Mexican mole is a sauce with a big, complicated personality.
With an elaborate combination of toasting, grinding + slow-simmering upwards of 40 ingredients, the flavors of mole are unsurprisingly deep + complex. Made with dried chiles, aromatic veg, spices + herbs, often bittersweet chocolate or cocoa, and ground nuts or seeds to thicken (but also sometimes stale bread, plantain or tomatoes), it is an extraordinary blend of earthy, smoky, sweet and spicy.
Some believe mole comes from the Spanish word moler, meaning “to grind.” Others believe it’s derived from the Nahuatl, or Aztec, word molli, meaning “mixture” or simply, “sauce.” Seven classic variations of the sauce reign in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, where mole is said to be the culinary symbol.
For us, it’s come to say Thanksgiving.
My mole marrón (brown) — a holiday tradition, among others, we’re hanging on tight to — isn’t based on any one of the classics. Rather, it pulls common characteristics from here, there and further afield, and in that sense it might actually be truer to “traditional,” knowing that each mole recipe has likely been perfected over many years to include ingredients + methods preferred by that specific region, that specific season, that specific family.
Shot through with contrasting flavors of fruity, mellow dried chiles + sweet aniseeds, cloves and cinnamon, my mole marrón gets its body from ground toasted sesame seeds and cashews + pureed roasted onion, garlic and eggplant. A couple spoonfuls of dark cocoa powder + homemade stock bring it all together, providing balance + a deep background richness.
The recipe is as putzy, and as time + labor-intensive as you’d think it would be after a quick read-through. But, it is also very, very worth your effort.
What’s in it for me?
Ancho chiles, which are really just dried poblano peppers, are good sources of fiber, iron, manganese + potassium, and are rich in some of the B vitamins + vitamin A. New Mexico chiles, also called Anaheim chiles, are high in vitamins A, C + B6, as well as fiber + potassium. Neither are very spicy — more fruity-sweet + earthy — and the step of toasting before soaking and pureeing brings out even more of these flavors. Like most chiles + peppers, both can help stimulate digestion.
Soft and sweet cashews provide about 5 grams protein per 1-ounce serving (about 18 nuts), and are an excellent source of the minerals manganese, copper + magnesium. One ounce provides more than 10% of your daily vitamin K. Teardrop-shaped sesame seeds are rich in iron + calcium, and contain coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) — an antioxidant involved in energy production that may also play roles in treating high blood pressure + cholesterol, diseases of the eye, asthma, chronic fatigue, and possibly Alzheimer’s.
Tiny aniseeds (or anise seeds) are the seeds of the anise (fennel) plant, offering a small amount of fiber and are a surprising source of iron, providing roughly 10% of your DV in only 1 Tbsp. In addition to a warm black licorice-like fragrance and flavor, aniseeds are regarded in many cultures as a galactogogue, thanks to phytoestrogens that stimulate lactation.
Eggplant is rich in anthocyanin pigments that provide its skin’s deep purple, almost black colors. While research into these flavanoids is still fairly young, more and more studies add to the positive data suggesting various antioxidant + anti-inflammatory roles in the body, helping reduce risk of heart diseases, age-related cognitive decline, and certain cancers by suppressing tumor growth.
Sulfur from onion + garlic is required for synthesis of the antioxidant glutathione, which is critical in controlling inflammation, helping your immune system fight infections, improving cardiovascular health, and researchers are looking into its potential abilities to prevent onset and progression of certain cancers. Thyme is rich in vitamin C, and like many other herbs (fresh or dried), is known to contain natural anti-bacterial + antioxidant properties.
Serve over grilled, roasted or smoked turkey, pork or salmon, baked on a tray of enchiladas, or with grilled chicken tacos with red cabbage, lime + cilantro. Mole also goes well with grilled or roasted veg (zucchini, mushrooms, sweet potato/pumpkin, cauliflower, eggplant + asparagus sound good), and is excellent served with some kind of warm flatbread or grain — tortillas (corn, flour or plantain), pita or naan, socca, or rice — for sopping up every last drop.
With only 17 ingredients (paltry compared to some recipes, believe it or not!) and plenty of liberties, my mole marrón is certainly unique to us. Sure the prep is time-consuming, but it’s hands down always one of the best things we eat all year. I encourage you to give it a try!
Tell me… Do you have a favorite style of mole — verde (green), rojo (red), negro (black)…?
- 1 medium eggplant (about 1 lb), washed and well-dried
- 1/2 small onion, kept intact, unpeeled
- 3 whole cloves garlic, unpeeled
- 4 dried ancho chiles, rinsed well, with stems, seeds and veins removed
- 4 dried New Mexico chiles, rinsed well, with stems, seeds and veins removed
- 1/4 tsp whole aniseeds
- 1/4 tsp whole black peppercorns
- 1/4 tsp dried thyme
- 1/8 tsp dried oregano
- 1/8 tsp whole cloves
- 1 dried bay leaf
- 1/2-inch portion of cinnamon stick
- 2 Tbsp raw cashews
- 1 Tbsp raw white sesame seeds
- 2 tsp olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups veg or chicken stock, divided, plus more as needed (see HGN Notes for homemade recipe)
- 2 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
- Preheat the oven to 350° F with a rack in the middle position, and a piece of foil placed directly on top of the rack. Place the whole eggplant, unpeeled onion half and whole garlic cloves directly onto the preheated foil-lined rack, and bake about 20 minutes, until soft and charred. Carefully remove the onion and garlic to a cutting board. Continue to bake the eggplant until it looks collapsed and wrinkly, about 25 minutes to 40 minutes more. Carefully remove the eggplant to the cutting board. Once you can safely handle the veg, peel the onion and garlic, then cut the eggplant in half, use a spoon to scoop out the flesh, and roughly chop it. Set all of the prepared veg aside.
- Heat a large cast iron skillet (or comal, if you have one) over medium heat, dry (no oil). When hot, add the ancho and New Mexico chiles and toast 3 to 4 minutes, turning frequently, until all sides are darkened but not burnt. Transfer the chiles to a large heat-safe bowl or glass liquid measuring cup, and cover with warm to hot water to soak until soft, about 30 minutes.
- When the chiles are soft, use a slotted spoon or tongs to transfer the chiles into a high-powered blender. Pour in roughly 1/2 cup of the chile soaking liquid, and blend on high until smooth, adding more of the liquid as needed. Set a fine mesh strainer over top of the soaking bowl or measuring cup, and pour the chile puree through to remove the skins. Set the puree aside, discard the skins, and keep the blender aside without cleaning (you will use it again later).
- Place the same skillet over medium heat, dry; when hot, add the aniseeds, peppercorns, thyme, oregano, cloves, bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Cook, stirring or shaking the pan occasionally, until lightly toasted and aromatic, about 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer the herbs and spices to a plate to cool.
- Return the skillet to the stove over low heat. Add the cashews and toast, stirring or shaking the pan constantly, until golden, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the sesame seeds and brown, stirring, about 2 minutes more. Transfer to the plate with the herbs and spices to cool.
- Again in the same skillet, heat the 2 tsp olive oil over medium heat. Once shimmering, pour in the strained chile puree -- step back a second, because it will bubble and dance wildly! Stir constantly until the sputtering stops, then continue to cook over medium-low for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until the color darkens considerably. Add 1/2 cup of the chopped eggplant (reserve the rest for another use), plus 1/2 cup of veg or chicken stock to the sauce; stir well to combine. Reduce the heat to as low as it goes and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, into the blender used for the chiles, add 1/4 cup of the stock, plus the cooled, peeled onion and garlic cloves, toasted spices, herbs, nuts and seeds. Blend well until smooth, adding a splash more stock (or water) as needed to help it along. (Do this in smaller batches, if necessary.)
- Pour the pureed mixture from the blender into the skillet with the chile-eggplant mixture, and stir well to incorporate. Add the remaining 1/2 cup stock and the cocoa powder, and stir again. Over the lowest heat, continue cooking for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. If you have the time, you can let the mole cook for 1 hour, continuing with the occasional stir, adding extra stock (or water), if needed to prevent sticking -- longer cooking yields deeper flavors.
- The sauce will thicken as it cooks, and you can tell the mole is ready when it is just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Taste and add enough salt to bring out the flavors and balance the earthy heat of the chiles. Serve immediately, or allow to cool and transfer into air-tight containers. Will keep, sealed, in the refrigerator up to 1 week, or freezer up to 6 months. Reheat, adding stock or water as needed to loosen.
HGN recipe for Homemade Chicken Bone Stock: https://buff.ly/2isi4WT
+ Mulato or guajillo chiles are good alternatives to ancho chiles, and pasilla negro chiles are good alternatives to New Mexico chiles.
+ Swap the cashews for raw almonds pecans, and/or the sesame seeds for raw pepitas (pumpkin seeds).
+ If you don't have or don't like eggplant, use an equal amount of pureed cooked or canned tomato or tomatillo, pureed pumpkin or winter squash, pureed or finely grated zucchini or summer squash, even pureed steamed cauliflower or mashed ripe plantain.
+ Substitute 1 oz chopped dark chocolate (Mexican, if you can find it) for the cocoa powder, if desired.
Recipe inspired by + adapted from various sources over the years, sadly none of which I can definitively recall… so we’ll have to call this an HGN original!
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