I will never forget the first time I ate Mexican food, okay New Mexican. Six years of living on Midwestern hot dishes prepared me poorly for the experience of dining on tangy beef rolled in fried tortillas with a bean concoction that looked nothing beans as I knew them from our gardens. If the food was not enough to awaken my little brain to the culture, eating in a restaurant dining room painted shocking colors with a lingering scent of pinion was enough to forever send me on a path of seeking adventure in eating. I had a lot of years of Midwestern eating to get through before I controlled my cooking destiny and the adventure could start.
In adulthood I traded the cookbooks from Lutheran churches and grandmothers, a palette built on cream of mushroom soup, for a stack largely accrued in Santa Fe or Hatch, New Mexico. We had moved out of Minnesota to Oklahoma and were closer to the mecca of my initial foodie inklings. Big Jim peppers and NM #6 replaced green beans on the rare occasion I ventured back into the casserole sphere. One fateful trip to Colorado we stopped at a restaurant in Pueblo and I stumbled into my true obsession—Melissa met mole.
Before my best friends were Mexicans, I was chasing a recipe, tinkering with chocolate and chiles, and hoping to stumble on the right combination of things to douse a turkey breast with the heavenly sauce from Puebla, Mexico. Other restaurants fell short of that initial taste, and it never came out right at home. My Diane Kennedy cookbook intimidated me with its multiple pages for mole poblano. There was only one thing to do—go to Puebla.
The consensus, at least in Puebla, is that nuns at the Convent of Santa Rosa in the center of Puebla were desperately trying to prepare a meal for an esteemed guest in the 16th century. Having little, they threw a bit of this and a little bit of that in a pot, simmered it for hours, butchered their turkey, and served up a meal that made angels sing. In Minnesota, we would add some noodles and call it a hot dish. Conflicting legends exist but the result is always the same—the richest blast of flavor your mouth could imagine, lavishly poured over protein of your choosing.
My obsession led us last month to Mesones Sacristia de la Compania in the historical core of Puebla. The former hacienda is now an utterly delightful boutique hotel with one of the city’s best restaurants operating in the old Talavera-tiled kitchen. Staying there is fantastic. Eating there is dreamy. Learning to cook mole poblano there is another evolution in my transformation to the cook I want to be.
My one-on-one time with Chef Rose demystified the mole recipes I had studied for years. In ninety minutes, we had prepared the sauce I had been seeking. It did involve a savory buffet of ingredients, frying and flames, and a whole lot of blending, but it was approachable. Rose shared her stories growing up in Puebla and becoming a chef in Mexico. I learned far more than how to make mole that afternoon and will always be grateful for the experience.
Before we left Puebla, we walked to the neighborhood of Analco one more time. I purchased a large cazuela and a set of cazuelitas for my mole experiments back home. To me, cooking mole poblano had to be done in a pot cooked from the clay of Puebla. While I worried about our Talavera luncheon setting also purchased in Analco, it was the mole pot that I truly wanted to survive the trip home.
It did. I am now two batches into mole in Colorado and have been delighted with the results. There is room for improvement, but Rose has moved me well out of the novice category. I even managed to get my father, who still lives on the cream of mushroom palette and fears spice, to dabble a little mole on his turkey when he visited last week. I wouldn’t say he liked it, but he could appreciate that it was something I would like to cook.
Now my attention turns to Oaxaca with its dazzling array of seven moles. The sauce obsession is strong, and I must keep pursuing the simmering scents of Mexican kitchens.