A Splash of Magic

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Martinez is owner of Zarela Restaurant in New York. Her latest book is "The Food and Life of Oaxaca" (Macmillan, 1997)

When I was pregnant with my twin boys, the only thing that brought on morning sickness was the smell of roasting chiles. Unfortunately, all I felt like eating were fresh corn tortillas with searingly hot chile sauce. A tortilla was often my whole meal.

My housekeeper at the time constantly warned me that my babies would be born with chilcual, a rash that results when a mother overindulges in hot chiles. I want to say that the boys weren't born with any chilcual, though they do have an extraordinary taste for all things spicy. Just like their mother.

I didn't know that my taste for tortillas with sauce followed an ancient pre-Columbian tradition. In the homes of the Aztec lords, as Sophie Coe reports in "America's First Cuisines," a meal usually started with tortillas and tamales paired with a sauce.

The tortilla and sauce dishes had to be brought on the palm of the hand, not held by the rim. Ancient reports do not say how the lords ate the combination, but in less elegant circles, the method was apparently to take a tortilla in the left hand and spoon sauce into it with another tortilla held in the right.

Sauces are still the heart of a Mexican meal. A festive French meal centers on meat (or poultry or fish) cooked in any of several distinctive ways with a sauce that complements it elegantly. In Mexico, it's the other way around.

In many dishes, the meat, which is cooked very simply, is actually just an understated counterpoint to the fascinating textures and flavors of the sauce, which is the true star. The sauces range from almost purely pre-Columbian purees based on fresh herbs to rococo mixtures of Old and New World ingredients.

The Spaniards found the indigenous peoples of Mexico making complex pureed sauces called molli, which became mole in Spanish. Ever since, mole has been the quintessential Mexican celebratory food. These days, moles are especially associated with central and southern Mexico. The most famous is mole poblano, from Puebla, but Oaxaca is acknowledged to be the capital of mole-making, the place where it has been raised to its highest glory.

There is no iron-clad rule about which ingredients to use, but many moles and similar sauces contain tomatoes or tomatillos, onions, garlic, herbs or spices, a variety of fresh or dried chiles and something to thicken the sauce. The thickener may be bread, corn masa or crumbled tortillas, but more often it's ground seeds or nuts.

And often, the thickener is the main ingredient of the sauce. Pipianes are always thickened with some sort of seed, such as pumpkin or sesame seeds, or corn kernels. Almendrado is thickened with almonds, encacahuetado with peanuts and alcaparrado with capers.

A wide range of herbs and spices is used. The Oaxacan version of mole verde uses the native Mexican herbs hoja santa (Piper sanctum) and epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides), along with Italian parsley and fresh, rather than dried, chiles. In some moles, the flavorings are as simple as a little black pepper and cloves; others, such as manchamanteles, feature extravagant combinations of tomatoes, chiles, herbs, spices and fresh or dried fruit.

Main-course sauces are not difficult to make, but they do require good logistics and a few basic pieces of equipment. Many of the ingredients need special preparation before being ground or pureed together. Nuts and seeds are usually fried or toasted. Dried chiles are toasted to bring out their aroma. I also like to toast some spices before grinding them in a coffee or spice grinder.

A good griddle (comal) or cast-iron skillet is essential, not only for toasting seeds and chiles but also for slow-roasting fresh chiles, tomatoes, tomatillos, onions and garlic. This step gives many sauces an elusive, characteristic smoky flavor. (Don't use a griddle with a nonstick coating such as Teflon, by the way--extended heat will make the coating come off.)

More labor-intensive is the grinding of the seeds, nuts and chiles. In Mexico, home cooks can buy mole pastes ready-made in the market and simply add "wet" ingredients such as tomatoes and onions, or they can assemble the dry ingredients and take them to a neighborhood mill (molino) for grinding. Very few people grind in the ancient molcajete (volcanic stone mortar) when you can get a heavy-duty electric blender or food processor.

In my kitchen, I grind the nuts or seeds in a food processor (they tend to clog a blender) and puree the wet ingredients in a blender, and then strain everything through a medium-mesh sieve to achieve the velvety texture I want. The pureed and strained sauce is then fried in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven in a little fat to seal and deepen the flavor.

The Spaniards brought the pig to Mexico and, ever since, the favorite cooking fat has been lard, which adds richness and silkiness to a sauce. Sadly, lard is so expensive that many people now use vegetable oil, which gives a very different effect.

However, Oaxacan cooks have a trick to make up for the loss and to add even more layers of flavor: They perfume the oil. They may do it by slowly cooking garlic or onions in the oil until they caramelize, adding a sweet note. Or they'll mash the herbs and spices together and fry them in the oil until they sizzle. Then they add the pureed wet ingredients, stirring rapidly to avoid splattering. The sauce will be cooked until it thickens and all the flavors have melded deliciously together.

This thick, voluptuous puree can be spread on a tortilla as is, but usually it's thinned to the desired consistency and combined with vegetables or meat. A few purees actually end up more like soups than sauces; for instance, the Veracruz-style red chile sauce with greens, beans and masa dumplings.

Once you transfer the finished dish to a serving bowl, I suggest that you do as I used to with my mother's chile colorado. Unceremoniously scrape any thickened residue from the pot with your finger and lick it off, as if it were cake batter from a mixing bowl.

GREEN MOLE (Mole Verde)

Fresh herbs are what distinguish a mole verde. In other parts of Mexico, I've had green moles with various greens, even lettuce leaves. The Oaxacan mole verde uses just three: epazote, hoja santa and parsley. If you can't get the first two, you'll have to improvise with what's available, but the results will not be as good. Dried epazote and hoja santa are better than none at all, though the fresh herbs are incomparable. Mole verde is delicious with chicken, pork or grilled fish.

8 whole cloves or 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

3 jalapenos

6 large tomatillos, husks removed

1 small onion, cut into chunks

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 sprigs fresh marjoram

5 cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 cups strained chicken or pork stock

1 cup (1/2 pound) fresh masa or 6 tablespoons masa harina mixed to smooth paste with 1 cup water

1 bunch Italian parsley

8 (6-inch) sprigs fresh epazote or 1/4 cup dried, crumbled

3 large or 5 medium fresh hoja santa leaves or 5 dried leaves

2 cups cooked Great Northern or other white beans, optional

Stewed Pork or cooked chicken, optional

Grind cloves and cumin together in electric coffee or spice grinder or with mortar and pestle. Place ground spices in blender container with jalpen~os, tomatillos, onion, thyme, marjoram, garlic, salt and 1/2 cup stock. Process until smoothly pureed, about 2 minutes on high.

Bring remaining stock to boil in pan, then reduce to gentle simmer. Add pureed mixture to hot stock and cook, uncovered, about 3 minutes.

Add masa to stock mixture, whisking constantly. Let sauce return to simmer. Cook, uncovered, 10 minutes, whisking occasionally. If lumps form, pass mixture through medium-mesh sieve, pushing with spoon to force lumpy bits through and return to heat. Mixture should thicken to consistency of whipping cream; if necessary, increase heat slightly to reduce and thicken it.

Place parsley, epazote and hoja santa in blender or food processor. If using blender, add few tablespoons water to facilitate blending. Process to smooth puree.

Add cooked beans to masa-thickened sauce and let return to simmer. Add pureed herbs. If using Stewed Pork or chicken pieces, add at this time and cook until just heated through, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

8 cups. Each tablespoon, without meat or beans:

5 calories; 52 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; trace fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; trace protein; 0.06 gram fiber.

PUMPKIN SEED SAUCE (Pipian de Gary)

Gary Jacobson, the chef at Zarela, my restaurant in New York, developed this recipe for pipian. We serve it with braised chicken or roasted duck, but it would be delicious with a grilled filet of snapper or sea bass. Gary likes to roast the onion and garlic in the oven instead of on a griddle, though I prefer the latter method.

8 cloves unpeeled garlic

1 onion, skin on

1 pound tomatillos

Salt

1 tablespoon oil

1 1/4 cups hulled pumpkin seeds

1 poblano chile, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped

2 teaspoons ground Mexican cinnamon (canela) or 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

4 teaspoons anise seeds, ground

2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon or 1 teaspoon dried

1/2 cup pickled, sliced jalapenos

3 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade

Roast garlic at 400 degrees 20 minutes and onion 35 minutes or until softened. Peel in bowl to save any juices.

Bring tomatillos, salt to taste and water to cover to boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer about 3 minutes. Drain and add to garlic and onion.

Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add pumpkin seeds and saute, shaking pan constantly, 4 to 5 minutes. Do not let seeds burn or they will turn sauce bitter. Reserve 1/4 cup for garnish.

Place remaining pumpkin seeds in blender container with garlic, onion, tomatillos, poblano, cinnamon, anise seeds, tarragon, jalapenos and chicken stock. Process until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. (Food processor does not work well in this recipe.) Pour sauce into large saucepan and simmer gently over low heat, stirring often, about 10 minutes.

6 cups. Each tablespoon:

15 calories; 57 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.13 gram fiber.

STEWED PORK

1 (3-pound) pork butt

1 onion, halved

4 cloves garlic

4 to 5 peppercorns

Water

Bring pork butt, onion, garlic, peppercorns and water to cover to boil in large pot. Lower heat to simmer and cook until meat is falling-apart tender, 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Cool meat slightly. When cool enough to handle, shred meat.

8 to 10 servings. Each of 8 servings:

188 calories; 106 mg sodium; 83 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 26 grams protein; 0.14 gram fiber.

SMOKY PEANUT MOLE (Encacahuetado)

Though I would call this an encacahuetado, Rick Bayless, who gave me this recipe, calls it a peanut mole and serves it with grilled quail. It also goes well with everything from chicken and duck to pork, swordfish and grouper.

2 (about 1 ounce total) dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded

2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil

1/2 small white onion, sliced

2 cloves garlic, peeled

1/2 pound (about 1 medium to large round or 3 to 4 plum) tomatoes

1 cup dry roasted peanuts, plus few extra tablespoons chopped for garnish

2 slices firm white bread, torn into pieces

2 canned chipotle chiles en adobo, seeded

1/8 teaspoon allspice, preferred freshly ground

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground Mexican cinnamon (canela) or 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 1/2 to 4 cups chicken broth

1/2 cup fruity red wine

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

2 bay leaves

Salt

Sugar

Tear ancho chiles into flat pieces, then toast few pieces at a time on ungreased griddle or skillet over medium heat. Press chiles flat with spatula every few seconds until they crackle and change color slightly, then flip and press again. (If they give off more than a wisp of smoke, they are burning and will add bitter flavor to sauce.)

Cover roasted chile pieces with hot water in small bowl and let rehydrate 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure even soaking. Drain chiles and discard water.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon oil in heavy, medium-size (4-quart) pot (preferably Dutch oven) over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, then fry, stirring regularly, until well-browned, about 10 minutes. Scrape solids into blender container and set pan aside.

Roast tomato on hot griddle until blackened and charred all over, about 10 minutes. Let cool, then peel over bowl to catch the juices.

Add tomato, 1 cup peanuts, bread, chipotle chiles, drained ancho chiles, allspice and cinnamon to blender. Add 1 1/2 cups chicken broth and blend until smooth, stirring and scraping down sides of blender jar and adding little more liquid if needed to keep everything moving through blender blades. Press mixture through medium-mesh sieve into bowl.

Heat 1 tablespoon remaining oil in reserved pot over medium-high heat until rippling. Add pureed sauce all at once and cook, covered, until thickened and darkened, about 5 minutes. Stir in 2 cups remaining broth, wine, vinegar and bay leaves, then simmer gently, partially covered, over medium-low heat about 45 minutes, stirring often. Sauce should be consistency of cream soup; add more broth, a bit at a time, if needed.

Add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt or to taste (depending on saltiness of chicken broth). Add up to 1 tablespoon sugar if needed to cut any bitterness from chiles that may have been over-roasted.

3 cups. Each tablespoon:

34 calories; 140 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.35 gram fiber.

CAPER SAUCE (Alcaparrado)

Alcaparrado is made with only one major New World ingredient--pumpkin seeds, which replace the almonds that would have been used in Moorish and Spanish cooking. The sauce is delicious with grilled or broiled fish or pan-fried boneless chicken breast.

1/8 teaspoon saffron threads

1 1/2 to 2 cups warm homemade chicken stock or canned broth

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 ounces (about 3/4 cup) hulled pumpkin seeds

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, coarsely chopped

1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped

1 small crusty roll, cut into slices

4 peppercorns

3 whole cloves

1 (1-inch) stick canela or 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

2 (3-ounce) jars capers with brine

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Crumble saffron threads into 1 1/2 cups chicken stock and let steep several minutes.

Heat vegetable oil in skillet until very hot but not quite smoking. Add pumpkin seeds (carefully, because they tend to pop violently as they hit hot oil). Cook, stirring constantly, until they are puffed and have nutty fragrance, about 30 seconds. Do not let them burn or they will turn dish bitter. Drain on paper towels.

In same skillet, heat olive oil until very hot. Add onion and garlic. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until just until wilted, 3 to 5 minutes. Add sliced roll and cook, stirring, until golden brown on all sides, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon and oregano, then cook, stirring, until aroma of spices is released, about 2 minutes longer.

Add capers with brine and stir well to combine. Simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes on low heat. Add 1 cup saffron-steeped chicken stock and simmer 5 minutes more. Let cool, then place in blender and process until well pureed, about 30 seconds. Add drained pumpkin seeds and puree until smooth.

Thin with remaining 1/2 cup stock, if needed for desired consistency.

3 1/2 cups. Each tablespoon:

21 calories; 69 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.04 gram fiber.

SPICY FRUIT SAUCE (Manchamanteles)

This is the first homemade main-dish sauce that I ever ate from the southern Mexico state of Chiapas. It changed my whole perception of Mexican food. I was amazed at the combination of flavors--rich, tart, sweet, spicy--exploding on my palate like fireworks. At my restaurant, Zarela, we serve this with roasted duck, and it is my absolute favorite dish there. It's also wonderful served with braised chicken and spare ribs.

RED CHILE ADOBO

2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil

4 medium-hot whole dried red chiles, such as ancho, guajillo or dried Anaheim, stems intact

Water

1 large clove garlic, peeled and finely minced

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

1/2 teaspoon salt

SPICY FRUIT SAUCE

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 onion, chopped

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, with juice

2 bay leaves

1/2 to 1 teaspoon black pepper to taste

1 to 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

1/4 to 1/3 teaspoon ground cloves

1 1/2 teaspoons ground Mexican cinnamon (canela) or 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, crumbled

1/2 cup dried apricots, sliced

3/4 cup pitted dried prunes, whole or sliced

1/2 cup golden raisins

1 (20-ounce) can unsweetened pineapple chunks, with juice

1/2 cup dry sherry or red wine

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 to 2 tart apples, such as Granny Smith, cored and cut into eighths

1 to 2 tablespoons butter, optional

RED CHILE ADOBO

Heat lard in small or medium heavy skillet over medium heat until rippling. Fry whole chiles, one at a time, turning several times with tongs, until puffed and red or slightly orange in color, 30 to 60 seconds. Be careful not to let them burn.

As chiles finish cooking, add them to boiling water in bowl. Let soak until softened, about 10 minutes. Push them down if they float. Drain.

Pull or cut off chile tops and scrape out seeds. Discard tops and seeds. Place soaked chile pods in blender with garlic, oregano, 1 cup water and salt. Process to smooth puree. Add more water if desired to facilitate blending, but sauce should be thick.

Pour sauce into medium-mesh sieve over bowl and force it through with wooden spoon, scraping and rubbing to push through as many solids as possible. Discard any bits that won't go through. Makes about 1 cup.

SPICY FRUIT SAUCE

(Manchamanteles)

Heat oil in heavy saucepan over high heat until hot but not quite smoking. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until golden and translucent, 3 to 4 minutes.

Add tomatoes, breaking them up with your hand or with spoon. Add bay leaves, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, 1 teaspoon salt, cloves, cinnamon, cumin and oregano. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, 10 to 12 minutes.

Working in batches if necessary, puree mixture in blender and transfer to large Dutch oven or saucepan.

Bring pureed sauce to boil over high heat. Add dried apricots, prunes and raisins, pineapple with its juices, wine and vinegar. Let simmer 1 minute, then add 1 cup Red Chile Adobo. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer sauce, uncovered, about 10 minutes. Add apple pieces to sauce. Let sauce return to a boil and simmer 20 minutes. Finish sauce, if desired, by stirring in 1 to 2 tablespoons butter.

6 cups. Each tablespoon:

19 calories; 51 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.18 gram fiber.

* Drennen & Drennen placemats from Cecelia Kelly on Montana, Santa Monica, and Lulu's, Manhattan Beach.

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