The Thaïs have their curries. The Italians have their ragus. And in Mexico, it's all about the mole. In essence, it's a sauce containing more than a dozen ingredients, reflective of a particular place.
I caught up with the chef and owner of a new Logan Square Mexican restaurant, who lovingly prepares seven of these complex, earthy sauces every week.
Geno Bahena knows his mole. At his new Logan Square restaurant - Real Tenochtitlan - he prepares seven different kinds.
"Moles means 'fiesta,' moles are celebratory and festive. Moles are not an everyday meal, because of the complex preparation required," said Bahena.
One mole that's on the menu every day is his mole negro. Considered the "king" of moles, it contains 28 ingredients, the most important of which are four different dried chiles: ancho, pasilla, chihuacle and chilcostle. He opens them up, collecting the seeds in a bowl. Then each chile is fried in lard for a couple of seconds, just to release the aromas and soften them up a bit. They're promptly placed into a giant blender, along with a few cups of homemade chicken stock. The chiles and stock are blended.. then strained until smooth, and set aside.
Meanwhile, fresh tomatoes, green tomatillos and a garlic-bread mixture are cooked independently on the stove. Here's where the skill comes in: every ingredient is roasted until black. Peanuts, check. Pumpkin seeds, check. Chile seeds, sesame seeds, even white onions and avocado leaves with the pits! All of those blackened ingredients - including cinnamon, bay leaves and marjoram - join those tomatoes, garlic and tomatillos, plus more chicken stock, and are blended until completely incorporated. Again, he pours it through a strainer to keep it smooth. You can see why few home cooks would tackle this sauce.
"It requires, practically with the help of a friend, four hours in the kitchen. If it's by yourself, it requires the whole day," Bahena said.
In the kitchen, he begins by cooking the chile puree. It's flavors are concentrated and reduced on the stove for at least 30 minutes. Then he pours in the spice and seed puree, again, cooking it down for about 40 minutes. At this point, the sauce is bitter and spicy, but then he starts tossing in discs of Mexican chocolate along with piloncillo - a raw sugar - and here's where the sauce comes into balance. It makes a fine base for grilled rack of lamb, the spicy, sweet notes form the backbone of the dish. Also, a green mole - made with cilantro and jalapenos - is a perfect foil for grilled quail.
Bahena says despite the large number of ingredients, chiles are the real stars.
"Different kinds of dried chiles we can play with and turn 'em into stellar dishes," said Bahena.
Other good bets for authentic mole include Salpicon in Old Town, Sol de Mexico on the Northwest Side and of course, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.
2451 N. Milwaukee Ave.
1252 N. Wells St.
Sol de Mexico
3018 N. Cicero Ave.
449 N. Clark St.
445 N. Clark St.