Moles from Philadelphia chefs: Mexican sauces with a kiss of cocoa

Mole ingredients at Los Gallos: Peppers, nuts, chocolate, fruits, animal crackers - "part of the tradition" that's a binding agent and adds sweetness. Moles can vary door to door as much as they can region to region in Mexico, or across town in Philadelphia.
Mole ingredients at Los Gallos: Peppers, nuts, chocolate, fruits, animal crackers - "part of the tradition" that's a binding agent and adds sweetness. Moles can vary door to door as much as they can region to region in Mexico, or across town in Philadelphia. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 07, 2013

The addictive and complex sauce known as mole is gracing lots of menus around the city these days, often informed by the cooks and dishwashers who learned from their mothers and grandmothers back in Mexico.

In addition to the long-simmered mole poblano, built on chiles, fruits, and frequently chocolate, there are countless variations, including quick and fresh mole verde, and nontraditional uses, like mole drizzled over a pulled pork breakfast enchilada at Hawthorne's or mole-glazed chicken wings at SoWe.

But traditional or not, there is a story - and a complex layering of flavors - behind any decent mole.

"It's all about bringing the flavors together," says Luz Jimenez, chef-owner of Los Gallos taqueria in South Philadelphia, who has laid out the components of his mole to explain how his version is made: numerous dried chiles, nuts, sesame seeds, raisins, plantains, a small cylinder of chocolate powder, and - a giant bag of animal crackers.

Together with three of his cooks, Jimenez recounts the story of his mole, the earnestness in their faces conveying the depth and history behind the story of a sauce.

"In Puebla . . . it's part of the culture," he says, referring to not only his birthplace but also that of many of Philadelphia's Mexican community.

In Puebla, Jimenez says the stock and meat of rooster can be used, in addition to turkey or chicken. While he says almond mole and some sweeter moles are made in his hometown - the chocolate and plaintains offset the spice - moles can vary door to door as much as they can region to region in Mexico, or across town in Philadelphia.

Johnny Rincon, a sous chef at Lemon Hill, told of his family's tradition, with the process starting before dawn: "In Oaxaca, at 5 in the morning, my grandmother, my aunts, my mother would make coffee and then start grinding all the ingredients with a molcajete," a mortar.

While the spices were being ground, the stock of a chicken (or an iguana or deer if his grandfather went hunting that day) would be boiled over an outdoor fire pit that was also used to roast the chiles. The mole would be cooked in a clay pot over the same fire.

For Tim Spinner, who cooked under Jose Garces, first at El Vez and then at Distrito, before opening his first restaurant, Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington, and then La Calaca Feliz in Fairmount, his mole has evolved over the years.

"You're learning along the way, while getting different reactions from people," he says. At each kitchen he worked in, he was being told "my grandmother used this back home" by various staff members from Puebla. That, along with customer feedback and his personal tastes, defined the progression of his mole, making the sauce a narrative of his own cooking story. With the addition of cherries, figs, and plantains, his has become a bit sweeter - perfect for the pairing on his menu: sweet kabocha squash, orange, and chicken breast, with a light char to complement the mole's spice notes.

His chef de cuisine at La Calaca Feliz, Lucio Palazzo, is known for his quick moles: a verde (green tomatillo and herbs) and his mole amarillo (guajillo pepper, tomatoes, onions, and garlic).

"You don't cook these very long - if you do so, you'll lose their bright, fresh taste," Palazzo says of his "one hour" moles, frequently paired with fish.

While Spinner admits to making a one-hour mole poblano on the fly while cooking with Garces on Iron Chef, he says there's more than tradition behind the usual long cooking: Time is needed to meld all the individual elements together. He lets his sauce simmer four to six hours.

"That's why you hear of no one trying to tackle this at home. The process, all the time - it's intimidating. To get all the ingredients [he uses 26] can cost a small fortune," he says.

Dionicio Jimenez (no relation to Luz) of El Rey speaks to the variation possible with so many ingredients. During his previous gig at Xochitl he did a mole month with a rotating menu that created as many as 100 variations on the sauce. At El Rey he offers three: a sweet and spicy mole poblano that builds on the tongue; a pipian rojo coating pork ribs with a sauce of roasted tomato balanced by pureed pumpkin and sesame seeds; and a mole negro whose char (from heavily roasted chiles) stands up to the gaminess of lamb.

At Los Gallos, to make his signature mole poblano, Jimenez starts by toasting the chiles, one massive tray at a time. He does this at night, as doing otherwise would send his customers running from all the released aromatics. He then toasts all the nuts and sautes the bananas and raisins ahead of pureeing everything together in a food processor. A crumbly, dry mixture becomes a slightly moist paste as all is inundated with a flavor-rich chicken stock that cooks down over low heat. Jimenez freezes batches of this paste, which he reconstitutes with stock to order. The toasting and sauteing take roughly four hours; pureeing all the ingredients at once takes less than 10 minutes; the stock cooks down for roughly 25 to 40 minutes.

The final product is served on a platter of chicken enchiladas steeped in the dark red mole poblano, and what you taste is spice, nuttiness, chocolate, and banana; the final story is more about the sum of each individual part.

And as for those animal crackers (also part of a recipe from a dishwasher's grandmother used by Jennifer Choplin at Resurrection Ale House) - besides adding a bit of sweetness and acting as a binding agent, Jimenez can only smile.

"They're part of the tradition."

A DIY mole shortcut

Though there are instant pastes available, what you gain with convenience you lose in taste, says Luz Jimenez of Los Gallos. “Too many are loaded with preservatives, which destroys th taste,” he says. “And you don’t get the freshness.” He does offer an alternative — a homemade and preservative-free mole paste by Mole Poblano Matamoros Puebla Corp ($6.50), available for purchase at Los Gallos.

Makes 2 quarts

1 onion, sliced

1 head of garlic, roasted

1/4 cup oil or lard, divided use

15 tomatillos

2 serrano chiles

4 poblano chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded

2 quarts of chicken stock, warmed

1 cup sesame seeds, toasted

1 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted

1 bunch of parsley

1/4 bunch of thyme, picked

1/2 bunch of epazote

1 tablespoon Mexican oregano

1 clove, toasted

1/2 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted

2 berries allspice, toasted

1/2 tablespoon fennel seed, toasted

5 peppercorns of black pepper, toasted

Salt, to taste

Sugar, to taste

1. Sweat onions and garlic in 2 tablespoons of oil or lard.

2. Add tomatillos, chiles, and stock. Simmer until tomatillos are just tender, just a few minutes.  

3. In batches, puree in a blender until smooth with herbs, spices, and seeds.

4. Refry in remaining lard or oil, stirring constantly. Reduce for about an hour until thickened and well developed.

5. Season with salt and a little sugar if necessary.

Note: Mexican oregano and epazote can be found at most Mexican markets, such as the ones on Ninth Street.

- From chef Lucio Palazzo at La Calaca Feliz

Per serving: 238 calories, 7 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 19 grams fat, no cholesterol, 617 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

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