Whenever I visit Mexico, I find the food and culture the most fascinating, exciting, and unique part of the experience. Once a year, I leave winter and work-related business behind and lay in the warm sun and go for long swims in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean. There’s a strip of beach along the Yucatan coast that seems to go on for miles and has become my home away from home. “What will I cook for supper?” is the biggest decision I have to make during any given day.

Wealth of ingredients

There are two Mexicos – the tourist scene, which I avoid, and the real Mexico. As a voyeur, I absorb and delve into the background and lifestyle of the Mayan culture, its sensual food, and all the unusual flavors that surround me. Since the focus of Mexican cuisine is on fresh, seasonal, local ingredients, I like to use as many as I can. I frequent the local markets, which are usually brimming with juicy and, quite often, unique fruits, vegetables, and chilies, as well as exotic spices in little plastic bags. Sometimes I come across items I’ve never seen before, but many can also be found in the produce department of my supermarket at home.

Rich mole has long history

One of my favorite ingredients at my local marketplace in Mexico is the assortment of moles, which can be found in large ceramic bowls. The word mole means stew or “concoctions.” It is a rich dark sauce with chocolate (that’s right, chocolate), chilies, spices, herbs, groundnuts, seeds, and a variety of other ingredients. Every Mexican household has its version of a mole.

In Oaxaca, known for its culinary traditions and famous for its seven moles, the most popular type is “mole poblano.” Its’ history supposedly goes back to 1698 to the Santa Rosa convent in Pueblo. It was here one of the nuns invented the dish “Mole pablano de guajalate” and served it over turkey to please a visiting viceroy.

Food evokes memories

The hardest thing about my Mexican holiday is that it can’t go on forever. I have to leave sunny beaches and idle days and return to the wintry Northeast. But I bring my vacation home with me. I make one of my favorite dishes, chicken mole, and I’m transported right back to Mexico. I start with freshly fried chips, salsa, and guacamole. The mole is served with rice and refried beans topped with a small dollop of sour cream. For a vegetable I like chayote (cha-YOH-tay, a tropical pear-shaped squash) steamed and tossed with butter, salt, and pepper. Select the ones that are smallest and darkest green for best flavor and texture. And, of course, what would a trip to Mexico be without the perfect Margarita?

Food can trigger memories; a smell or a specific taste brings back a certain time or a treasured experience. The next time you take a trip and have a special dish, remember that moment, savor it, and try to create that food (and memory) in your own home. You will not only taste the food but the experience you were having at that time, and you too can be transported back to your vacation.

Here is a simple version using a prepared mole that is delicious and can be cooking while you have appetizers or get the rest of the meal together. I usually bring some prepared mole back with me from Mexico; when that’s gone, I use a brand called Dona Maria. Recently I found mole and other Latino products at Trader Joes in Hyannis and tested this recipe with that brand.

Chicken Mole

1 whole chicken, cut up preferably organic or free-range

Salt and pepper

Flour for dredging the chicken

2 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

1/4 cup white wine

1 cup mole

1 1/2 cups chicken stock, more if necessary

1 (4-ounce can) tomato sauce

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

Clean, wash, and dry the chicken pieces and season with salt and pepper.

Dredge the chicken with the flour and shake off excess.

Heat the butter and oil in a large pan and brown the chicken on all sides; remove and keep warm. In the same pan, discard all but 3 to 4 tablespoons of the fat; add the onions and cook until they start to brown. Add the wine, cook two to three minutes, then add the chicken broth and tomato sauce, and stir in the mole until well combined. Return the chicken to the sauce. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours on low heat, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. To serve, sprinkle each serving with 1/4 tablespoon sesame seeds. Serves 4 to 6.

If you choose to make your own “mole poblano,” here is Leo Romero’s recipe he makes in his restaurant, Casa Romero, 30 Gloucester St. in Boston. It would be a great way to spend an afternoon with a few friends. Divide the recipe up and assign each person a task. You will see how much fun it is to create a famous Mexican mole. Make this large batch and freeze the rest.

Part 1 (the base) is a basic red chile sauce and can be used for enchiladas or chili. Part II (the enhancement) is what converts the base into a rich mole.

Casa Romero’s Mole Poblano

Part 1 – The Base

10 ancho chilies (dried)

10 mulato chilies (dried)

10 guajillo chilies (dried)

2 chipotle chilies (dried)

2 cups chopped onion

4 garlic cloves

1 cup roasted tomato pulp

2 bay leaves, crushed

8 cups water

Soak the chilies in 8 cups water for about 30 minutes until soft and reconstituted. Remove the stems and seeds. Place the chilies in a saucepan along with the remaining ingredients and the strained water in which the chilies were soaked and bring to a rapid boil. Turn down the heat and cover. Simmer for about 20 minutes.

Part II – The Enhancement

4 fried corn tortillas torn into small pieces

2 tablespoons raisins

4 tablespoons roasted almonds

2 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds

1/2 cup roasted peanuts

1 1/2 tablets Mexican chocolate (if not available substitute with 2 tablespoons cocoa, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and an additional 1 teaspoon cinnamon)

1 tablespoon oregano

1 tablespoon ground anise seed

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon ground clove

1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger

1 tablespoon ground cumin

2 cups chicken stock

Incorporate all ingredients into the saucepan with the simmering chilies and add two more cups of chicken stock. Simmer over very low heat for 20 minutes, watching carefully that it doesn’t thicken too much or scorch. Add more chicken stock if necessary. Allow to cool, then blend and strain through a ricer or large strainer to remove and discard any seeds or skin that remain. This recipe makes approximately 16 servings. Freeze what is left over for future use.

(Published: March 2, 2005)

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