Thursday, November 20, 2008

Turkey mole

Since turkey day is upon us, I thought this would be a good time to consider preparing it similar to the way that people were likely preparing it on this continent long before any Europeans even new this bird existed. Unfortunately, mole is another one of those recipes that people tend to shy away from doing at home. It's not nearly as hard to prepare as most recipes make it sound. Moles often have twenty or more ingredients and each ingredient has to be roasted, toasted, fried, charred (sometimes burnt), ground, re hydrated or any combination of these things. Still, as long as you have some dried chiles around, most people have a well enough stocked pantry to make a good version, from scratch, all their own.

It helps to break down the sauce into groups of ingredients and pick one or more ingredients from each group.

The chiles.

Clockwise- ancho, mulato, pasilla, pulla and guajillo.

Dried chiles make up the bulk of a good mole even though they aren't usually very spicy. You can make a good sauce with just one type of chile but using several will give you a more complex end result. I almost always use guajillo and/or ancho as the primary chiles. Mulato and/or pasilla, with their extra deep flavors, add a nice second dimension and I used some pullas, guajillos slightly hotter cousin. There is no reason to follow these guidelines. If all you have is a pile of cascabels, then use those. Once the chiles are stemmed and seeded they should be either fried in oil or toasted. This time I toasted them.

Once they are all toasted, re hydrate them in a bowl of hot tap water. After 15 minutes, throw them in your blender and puree.

Dried fruits, seeds and nuts.

If all you have are roasted peanuts and raisins (most people do) you will be fine. I love sesame seeds (and I have pounds of them) so I always use some of those. They also make a nice garnish for serving. This time I also used cashews and some dried cherries from Michigan which added a nice fruity note. Pumpkin seeds are a very common addition. If the nuts and seeds aren't already roasted, toast or fry them. Add the seeds and fruits to your blender and puree them. I always add the nuts last. My Vita-Mix is a motherfucker of a machine but once the fats from the nuts begin to emulsify with the water, even it gets a little pissed at me.


Cumin and coriander are always a good idea as are black peppercorns. I consider a stick of Ceylon cinnamon crucial but that's just me. Other sweet spices add a nice touch so I use a little clove and allspice. On the herbal side I used bay leaves, Mexican oregano, savory (thyme would be more common) and an avocado leaf. Avocado leaves have a slightly anise-like flavor so if you don't have them, you may want to add some fennel seeds, anise seeds, a star anise or none of the above. Since I dry toasted the chiles and other ingredients, I decided to fry the spices in a little oil. If you have a good blender, you should be able to add them directly to the puree. If your not sure they will blend well enough, dry toast them and grind them separately first.

Aromatics and veggies.

Onions and garlic are a given. You can roast the garlic (individual cloves, still in their paper, heated in a dry skillet) or not. The onion can be added raw or cooked. Sometimes the onion will be cooked, cut side down, in a pan until it burns. Tomatoes and/or tomatillos are often used and you may want to try a banana or plantain (fried would be nice) or mango or pineapple. be creative. I cooked the garlic and onion along with the last couple of pathetic tomatoes and tomatillos from my garden in a little oil until everything started to burn a little.

Add the veggies to your puree.

Most recipes will use some stale tortillas or bread to thicken and bind the puree. You may or may not choose to toast or fry them first. I added a couple of leftover tostada shells. Now you want to add the nuts and get the puree as fine as you can. You will need to decide if you want to strain it or not. I prefer to strain it (through a chinois) in order to get a silky smooth result but if you have a really good blender and want to save some time you can skip this step.

The strained sauce.

Now it's time to fry the sauce. Many people have never used this technique that is common for dried chile sauces in Mexico. Frying the sauce takes away the brassy-bitter edge and makes it sweeter while adding to the overall depth of flavor. Heat a cast iron kettle until it is screaming hot. Add a little lard or oil and immediately add all of the puree at once.

This can be messy but it's important. You want to keep stirring and reducing it until it's several shades darker. Then add some water or stock, lower the flame and simmer with the lid cracked so it can reduce further.

Chocolate is easily the most famous ingredient in moles. It is what make them sound so exotic (You will often see recipes titled "chicken in chocolate-chili sauce"). It is important but more of a secondary flavor or seasoning. Mexican chocolate is the right thing for the job but chocolate in other forms will also work. In this case I used an extremely dark baking chocolate mainly because I forgot to check and see if I had any Mexican chocolate in the house. Now is the time to melt it into the sauce.

All that is left is to season it with salt and sugar. Salting to taste is easy but don't over sweeten it. Most commercial moles are over sweetened to cater to those who aren't used to the extremely complex bitter notes in a good mole. I use Mexican piloncillo sugar which is just unrefined dehydrated cane juice. Jaggary is also a nice idea as is any raw sugar but if you don't have any of those, brown sugar or regular white sugar will work.

The turkey is simply braised in the sauce. I was making a ton so I could share it at my civic club meeting and at the market the next day. I split two 13 lb. turkeys and browned them in two cast iron skillets. When browned well, I turned them over and covered them with a generous amount of the sauce.

Cover and cook in a slow oven (325˚or lower if you have more time) until it pulls from the bone easily. For serving to a crowd, I separated all of the meat (and skin) from the bones and served it over rice and on corn tortillas.

When you think your sick of eating leftover turkey, heat some up in your homemade Mole. It will be transformed into something completely different.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Puerco pibil

I finally got around to digging a pit so I could do a real "Yucatan style" pit-roasted pig.

I dug a hole 3'x 4'x 2 1/2' which I lined with brick that was salvaged from a recently demolished school. The size of my pit was determined by the size of the steel cover that my friend scrounged up from his shop. Although the finished with of 30" is good, I intend to lengthen it to 5-6 ft from the 42" that it is now. The 50 lb. pig that I got had to be beheaded in order to fit in the pit.

The pit happily burning away.

The almost complete lack of good descriptions for this style of pit-roasting is sad. I was able to find some good info on how to do it "luau style". Most recipes will give a short explanation of how it used to be cooked it in a pit, but go on to describe making it in an oven or crock pot. Pit roasting is a smoke steaming process and without the smoke from burning banana leaves it will not be the same. Sure, pork slow cooked in an achiote marinade will be tasty but it wont be puerco pibil.

The marinade

8 oz. annatto seed
1.75 oz. black peppercorns
1 oz cumin seed
1/2 oz whole allspice
1 3" stick Ceylon cinnamon
1 1/2 lbs. peeled garlic
2 whole habanero chiles (from my garden)
4 cups of orange juice
1 cup of lime juice
1 healthy fistful of kosher salt
Grind the spices and puree with the balance of the ingredients.

Many sources (even Wikipedia) suggest that annatto is primarily used for color. One person even suggested substituting paprika. Annatto is one of the main flavors in the dish, paprika isn't at all appropriate. You wont have any trouble grinding the other spices but annatto seed is hard to grind to a fine powder. Grind it the best you can. The marinade will have a gritty texture but after the long cooking, the little bits will soften up and you shouldn't notice them.
I used lots of garlic, more than any recipe I read would suggest. Use your best judgment.
Traditionally, sour oranges would be the citrus of choice. Some day I will track some down and try them but I chose to use regular orange juice with some lime juice. Acidity is important and most recipes will suggest much more lime (or lemon which is similar in acidity to seville oranges) or even vinegar than I used here. I err on the less acidic side for things that are going to marinade for a long time. Years ago I made a pork shoulder in achiote that was made with vinegar and after a 24 hour rest, the vinegar had "cooked" the meat and I was unable to get an appealing texture after it was actually cooked. Be cautious with lime juice or vinegar but you could probably get away with more than I used.
The other crucial "ingredient" is banana leaf. You will be wrapping the pig completely in the leaves which will trap steam and add an important herbal flavor that is key to a proper end result. They should also be allowed to burn a little in order to get some smoke flavor. Don't use too many layers or the smoke wont penetrate.

The pig.

I bought a 50 lb. pig at the local butcher shop. As I mentioned before, even a very small pig like that was too long for my pit so we removed the head. We also removed the hocks so it would be easier to wrap in the banana leaves. From the inside, we cut some big slots into the thickest part of the rear legs and the shoulder so we could get some marinade in there and so it would cook more evenly.

Sucks to be delicious

Lay down multiple pieces of butcher twine and lay a couple of layers of banana leaves across them. Set the thoroughly rubbed down pig on top, cover completely with more leaves and tie it up.

We made a cradle out of some concrete reenforcement wire although any plain steel fencing or chicken wire would work well.

The fire.

My friend came over at 5 am Sunday morning to get the fire going. Standing around a huge fire, on a crisp fall morning, drinking a beer and watching the sun come up was extremely pleasant. It has been quite a while since I've had beer for breakfast and I forgot just how fun it is.

You will need a shit-load of fire wood to get enough hot coals to cook this thing for the nine or more hours it will spend in the ground. Most references suggest two to three times the volume of the pit and that is about right. We used a variety of scrap hardwoods from my friends shop that burned down to a nice 10" deep bed of coals in about two hours. If you are using logs, you may want to give yourself three to four hour to get it burned down enough. Shoot for a full 12" of coals. Put the pig, back down directly on the coals.

Place the cover over the pit and seal completely with damp dirt. If you see any places where steam or smoke are escaping cover with more dirt and pack it down. Now it's just a waiting game. We left ours for 10 hours and while it was done, It could have cooked a little longer. You are far more likely to under cook it than over cook it. My guess is that it would have been even better if we had left it until the next day. Once the pit is sealed the only thing cooking the meat is the residual heat stored in the brick. By a strange coincidence, my friend ran into a guy from Georgia at a bar in Pittsburgh the night before we did this. Having done many pig roasts, he gave him many pointers on how to go about it. He was correct for the most part but he did suggest that we add a bag of hardwood charcoal just before sealing the pit. This doesn't work. The coals will die down once they are deprived of oxygen and the charcoal never even lit. In fact, when we opened the pit it looked the same as when we closed it.


We ate it as tacos on home made tortillas (gotta do something with all that time while the thing roasts), shredded romaine, Pickled onions (onions, lime juice, orange juice, annatto oil and salt) and a tomatillo-panca chile salsa (roasted tomatillos, roasted garlic, aji panca, dry malt extract and salt).

That's probably how it actually looked to my Doppelbock compromised brain

The things that I need to keep in mind for my next time:

More entry points (cut more slots) for marinade and a longer marinading time- The flavor wasn't as strong as I would have liked.

Less banana leaves- They need a chance to char through in order to get some smoke flavor.

More coals- The pit didn't sustain enough heat to cook it as well as I had hoped. It fell just short actually "falling apart" tender. (We did build a fire on top of the lid toward the end to add more heat.)

If you've got some room in your yard, I suggest building your own pit. I expect to do a lamb next and maybe a goat after that. Or maybe a couple of banana leaf wrapped, mole' rubbed turkeys for thanksgiving.