Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
Mole, for when you want stew to be a feast

A few weeks ago, when I was casting about for an easy, slam-dunk main dish for a buffet lunch party, my husband suggested mole.

Not the burrowing animal, mind you. Rather, that two-syllabled (MOH-lay), shorthand for Mole Poblano, the heady Mexican stew famous for combining chiles and chocolate.

Mole is certainly a slam dunk. Unless you’re a vegetarian, or just have no tolerance for chile, it’s hard not to be won over by this delicious, if suspicious-sounding, feast-day food.

But it’s not easy. Making this elaborate recipe from scratch requires two full days of effort: one devoted to shopping, another spent slaving over the stove.

Still, what could I do? Once mole is on the brain, it’s more or less impossible to shake it.

Besides, making mole is an interesting process, akin, in its way, to black magic (“Double, double, toil and trouble ...”).

There was no eye of newt in the recipe I used, but it did take scorched tortillas—and tomatillos, and a croissant. Yes, a croissant!

All told, 27 separate ingredients went into my bubbling cauldron, and the result was downright witchy.

If you’ve never had it before, Mole Poblano is a thick, ruddy-brown sauce enveloping pieces of poultry: traditionally turkey, but also, frequently, chicken.

The sauce has a slight coarseness to it, indicative of the presence of ground seeds and nuts. My recipe used ground sesame seeds, almonds and peanuts; pumpkin seeds are another common addition.

Making the sauce is a multistep process. Essentially, though, there are three major components: the spice base, the chiles and a good, rich chicken broth.

The spice base is made by variously roasting, scorching, sautéing and pureeing an improbably long list of ingredients. This is where the nuts come in, as well as the tortillas and croissant (or other bread products—they serve as a thickener); onions, garlic, tomatoes and tomatillos; coriander, aniseeds and possibly cinnamon; raisins and/or prunes; even a banana or two.

The chiles are dried mulato, ancho, pasilla and chipotle chiles, or as close an approximation of that mix as you can hunt down.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover dried chipotle chiles, not at the Mexican markets I visited, but at Sunflower Market in Gilbert. These are quite different from the chipotles en adobo you can buy in a can.

The chiles are toasted, soaked, pureed, then added to the spice base; the whole is thinned with chicken stock. Now comes the not-so-secret ingredient: chocolate.

You can taste the chocolate in the finished sauce, but it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make it sweet. Rather, it adds a mellow depth to the sauce, which is then intensified by hours of cooking.

Finally, the sauce is served with braised or simmered poultry pieces, plunked in the mole close to serving time.

I won’t presume to include a recipe for mole. Not only would it take up most of this newspaper, but I’m a novice at the genre, having tackled it only twice (and I suspect it will be a year or two before I try it again).

If you’d like to have a go at it, however, I can endorse the recipe in Patricia Quintana’s cookbook The Best of Quintana, as well as the somewhat less fussy recipe in Diana Kennedy’s classic, The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.”

If you do make it, make plenty. The sauce, sans chicken, sans tongue of dog, freezes exceptionally well.