Dancing with the Dead and Oaxaca’s ‘Tablecloth Stainer’ Mole

Dia de los Muertos is coming our way in a few weeks. A three-day festival honoring those who have passed, Day of the Dead celebrations can be traced back to pre-Columbian Mexico.

El Dia de los Muertos. Image credit from Sedona Eye.
El Dia de los Muertos. Image credit from Sedona Eye.

These days Dia de los Muertos coincides with the Catholic Hallowtide calendar of All Hallow’s Eve, Hallowmas, and All Souls’ Day and takes place across Mexico and the world. Far from the solemn affairs usually connected to death, Dia de los Muertos celebrates the process of remembrance.

According to the World Festival entry on Day of the Dead:

People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed and build private altars containing the favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.

As the days shorten and autumn steers us closer to winter’s hibernation, the symbolic line between life and death displayed all around us naturally blurs. I’m looking forward to learning more about Dia de los Muertos festivities, including the amazing food families share for this special occasion. Americans may be privy to our southern neighbors’ Dia de los Muertos calavera de alfeñique (the sugar skull) and Pan de Muertos, but we’re less aware of Mexico’s diverse cuisine, especially when it comes to celebratory meals.

Cameron and I, Latin American food novices that we are, decided to remedy our handicap by investing in the Latin American food bible, Maricel E. Presilla’s La Gran Cocina Latinalast winter. It’s a huge cookbook, providing rich culinary history of Latin American countries with accompanying recipes. Presilla spent years traveling around Latin America learning cooking techniques, and her commitment to educating the home cook is apparent in this book. If you’re looking to explode your mind with new-to-you food ideas, grab this La Gran Cocina Latina. You won’t be sorry.

While Cameron and I are limited on time with an almost-toddler in our midst (it’s been well over a month since my last post!), we have been able to try several recipes from La Gran Cocina Latina, all of them Oaxacan moles. (Oaxaca is the heartland of moles, delicious and addictive sauces that I could eat until passing out.) Oaxacans usually break out mole for special occasions, like Dia de los Muertes, since the preparation is somewhat time intensive. None of the prep steps are complicated in today’s ‘Tablecloth Stainer’ mole, but you will need to set aside time to stovetop-roast the mole ingredients (chiles, nuts, seeds, tomatoes, and garlic). That time is well spent because roasting the aromatics draws out their flavor and makes for an amazing sauce.

For my vegetarian pals, I’ve offered alternative protein and broth options to keep your meal animal product-free because omnivores and vegetarians alike need to make this recipe, stat. And even if you’re not all about fall festivals like Dia de los Muertos, I promise you will be all about this rich and spiced (not spicy) mole. We’ve certainly made mole for no other occasion than our humongous cravings for authentic Mexican food.

Oaxaca's Tablecloth Stainer Mole
Image by author.

Oaxaca’s ‘Tablecloth Stainer’ Mole
(a La Gran Cocina Latina masterpiece)
Serves 6 to 8

For the Mole
– 6 dried ancho chiles (about 2 1/2 oz)
– 6 dried guajillo chiles (about 1 1/4 oz)
– 6 dried costeña chiles (about 1 oz)
– 6 medium plum tomatoes (about 1 1/4 lbs)
– 8 garlic cloves, unpeeled
– 1/4 cup blanched almonds
– 1/4 cup walnut meats
– 1/4 white sesame seeds
– 1 Ceylon cinnamon stick (canela)
– 5 whole cloves
– 1/4 tsp black peppercorns
– 1/4 tsp dried oregano, crushed
– 1/2 cup dark raisins
– 5 TBS freshly rendered lard (I used extra-virgin olive oil)

For the Meat/Protein
-3 lbs boneless pork shoulder or butt, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes OR, to keep vegetarian, use 3 to 4 15-oz cans of cooked beans (I’d used a combination of black and canellini beans)
– 3 tsp salt
– 1 tsp fresh lime juice

For Finishing
– 5 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth to keep vegetarian)
– 2 cups diced fresh pineapple (about 1 lb 6 oz)
– 2 Golden Delicious apples, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces

Making Mole
1. Stem and seed the chiles. Heat a comal (griddle) or heavy skillet (we used a cast-iron skillet) over medium heat.

Image by author.
Image by author.

Working in several batches, add chiles and roast lightly, pressing lightly with a spatula and allowing about 20 seconds per side. Remove as they are done and place in a medium saucepan. Cover with 2 quarts fresh water, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer until the chiles are soft and plump and soft, about 10 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid.

Image by author.
Image by author.

2. While the chiles are simmering, place the tomatoes and garlic on the hot comal and roast, turning occasionally, until lightly charred, about 8 minutes. Remove. When they are cool enough to handle, peel the garlic and remove any charred asking from the tomatoes. Set aside.

3. Add the almonds and walnuts and roast, stirring, for 2 minutes. Scoop out into a bowl. Add the sesame seeds and roast, stirring, until they pop and turn golden, about 2 minutes. Quickly scoop out into the bowl with the almonds and walnuts; set aside.

4. Add the cinnamon, cloves, and peppercorns to the comal and roast, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove and grind to a fine powder in a spice or coffee grinder.

Image by author.
Image by author.

5. Working in batches, place the chiles, tomatoes, garlic, nuts, sesame seeds, and spices in a blender or food processor with the oregano and raisins and process to a thick paste, using as much of the reserved chile cooking liquid as you need to facilitate processing.

6. Heat 4 TBS extra-virgin olive oil in a large deep skillet or deep sauce pan over medium-high heat. Pour in the pureed mixture, guarding against splatters, and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Set aside.

Cooking the Meat
7. Season the pork cubes with 2 tsp salt and the lime juice. In a 12-inch sauté pan or wide saucepan, heat the remaining 1 TBS oil over medium heat. Add the meat and cook, stirring, until evenly brown, about 15 minutes. Stir in the sauce and cook, stirring, for another 3 to 5 minutes. (If using beans, just add beans to big pot with mole and the extra TBS oil.)

8. Pour in the broth, stir well, and cook, covered, over medium heat until the meat (or beans) are tender, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Add a little more broth if the sauce becomes too thick. When the meat is almost tender, add the pineapple and apples and simmer, covered, for 30 more minutes. Test for salt and add more if needed.

9. Serve with rice, and dig in.

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