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.
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.]
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)
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.
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