Thursday, November 3, 2011

Greetings from a Friend and Chicken Mole

photo by Eneas de Troya
Day of the Dead at Mexico City cemetery

I was going to skip the whole Dia de los Muertos thing this year. Life has been so busy and I ran out of time. But then, last evening, I received a greeting and a nudge from a friend who passed two years ago....

You know Dia de los Muertos, right? Day of the Dead? It is an ancient tradition, predating Columbus,  observed all across Latin America.

It is believed that the veil which separates the souls of the dead and the living is especially thin on November 1-2 each year. This is the time when the lives of deceased loved ones are celebrated.

There are many local customs, but generally in Mexico, families build alters in their homes to honor their dead. They also decorate family members' graves and stay by them all night eating, drinking and remembering those who have gone before. In Mexican markets, you can buy sugar skulls, skeletons dressed in a variety of ways, marigolds (the traditional flower of Dia de los Muertos), and food.

In my family, typically, we observe Dia de los Muertos by making a pretty alter on our mantle. We also make a traditional food of the season, chicken in mole (pronounced mo-lay), which my friend, Lola, taught me.

Which brings me back to the visit from my friend. Lola and her husband, from Mexico City,  had come to the U.S. to make a better life for their son. Lola had been injured in a factory and, as a result, was disabled with chronic pain. She missed Mexico so much, but loved her adopted country for the opportunities it provided. We became friends when I met her through our elementary school and asked her to teach Spanish to my daughter and me.

Lola was an awesome cook and taught me so much about Mexican cuisine. She taught me about mole. I had only tasted it in Mexican restaurants before and thought it was hideous. But, I soon learned that mole is a very rich, complex sauce, varying greatly from region to region; some recipes have as many as 75 ingredients and most of those are toasted or ground in a mortar or both. The real thing is incredibly indescribable and I always am honored when offered a plate of it.

But, often, Mexican women these days use a base from which to make the sauce. Dona Maria is a popular one and is widely available in most grocery stores around here:

One of these jars fell out of my cupboard last night right onto the counter! I don't know how it got to the front of the cabinet in the first place, as it had been pushed to the back. I believe it was Lola saying hi and chiding me for not making the sauce this year.

I told my sister about my experience today and she said she misses Lola too. She hopes Lola is walking the beaches of the Yucatan, where she lived for a year and worked in a hotel's daycare. It was the happiest year of her life.

Here is her simple way of preparing the dish from the Dona Maria base:

Chicken in Mole
Serves 8

8 skinless chicken thighs
1/2 small onion, chopped into wedges
carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon peppercorns
1/2  teaspoon salt
bay leaf
sprigs of cilantro
1 quart chicken broth

1 jar Dona Maria mole
2 sections of Mexican chocolate (Ibarra or Abuelita seems to be a common brand)
sesame seeds for garnish

Cooked white rice (love the jasmine)
Chopped parsley or cilantro for garnish

Place the chicken in a dutch oven or large pan. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce to just a simmer until chicken is done about 10 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit for 30 minutes. Check for doneness.

Remove chicken thighs from dutch oven and strain broth, discarding the solids. Wipe clean the dutch oven and pour strained broth back into pan, along with the mole base and chocolate. Stir over low heat until base and chocolate have melted. Let simmer for a few minutes, stirring frequently.

To serve, place on a plate a chicken thigh and scoop of rice. Garnish rice with parsley or cilantro. Ladle the mole sauce onto the chicken and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Gracias Lola. Te extraño (I miss you).

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