There’s this culinary dream I have, that one day I’ll travel to Oaxaca and some sweet family will let me participate in charring the bread or toasting the chiles for their village’s secret mole recipe. I’m of the mind that unless I’ve got a village to help me, mole just isn’t an option.
Mole seems to me a mysterious dish hiding each ingredient carefully in one, it’s flavor perfectly melded together by magic, history and skill. It’s intimidating.
With Cinco de Mayo on the calendar this month, my husband and I decide to share a dinner of tacos and beer with friends. I reach for chef Gonzalo Guzman’s new cookbook, Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen and set to planning our meal.
I don’t typically need the 5th of May as an excuse to eat Mexican food, but instead of cooking at home, I like to visit our favorite Mexican restaurant just a few blocks away. They’ve given me tips for pozole and a love of smoky mezcal margaritas. It’s not a place I’m looking to bump from my life by becoming a chorizo, tortilla making whiz on my own.
Narrowing down our menu isn’t easy. My husband nixes the ceviches I’m drawn to, so I aim for the carnitas tacos. They grace the cover of the cookbook, look delicious and I know they’ll pair well with beer.
Unfortunately, I’m just not excited about making what I’d rather buy at our local taco truck. It’s like treading on some sort of sacred weeknight tradition of grabbing a plate of tacos with a Coke.
There are two other dishes calling to me — queso flameado con chorizo y nopales and the enchiladas de mole poblano.
The queso flameado is a dish of chorizo and charred cactus leaves buried in bubbling Oaxacan cheese. It reminds me of a favorite dish my husband and I would get in a small Oregon town, those first years of marriage.
The more I think about it, the more I realize how often Mexican cuisine has threaded its way through many of my meals, date nights and hangry snacks. It’s kind of a love story.
But with the mole, I feel a bit alone — not rallied by an army of capable abuelitas carefully guiding me in my first mole venture. It’s just me, Nopalito and a long list of ingredients.
I tackle buying the chiles first. Guzman has a thorough description of the many varieties of chiles used in Mexican cuisine. This proves useful, as even the employee at my Hispanic market shrugs his shoulders at a key chile — mulato. It’s too late to order any online, so I opt to combine those with a similarly detailed profile. May the mole gods forgive me.
The rest of the ingredients are easily sourced, and I set to work on the deceptively short recipe hiding innumerous tasks steering me toward mole.
The process takes all morning, and I rarely leave the stove since each ingredient’s short but essential treatment can quickly go awry. Guzman says to be careful not to char the blistering chiles and watch for burning with the roasting nuts and bread.
As I faithfully move toward the endgame, the sauce is beginning to look like an authentic Mexican mole. I get excited — so does the mole. I have a splatter screen I like to use with marinara sauce and searing bacon to reduce the mess. The mole will not be tamed, and a fourth of my kitchen is speckled with deep red spots. Here’s when I start wishing I’d made the mole outside, in a large cauldron like I’ve seen on those culinary travel shows.
I dip into the mezcal early and shake up a well-deserved mezcal paloma. Guzman wins my heart with his addition of Cynar. It’s an easy and refreshing drink with hints of smoke and a touch of bitter.
Now, it’s time add the chocolate. This is the ingredient mole is most known for, and I opt for a brand I love — Taza — that’s stone ground like those Guzman recommends.
Stirring in the final ingredients, I let the mole simmer and splutter a bit longer. The kitchen is beginning to fill with the divine aroma of a dish well done. I’m relieved.
I tackle the tortillas — Guzman’s instructions are simple and the process gets more fun the better I get at pressing and cooking them. I even make his homemade queso fresco — I had no idea how ridiculously simple this is.
Guzman says salsa is a chef’s pride, and Nopalito has many to choose from. We opt for the salsa cilantro which is perfect for dipping chips into and topping our other dishes with. Plus, it’s mild enough to serve to all palate heat levels.
Just before dinner, I put together the queso flameado. I’d had plans to fry my own chips, but that was quickly sidelined as the mole ran long. We instead run the few blocks to our favorite Mexican restaurant for a fresh-made bag of theirs.
The meal set, I finally relax, tired from a day of cooking. While mulling over what I’d do next time and how I’d like to see alternate ingredients work in my mole, I realize just how much ownership I’ve already taken in my first effort. After a day of getting to know each ingredient, I cherish this new relationship I’ve made with the dish. Perhaps I’ll gather my own village and we’ll make our own tradition of mole and mezcal.
Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen
by Gonzalo Guzman with Stacy Adimando
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Who’s should buy this? Home cooks looking for a homey restaurant-style Mexican cookbook. Those wanting to add a modern twist to their favorite Mexican dishes.
QUESO FLAMEADO CON CHORIZO Y NOPALES
Hot Oaxacan and Jack Cheese Dip with Chorizo and Cactus — serves 4
This dish goes together quickly and is perfect as a first course — digging into the melty cheese with warm tortilla chips is a great way to kick off the meal. Nopales (or cactus leaves) can be found at your local Mexican market, Walmart, Winco or even Safeway. At the market, they usually sell ones trimmed of their thorns and ready for use, which is always a bonus. I doubled this recipe.
2 small nopales, spines trimmed away
2 teaspoons rice bran oil or canola oil
6 ounces (3/4 cup) Chorizo Oaxaqueño or crumbled store-bought Mexican chorizo (discard the casings)
1 cup shredded Jack cheese
2/3 cup shredded Oaxacan cheese
Chopped cilantro leaves
Tortilla chips or warm soft corn tortillas, for serving
Rinse the cactus leaves with cold water and pat them dry; season on both sides with salt. Preheat a skillet big enough to contain both cactus leaves over high heat (if they won’t both fit, work in batches or in two separate skillets). Add the cactus leaves and cook, flipping them every 3 to 4 minutes, until well seared on both sides, about 15 minutes total. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest until cool enough to handle, then slice into thin, bite-sized strips.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. In a medium skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the chorizo and cook, breaking up the meat into small pieces with a wooden spoon or spatula, until browned and cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain off any excess fat that pools in the bottom of the pan.
In a 16-ounce (6-inch) cazuela [a Spanish-style ovenproof dish] or other ovenproof baking dish, layer half of the Jack cheese evenly on the bottom. Top with a layer of the chorizo, then one-quarter of the Oaxacan cheese, the cactus strips, and the rest of the Jack and Oaxacan cheeses mixed together.
Set the dish on a baking sheet and bake until the cheese is completely melted and bubbling around the edges, about 10 minutes. Remove and garnish with cilantro leaves. Serve immediately with chips or tortillas for dipping.
MEZCAL PALOMA — makes 1
This is Guzman’s twist on the traditional paloma of tequila, grapefruit soda, and lime. I love mezcal, which is often smoother and smokier than its relative, tequila. If you can’t find mezcal, pick an aged tequila instead. Side note: If you are wondering what else to use all that Cynar with, try a bourbon cocktail sweetened with maple syrup, bitters, squeeze of lemon and splash of Cynar — it’s my favorite, especially when I have a brandied cherry to drop in. If you don’t want to commit to a bottle, try subbing the Cynar with a dash of Peychaud’s aromatic bitters. It’s not the same, but does provide a similar bitter kick to the drink.
2 ounces agave nectar
1½ ounces mezcal, such as Del Maguey Vida brand
1½ ounces freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, plus one strip grapefruit peel (from 1 grapefruit)
½ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice (from 1 lime)
2 ounces soda water
1 to 2 dashes Cynar (optional but highly recommended)
To make an agave syrup, in a small bowl or jar, combine the agave nectar with 2 ounces water.
In a cocktail shaker, combine the mezcal, grapefruit juice, lime juice, and 1⁄2 ounce of the agave syrup (save the remaining agave syrup for more cocktails). Add a small amount of ice and shake once quickly (just to chill, not dilute).
Strain into a glass, then top off with soda water. Add fresh ice and top with Cynar if using. Squeeze the grapefruit peel, skin side down, over the finished cocktail to release the grapefruit oils; discard the peel.
Reprinted with permission from “Nopalito” copyright 2017 by Gonzalo Guzman with Stacy Adimando. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin RandomHouse LLC. Cookbook cover photo copyright 2017 by Eva Kolenko.