Sunday, September 28, 2008
Like Water for Mole
Here's a report on our semi-quarterly culinary trip around the world courtesy of Y and NJ's excellent adventures in the kitchen. We started off with Persian, then moved on to Italian with the Silver Spoon cookbook and ventured to Mexico this time. We both love to eat and cook, but we like to explore new ingredients and flavors as well. So we usually like to make things that get us out of our comfort zones (read: elaborate recipes with lots of ingredients we've never used before).
Enough of the foreword. Let's get to the meat of things -- the menu.
We started off with ripe plaintain turnovers with crab filling, made by my fearless partner in crime Y, which were good but her best dishes were definitely yet to come. I tend to go a bit crazy when it comes to offering "the whole package" to our guests so I made a huge pitcher of jamaica -- hibiscus flower water -- and horchata that can be made from a mix of almonds, sesame seeds, rice and/or barley (I used powder and water for both). And margaritas, of course, which I started off by measuring things and later just eyeballed to the delight of my guests.
The shrimp seviche served on beautiful lettuce leaves hugging the refreshing morsels of citrusy shrimp with crunchy red onions and creamy avocado chunks sprinkled with cilantro bits was the perfect starter to get the appetite going. We also had a decidedly non-Mexican salad (except for the crumbly Mexican queso fresco on top) inspired by a trip to South Carolina that was made even more delicious by the addition of watermelon cubes to the greens. Then came one of my favorite dishes of the evening -- chorizo-stuffed ancho chiles with sweet-sour escabeche. I'm usually not a huge chile relleno (stuffed chile) fan because I find the usual filling of cheese to be too, well, cheesy and heavy. So it was with much excitement we decided to try this recipe and boy, did Y nail it! The chiles were soft and smoky but retained their crunch at the same time. The best part was cutting into them to find a hearty mix of chorizo and potatoes. The icing on the cake was the refreshing escabeche, a sort of pickled topping, that balanced out the potential heaviness of the chorizo mix. This escabeche had sliced carrots and red onions cooked with garlic, vinegar and other spices -- the perfect accompaniment to the stuffed chile.
The onslaught of main dishes started pouring in, including ancho-marinated Oaxacan-style whole roast fish, Oaxacan black mole with chicken, braised pumpkin with pork, roasted vegetables in green sesame pipian, with the starch of choice being white rice and tomato rice. If these sound like unnecessarily long and complicated descriptions found at fancy restaurant menus, they are not meant to be (I trimmed a few down).
The black mole was one of the most labor intensive dishes I have ever made in my entire life. I'm glad it came out well in the end but I vowed this would be the first and last time I would make this dish from scratch. Not to mention the fact that I'm concerned about its less-than-healthy tendencies from all that charring and burning (notwithstanding its deliciousness).
The fish was tender, juicy and had just the right amount of kick in its sauce. The pumpkin dish was sweet from the pumpkin and spicy from the tomatillo-chipotle sauce. I wish I would have added more pork. It left me wanting more meat. Making the sesame seed-based pipian was a lot of fun. I got to cook with a funky green vegetable resembling a cucumber, chayote, cactus paddles (nopales) and the herb, epazote, for the first time and learned that Mexican cooking used a lot of sesame seeds. The sauce had a very unique taste that blended all these new flavors with a familiar one for me, that of sesame seeds. I would recommend it for anyone but especially for vegetarians looking for something different.
I made two kinds of rice as I wanted to make sure they would complement the dishes properly. I thought white would go better with mole and other heavily sauced dishes and tomato rice might go well with cleaner dishes such as the fish. The tomato rice was also spiced with jalapenos so it was important to have a neutral-tasting rice to balance out the strong flavors.
Overall, it was a success and we thank Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen cookbook. I had some reservations about going with a cookbook by a non-Mexican but who's to say a non-Mexican can't appreciate or make authentic Mexican food? And judging by his passion-filled PBS shows on the subject, I believe he is more than sincere in his quest to explore, promote and honor all things Mexican cuisine.
It was also fun eating leftovers the next morning -- transformed into the most comforting breakfast ever. Corn tortilla topped with a sunny side up, chorizo, tomato rice and a dab of home-made guacamole. Buen provecho!