We found ourselves in Puebla during the brief but tasty time of year when a regional dish called chiles en nogada is on offer. In another stroke of luck we got to taste our first bites of this specialty—which consists of a peeled and cooked (and sometimes breaded) mild poblano chile stuffed with ground meat, diced fruit and spices then drenched in a creamy walnut sauce and garnished with pomegranate seeds—at the lauded restaurant at Mesones Sacristia.
We were even joined by Leobardo Espinosa the owner of Mesones Sacristia, an eight room boutique hotel and gourmet restaurant which is in his family’s eclectically re-imagined 250 year old house. Leobardo kindly hosted us for this Pueblan culinary rite of passage during which we learned that chiles en nogada is not as sweet or as creamy as you might think from reading the list of ingredients. All the complicated textures (soft, firm, crunchy), flavors (sweet, spicy, salty) and colors (which mimic the colors of the Mexican flag) really cooperate to create a simply delicious dish which feels extra special because you can only get it in late summer and early fall when pomegranates ripen.
Folks love their chiles en nogada but no dish gets a Poblano (someone from Puebla) going like mole. The first mole sauce is said to have been invented in Puebla by a bunch of nuns desperate to come up with something that would please their picky bishop. NOTE: when we were in Puebla the Cocina y Ex Convento de Santa Rosa, where the region’s famed mole is said to have been invented, was closed for renovation.
Another legend tweaks this one a bit and has the nuns creating mole for General Iturbe after the Mexican Revolution.
Anyway, today there are dozens of moles and any self-respecting home cook in Puebla has her own version of the stuff—some involving dozens of ingredients. At Mesones Sacristia we also tried a mole sampler plate which included four different varieties: a red pumpkin seed variation, a green pumpkin seed variation, a mole poblano and the house mole which is made with chipoltle peppers and a bunch of other secret ingredients. Each was remarkably different in color and flavor and that was just the tip of the mole iceberg.
We were hungry for more mole.
That’s about when Leobardo suggested that we should come back in the morning and take a brief cooking class with his executive chef, Alonso Hernandez, who would teach us how to make what we like to call Mole for Morons.
Leobardo started offering cooking classes about eight years ago in a no-frills kitchen that looks a lot like a typical Mexican kitchen looks. No Viking range, no copper-bottom pots and pans, no hand-hammered knives that cost more than a college degree. Just a good hot flame, a blender (essential in almost all Mexican cooking) a couple of big pots and a well-worn comal to seer tomatoes and heat tortillas.
From 10:00 to 1:00 chef Hernandez kept us busy making fresh red and green salsa for chalupas which, topped with shredded chicken, were light and fresh and nothing at all like what Taco Hell calls a chalupa.
The appetizer out of the way, we got down to business with a mole recipe that called for 11 ingredients (try it yourself, below). All were pretty straight forward except one: an incinerated corn tortilla. We literally held a corn tortilla over an open flame until it caught fire and became totally blackened, then we tossed the whole mess right into the mole. Chef Hernandez said the blackening adds flavor, color and texture.
Recipe: Mole Poblano
(serves 4) from Chef Alonso Hernandez, Mesones Sancristia
1. Remove the stems and seeds from the chilies
2. Roast the tomatoes, onion and garlic
3. Fry chilies just to get a crispy texture
4. Boil vegetables and chilies in 4 cups of water until soft
5. Grind all the ingredients and strain
6. Fry the plantain until golden brown
7. Put tortilla directly over the flame and burn it until it’s black all over
8. Grind the plantain and the tortilla with one cup water
9. Boil the sauce for a few minutes to cook it and add color
10. Stir in the tortilla and plantain sauce
11. Stir in the chocolate and sugar
12) Add salt and cook for another 25 minutes before pouring over chicken, turkey or pork
We can’t tell you whether it was the incinerated tortilla or not, but our mole was pretty tasty if we do say so ourselves.
By the way, Leobardo is also the man who invited us to a tasting and unveiling of Vinos Mexico 2010, the official Bicentennial wines which Mexican President Felipe Calderone had blended to mark his country’s 200th anniversary of independence from Spain.