Recipes : Main Courses
I don’t think twice about eating a hot stew in the summertime. And, as far as I know, millions of Mexicans feel the same way.
You will see Pozole served in fondas in the middle of June, hot Caldo de Camarón as one of the most popular items on beach restaurant menus, and the famed Mole de Olla being ladled, sizzling hot from the pot, in markets all over the country at peak midday heat.
I’ve read that having something hot in the summer will actually cool you off. It turns out chiles are thought to have the same effect. All these Mexican stews, quoted above, have rich broths that are usually flavored with one or more kinds of chiles.
I find these kinds of one-pot meals to be the epitome of how practical and creative human beings can be: economical, filling, and so tasty, they have all you need for a meal in a bowl. All cultures have their ways of making stews. In Mexico, Mole de Olla is a dearly loved one, and it is a dish that, unfortunately, hasn’t become popular abroad… yet.
Mole de Olla has little to do with the mole sauce so many people outside of Mexico equate with Mole Poblano. That delicious, super thick sauce made of dried chiles, seeds, nuts, spices, tomatoes, onion, garlic, chocolate, and numerous other ingredients ground together. Mole de Olla, however, (translates as Mole in a pot) is a revered stew.
As with many of the Mexican stews, the first step for a Mole de Olla is making a broth with the meat, along with some onion, garlic, and herbs. I particularly like to add fresh mint to mine. The meat is cooked until it is practically coming apart, and the broth is as flavorful as can be. The simmered herbs and veggies are removed, as by then they will be extremely mushy and most of their flavor transferred to the broth.
The second step is to take that rich-tasting broth to a higher dimension of flavor. A seasoning sauce is made with ancho and pasilla chiles, toasted sesame seeds, and tomatoes. Usually, xoconostles (a very tart and sour fruit of the cactus plant) are used, but since they are quite hard to find in the US, I substitute for tomatillos, which are tart, not as sour as xoconostles, but hey, they do the trick. The meat broth then simmers a second time as it marries with the seasoning sauce, adding so much depth of flavor: a gentle but addicting heat, a lovely acidity, and a whisper of nuttiness.
As a third step, fresh veggies are added. Corn, zucchini, chayote squash, green beans…but this time, the veggies are cooked just until tender and crisp and also full of flavor.
Mole de Olla is a humble dish. A stew made with a piece of meat and fresh veggies that are available year round. Yet, it turns out to be a full blown delicious meal. As anything Mexican, once it is set on the table and everyone gets a share of succulent meat, a lot of deep-tasting broth, and a share of all the veggies, extra garnishes are set on the table to dress it up and enhance the dish even more. You get a chance to squeeze in fresh lime juice to brighten up the stew, and you also get to spoon on crunchy and pungent white onion and cilantro.
This stew is a joy to eat. People eat it almost in a ceremonial fashion. Each person with a set style of their own. Some people eat the corn first, some people leave it for last. Some people first finish the broth and then go for the meat and veggies, or tuck them into tacos.
I eat a bit of everything as I move along. But one thing is definite: once I start, I don’t stop for a second, not even to look around. I sip a little broth, take a spoon with some veggies, some meat, more broth, and with my hands I take some bites of the corn… until there is almost absolutely nothing left in the bowl. At this point, I raise the bowl to finish the last sips of broth.
Then I wish for another go, just to repeat the experience. Though I always realize I am full, content, and feel so at home.
P.S. Fall is around the corner, and guess what, Mole de Olla is also fabulous for cold nights. So don’t store this recipe for the summer, keep it out, all year round.
Mole de Olla
3 pounds beef stew meat cut into 11/2-inch to 2-inch chunks, or beef shank meat cut into 11/2-inch to 2-inch chunks and bones added in the pot
1/2 white onion
3 bay leaves
3 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon kosher or coarse sea salt, or to taste
10 cups water
1 large sprig of fresh mint, or between 10 and 12 leaves
3 dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
3 dried pasilla chiles, stemmed and seeded
1 pound ripe tomatoes (about 4), preferably Roma
1/4 pound tomatillos (about 1 or 2 depending on size)
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, lightly toasted
2 chayote squashes, peeled and cubed (about 3 cups)
1 large zucchini, cubed (about 3 cups)
3/4 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into about 1-inch pieces (about 2 cups)
3 ears of fresh corn, husked and cut into thirds
3/4 cup finely chopped white onion, for garnish
3/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
3-4 limes, quartered, for garnish
In a large heavy-bottomed casserole or pot, place the meat, half onion, garlic cloves, bay leaves, mint and a tablespoon of salt. Cover with 10 cups of water and bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface, and reduce the heat to low or medium-low heat, cover and simmer for an hour.
Meanwhile, place the ancho and pasilla chiles in a medium bowl, cover with boiling water and let them rehydrate for 10 to 15 minutes. Place the tomatoes and tomatillos in baking dish under the broiler, until they are completely charred and mushy, about 10 minutes. In a small skillet set over medium heat, place the sesame seeds and toast, stirring constantly, anywhere from 1 to 2 minutes until they start to become golden brown, but not completely dark brown.
In the jar of a blender, place the soaked chiles, along with 1/4 cup of the soaking liquid, the broiled tomatoes and tomatillos, and the toasted sesame seeds, and puree until completely smooth.
Remove the lid from the large casserole, remove the cooked onion, mint and garlic cloves (if some remains, it is totally fine) and pour the chile mixture in with the meat. Stir, cover again and cook for another half hour.
Remove the lid, raise heat to medium heat, add the cubed chayote squash and the corn, and cook partially covered for 15 minutes. Add the green beans and zucchini, and cook partially covered for another 10 minutes. Taste for salt and add more if need be.
Serve in bowls, making sure that each bowl has a serving of meat, corn, chayote, green beans and zucchini. Place white onion, cilantro and halved limes at the table, for people to add as last seasonings and garnishes.
Note: Traditionally, this recipe uses xoconostles, which are hard to find in the US. Instead, I use tomatillos, which have a similar tart flavor.
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