My first encounter with the cooking of my host mother (Rosie) during my summer study abroad in Cuernavaca, Mexico, had me gravely concerned about my ability to survive the weeks ahead.

After two plane rides, a long wait in the airport for a bus driver preoccupied with some protest or another, a windy ride through the mountains between Mexico City and Cuernavaca, and the “meeting of the host parents” ceremony at the school I was attending, I was starving and ready for all the great Mexican food I couldn’t wait to try.

Anticipating some steaming tortillas, homemade refried beans, and lots of spicy goodness, I was speechless when placed in front of me was a sandwich consisting of white bread, pimiento loaf, and mayonnaise.  I have major issue with white sandwich bread, I didn’t even know what pimiento loaf was, and I….HATE…..mayo, but being a pleaser and not wanting to upset Rosie immediately after meeting her, I scarfed it down as fast as possible.

Later that night while privately recalling this nauseating meal, my roommate and I bonded over our mutual distaste for mayonnaise and were reminded that, in Mexico, the main meal is lunch (la comida) and hopefully the sandwich was just a quick bite for dinner, not an example of meals to come.  Hope was rekindled.

Until the next morning.

I sat down for breakfast and went to take a sip of my apple juice and nothing came out of the glass…it was apple jello.  Little did I know that jello is it’s own food group in Mexico; the big grocery stores boast an entire aisle of jello boxes in every flavor imaginable and I got two juice glasses full every morning.  I was worried again.  Luckily, alongside my daily dose of jello, Rosie would serve the best oatmeal, pancakes, sopes and her own homemade juices (melon, guava, orange…).  I quickly learned that such and early feast was vital to surviving the school day as la comida does not take place until 2 pm at the earliest.

Besides my daily sandia (watermelon) from a little food cart at school (best watermelon I have ever had), I had to wait the entire school day to eat again.  At the end of the day we would  fight our way through the sea of students, cars, and taxi cabs until we finally found Rosie, whose car was the exact make, model, and color of the local taxis requiring her to hang out of the window and furiously flag us down.  After a tumultuous ride home through the unorganized streets of Cuernavaca (to my horror, Rosie crossed herself every time we encountered a traffic circle), we arrived at Rosie’s quiet house already brimming with the smells of a great meal to come.

Even though there was a perfectly good dining table, Rosie always stationed us at the counter in her kitchen.  She would talk to us about our day, about what was brewing on the stove, and about where we came from.  Helping after helping of fresh tortillas, refried black beans, perfectly cooked shredded chicken, homemade juice, and rice would be offered until our poor stomach could take no more.  I fully understand why siestas are so vital…

Most days these lunches consisted of the previously mentioned fare, but Rosie would also wow us with hearty posole, enchiladas verdes, chiles rellenos, and, my favorite, mole negro.

There are many varieties of moles, but likely the most famous is this rich sauce packing a multitude of ingredients from chocolate to peanuts to spicy chiles that, with a little patience, become a sweet, spicy, and earthy mixture perfect for smothering chicken, turkey, or vegetables.

While there were other unfortunate encounters with pimiento loaf and mayonnaise during that summer (we eventually broke down and had to explain that we didn’t like mayo and taught Rosie what a PB&J was), Rosie went above and beyond in all other culinary realms keeping us well fed, happy, and giving me a deep love for Mexican cuisine.

It’s hard to beat eating a homemade mole in a modest kitchen in Mexico cooked by a real Mexican grandma, but one can try.

Mole Negro

Serves 6-8

Heavily adapted from the Turkey Mole recipe in Gourmet Today

Note:  This is one of those sauces that only gets better with age.  If you have the time, make the sauce a day ahead of time and refrigerate until ready to cook chicken – just add to Dutch oven and bring back to a boil before proceeding.

I have weird food issues (note the mayo above) and while I will cook with it sometimes, chicken really grosses me out (if cooking meat, 99% of the time I cook beef or pork).  In the same line, I can hardly stand eating it off the bone (this issue has gotten worse with time), so after cooking it, I like to shred the chicken off the bone.  That is just me.  Hopefully you are normal grownup and if so, feel free to leave the chicken on the bone for serving.

6 dried ancho chiles

6 dried pasilla chiles

2 cups boiling water

1 15-ounce can whole tomatoes in juice

2 white onions, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

2 corn tortillas, lightly toasted in a dry skillet and torn into pieces

6 1/4 cups chicken broth

1/2 cup blanched slivered almonds

1/2 cup whole pecans

1/2 cup hazelnuts, lightly toasted in a dry skillet any loose skins discarded

1/2 cup currants

1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon anise seeds

2 whole cloves

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1/2-inch piece of cinnamon stick

1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 3oz tablet of Mexican drinking chocolate (such as Abuelita)

6 lbs bone-in, skin-on chicken (I recommend breast and thigh meat)

Discard stems, seeds and ribs of all the chiles and tear into pieces.  Soak chiles in boiling water in a large bowl for 30 minutes.  Puree chiles with soaking liquid, tomatoes with juice, onions, garlic, tortillas, and 2 cups of chicken broth in a blender until smooth.  This may take 2-3 batches and will take about 2 minutes a batch.  Transfer to a large bowl.

Combine almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, currants, coriander seeds, anise seeds, oregano, cloves, cinnamon, and 2 tablespoons of the sesame seeds in a food processor and process until finely ground, about 2 minutes.  Add 1/4 cup of chicken broth and process until a paste forms, 2 minutes more.  Stir paste into chile mixture.

Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a large dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Carefully add chile mixture and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently.  Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring, until thickened, 10 minutes.

Stir in chocolate tablet and 4 cups of chicken broth.  Stir until chocolate is melted.  Season with salt and simmer, partially covered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While sauce is cooking, preheat oven to 350ºF and heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet.  Pat chicken dry and season both sides with salt and pepper.  Working in batches, cook chicken until golden brown on both sides (about 6 minutes per batch).  Reserve chicken.

When sauce is cooked and slightly thickened, add chicken and any accumulated juices to Dutch oven with the sauce.  Cover and place in oven.  Cook for 1 hour and 15 minutes.  Remove pot from oven and remove chicken from sauce.  When chicken is cool enough to handle, shred meat from bones and return to sauce.

Serve with white rice, corn tortillas, pickled jalepenos and  onions, cilantro, avocado or guacamole, and lime wedges.

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