Celebrating Day of the Dead with Mole

A "chorus where no single voice is heard above the rest."

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By David Hammond

During Day of the Dead (November 1-2) in the Mexican state of Qunitana Roo, we watched as a small family made the ceremonial pilgrimage to a rain-battered cemetery as part of this centuries-old celebration of life and death. Cleaning off gravesites, loved ones light candles, arrange flowers (frequently marigolds), and offer the deceased his or her favorite drinks and foods, including tequila, tamales, and mole, usually the thick dark variety, which seems appropriate for the day.

Whether red, yellow, green or black, mole sauce has a romantic reputation, purportedly requiring a pantry-full of ingredients and a Homeric time commitment. For a festival dedicated to recognizing the poignancy of time passing, there's no more poetically appropriate sauce than the notoriously time-consuming mole.

Before Columbus, Mexican spices were hand-ground in a mortar. With a food processor, you can avoid such labor.  We recently prepared a traditional mole Poblano, using a recipe provided by Mercadito's Patricio Sandoval, in less than 90 minutes.

Mole sauce contains dozens of different major ingredients, including garlic, tomato, sometimes chocolate, and usually three or four varieties of tongue-tingling chile peppers. In addition to easily over one dozen major ingredients, mole recipes frequently utilize many minor ingredients, like a "half-teaspoon of dried thyme" or "scant teaspoon of oregano." Such small quantities seem unlikely to add perceptible dimension to the final product. That doesn't mean, however, that these ingredients are not essential.

A few years ago, Kendall College held "Taste of Sister Cities," which brought together chefs from Mexico City and Chicago. I asked Chef Daniel Olvadia of Mexico City's Paxia why mole demands ingredients even a sensitive palate might not discern in the finished sauce. Although you may not taste all of them, Olvadia said, "You need to include those tiny little ingredients. It's part of the ritual."

Enacting the ritual steps of preparing moles – with many hours and ingredients – proves you care about those you serve, in this life and the next.

Chef Rick Bayless – perhaps the premier chef of Mexican food in Chicago – once told me that the taste of mole should be like a "chorus where no single voice is heard above the rest." Bayless feels that every last one of many dozens of ingredients is essential to mole, and based on his authority, I'm inclined to believe he's right.

If you want to enjoy mole on Day of the Dead, New Rebozo is serving enchilada with mole Poblano (from Puebla, and considered by some to be the first mole to gain attention) and shrimp in mole pipian (made from pumpkin seeds, and thus seemingly appropriate for the day).

However you spend the day, we hope you have a spirited Day of the Dead.



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