole sounds divine.

Marilyn, I've always thought that a good story is another ingredient that makes a dish taste so good!

Marcia, in a lifetime of New Year's Eves, this was by far the most memorable.

Ann, when I make it next, I will send you a taste.

Christina, I think that day was the first group cooking experience for me, and it was such fun that I ultimately made group cooking the backbone of my business. On the day we made the mole, I was probably the least confident cook in the kitchen.

Mae, I did actually think about a photo of the mole sauce -- but it would have looked like a big brown puddle! A more talented photographer could make something wonderful out of that.

TW, the area around Oaxaca is one I recommend to anyone who loves travel and loves to eat. The cuisine of the region is rich and flavorful, starting with the seven moles of Oaxaca. And the light that reminds me of Santa Fe, and the markets.... well, you just have to go.

Dhanggit, thank you -- I'm trying to improve my photography.

Kalyn, on that night I learned how proud people are to share their recipes (see Cousin Martin's comment, below).

Lily, thank you so much for the correction! I've be wrong all this time, but now have emended the post. I love when my readers take the time to point out things that need fixing.

Cousin M, wasn't that a time? Of all the moments in our travels together, this one still is at the top of the list.

MyKitchen, just this once I thought the story warranted a bit of deviation from my own rules! The mole is truly worth it.

Oh my goodness, I should have come to you first when starting my blog...I'm almost never on point! As for mole, the first taste is absolute heaven. Of course I kept wondering about what happened to the other celebration!

Hi Lydia,
To me, it's the stories behind the recipes that makes it interesting & memorable. You didn't say - did the festival actually occur?

Thanks for sharing this special sauce!

Nora

That sounds incredible! Love the story behind it too. Reading a blog is always like a little vacation or a little trip for me and yours do that everytime as well as being a bottomless well of knowledge!

thank you taking the time not only to recreate the recipe, but to share it with such a great story. oaxaca is my favorite place in mexico. i hope you were adventurous and tried the chapulines (surprisingly tasty) and a mezcal margarita. makes me want to go back just thinking about it. oh well, at least i can now make an authentic oaxacan mole!

Gracias!!

wonderful story, great photo - thanks for sharing!

L, good advise ... and good story!
so really no festival finally?

now I am curious to hear about that celebration, did you ever find it?

I've always found your blog so informative .... so u sure have the perfect formula for a successful blog. A travel experience with a recipe ... just perfect. I 've experienced that before in Macau ...where i had to come back and re create the dish myself. Your recipe does sound fantastic ...just trying to imagine all those flavours together.

Callipygia, your blog is lovely, lyrical, beautifully illustrated, and I always learn something new when I visit. As for the celebration, we never found it.

Nora, if there was a festival that night, we missed it -- but had the wonderful mole experience instead. After dinner we returned to Oaxaca, where there was much merriment in the zocalo as the new year arrived.

Tartelette, I feel the same way about your blog -- a slice of life in the South, and from France.

Loretta, Oaxaca is my favorite of all the places I've visited in Mexico. Such great food, great light, great markets!

Shawn, thanks for visiting!

Gattina, Ilva: We never did find that festival. Even by the time we finished dinner and looked once more around the town, there didn't seem to be anything going on (despite all the guidebooks saying there was a festival there each year). So we drove back into Oaxaca, found a cafe on the zocalo (town square), and saw in the New Year there. Ah, well.

Kate, our food memories are some of the best souvenirs of travel, aren't they?

What a wonderful story to introduce a food ingredient, your blog posts are always such good reads! ^^

Your stories and writing are always so good, and the almonds too! :)

Ah- mole! One of my all time favorite tastes. Lovely story. You are making me hungry! And I just ate. xoxo

Lydia,

That is one amazing story ... it has everything I love: adventure and almonds!

Wiffy, thank you! Every now and then, a little detour can be forgiven, I think, if the story is a good one.

Kelly-Jane, it was a New Year's Eve I will never forget, and the mole is pretty darned delicious, too.

Karina, I'm happy that you can "taste" the mole in this story!

Ivonne, adventure, almonds, and chocolate -- that covers all the bases!

We went with some Mexican friends to their favourite Mexican place and the chicken enchiladas with mole were outstanding amongst a lot of other good food.

Another friend who has just come back from Spain, brought some special Spanish almonds with him that he claimed were a little sweeter than regular ones. We tried them, but weren't convinced, though I've saved some to have a side-by-side comparison.

I absolutely love almonds - my favorite nuts, Lydia.
And ground almonds makes moist, delicious baked goods. YUM!

Great story; intimidating list of ingredients... But
I'm supposed to stay focused?????
On topic!?!?!?!?!
Yikes!!!
Now you tell me!

Neil, maybe these were marcona almonds? We often toast them lightly and toss with sea salt.

Patricia, I use almonds in savory dishes but almost never in baking. Wonder why not....

Katie, I always love the stories on your blog. Don't change a thing!

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  • My name is Lydia Walshin. From my log house kitchen in rural northwest Rhode Island, I share recipes that use what we keep in our pantries, the usual and not-so-usual ingredients that spice up our lives.

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