Hailing from Oaxaca, the mole negro is the classic mole served on Dia de los Muertos. (Photo/Courtesy of Iliana de la Vega)

Celebrating Día de los Muertos: Mole negro

It’s not the first time we here at NBC Latino wax poetic about the wonderful world of moles. (We did so recently in this story.) But no discussion of Dia de los Muertos is complete without a specific mention of mole negro, the classic mole served on the day Mexicans believe the spirits of deceased loved ones return to enjoy some earthly pleasures, most notably the aroma of their favorite foods.

Hailing from Oaxaca, otherwise known as the “land of the seven moles,” the mole negro is by far the richest and deepest of its genre. This is because of an extra step in the already intricate cooking process that calls for chile seeds to be, quite literally, burned and for chiles to be roasted until they’re completely black. Indeed, it’s recommended you do the burning days ahead of time in order to allow the bitter aftertaste to dissipate. If you can, do the burning outside on a grill, or at least make sure to open your windows and doors if you’re doing it inside. When they’re heated, the chiles and their seeds release fumes that will likely leave you coughing and crying. (All of this may remind you why, in Ancient Aztec times, people used to be held over burning chiles as punishment.)

Like so many other traditional foods, each family has its own recipe for mole negro, which is often handed down from generation to generation. Today’s comes to us from Chef Iliana de la Vega, a Oaxaqueña by birth who is now a professor of Latin American cuisines at the Culinary Institute of America and who owns the critically acclaimed El Naranjo in Austin, where today she’s serving her famous mole negro. The recipe was given to her by her mother who received it from her mother who received it from hers. “It’s been in my family for four generations,” Iliana says. “And now I have two daughters and I want to pass it on to them.”

Warning: this recipe is not simple. It’s not fast. It requires an insanely long list of ingredients. It requires patience. It could take you two days to make. But it is special. It is uniquely Mexican. And if you’re making it to honor someone you love who is no longer here….isn’t that the point?

Mole negro oaxaqueño

10 chicken pieces

½ medium white onion

3 cloves garlic

1 pound Roma tomatoes

½ pound tomatillos

1 medium white onion

6 garlic cloves, unpeeled

5 chile guajillo, cleaned, stems, seeds and veins removed

5 chile chilhuacle negro, cleaned, stems, seeds and veins removed (can substitute
with more guajillos if not available.)

5 chile pasilla Mexicano, cleaned, stems, seeds and veins removed

4 chile mulato, cleaned, stems, seeds and veins removed

5 chile chipotle meco, cleaned, stems, seeds and veins removed

6 chiles anchos negros, cleaned, stems, seeds and veins removed

1 large plantain, peeled and sliced

1 2-inch piece fresh ginger

2 large corn tortillas

1 piece french roll 2” long

1 cup vegetable oil

2 oz  pumpkin seeds

2 oz raw peanuts

2 oz almonds,

2 oz raisins

2 oz pecans

2 oz sesame seeds

1  1 x 2-inch stick of Mexican cinnamon

10 black peppercorns

4  cloves

4 whole allspice

1 tsp marjoram

1 tsp thyme

1½ T oaxacan oregano

1½ tsp anise seeds

1 tsp whole cumin seeds

4 cups chicken broth

3 ounces Mexican chocolate or to taste

4 avocado leaves, dried

2 T salt

1  T sugar

1. In a large pot, bring water to a boil, along with onion, garlic and salt. When it is vigorously boiling, reduce the heat and add the chicken pieces. Let them cook until fully done, about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the chicken, strain the broth and reserve.

2. Dry-roast the tomatoes, tomatillos and onion on a comal or skillet over high heat, until the vegetables are soft and charred. In a separate comal or skillet, dry-roast the unpeeled garlic cloves at medium heat until they develop brown spots. Peel the garlic cloves and reserve.

3. In a medium saucepan, bring two quarts of water to a boil, remove from heat and set aside. Remove the stems, seeds and veins from the chiles. Reserve the seeds. Dry-roast the chiles on  comal or skillet until crisp, thick and black but not burnt. Be sure that the brown and red chiles are black as well. Then, drop the roasted chiles into the hot water. Let them soak until soft, but for no more than 15 minutes. Remove the chiles from the water and keep separately. (For better results, you can toast the chiles 3 or 4 days ahead and allow to air out. This will to let the slightly burnt taste dissipate.)

4. In a small skillet, roast the chile seeds over medium heat, until golden. Increase the heat and toast them until completely black. Cover with cold water, and let them soak for 5 minutes. Transfer the re-hydrated chiles and the seeds to a blender, add a little water and puree. Pass through a fine sieve, and reserve.

5. In a heavy saucepan, place the sliced plantains, tortillas, bread and ginger. Cover with 1 cup of oil and place over low heat. When they turn medium gold color incorporate the peanuts, pecans, almonds and, after two minutes, add the raisins and sesame seeds. After two more minutes, add the black pepper, cloves, allspice, cinnamon and herbs. (Basically everything but the chocolate and avocado leaves) Let it all simmer it is turns very dark in color. Strain the oil, and reserve it.

6. In a blender, puree the roasted tomatoes, tomatillos garlic, and onion along with the seeds, nuts, plantain, raisins, bread and tortillas, adding water to thin if needed. Strain the mixture and set aside.

7. Heat 3 tbsp of the reserved oil on a Dutch-oven. Add the chile paste and fry until it thickens, and oil reach surfaces to the top. Then add the tomato-nut-spice mixture, lower heat  and allow to cook down, until the mixture is thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Let it simmer for about an hours and a half, stirring and adding broth when needed. Cook it down until it thickens again. Do this step 4 times.

8. Slightly toast the avocado leaves over a flame and add to the mole. Break the chocolate into small pieces and incorporate to the mole as well. Allow the mole to simmer for at least 30 minutes and taste to correct sugar and salt.

9. Add chicken broth if you need to thin; the mole should coat the back of a spoon. When the mole is ready, add the cooked chicken pieces and reheat it. Serve with rice and hot tortillas. Serves 10.

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