Growing up in Texas, I’m familiar with certain parts of Tex-Mex and Mexican cuisine. I have made barbacoa. Tacos de lengua. I’ve pickled carrots and jalapenos, am fairly intimate with enchiladas and have made countless tacos. I’ve even made nopalitos.
And yet, there is still so much that I am not familiar with at all. Mole, for instance. I’ve eaten a version of a mole a time or two, but it’s not an everyday thing in my normal circle. It’s not on many restaurant menus, and I don’t know anyone personally that has mentioned that they prepare a mole at home.
But when I was at the farmer’s market the other day, one of my farmer friends (coincidentally, the same farmer that brought prickly pear fruit!) had hoja santa. I was unfamiliar with the herb. It looks like a gigantic leaf – not something I am accustomed to cooking with.
He explained to me that it was used in Mexican cooking, often to wrap foods, like a tamale. I took some home and started to research.
My first attempt at using hoja santa, which is also called “The Root Beer Plant” was super-simple. I wrapped some cod in the leaves and baked them. The flavor the leaves imparted into the fish was a lovely light herbal, anise-type flavor, not unlike fennel or tarragon. It was lovely and fresh, and I was propelled into learning of more things I could do with this herb while I had it on hand.
That’s when I stumbled upon mole.
Most mole I’ve encountered – which as I said before, is limited – is thickened with nuts or seeds and is dark brown or brick red, thanks to a myriad of dried chiles, spices, and sometimes even chocolate. But this mole verde is none of that. It’s light and fresh, and yet cozy, warm, and comforting. The mix of herbs added at the last minute keeps this sauce bright and still feels as though summer could still be here, but the cumin and masa give it a grounded, belly-warming flavor and texture that warms your belly and wards off the cooler breezes of autumn.
In other words, this was a very “now” dish.
If you find yourself with some fresh hoja santa (you can request it at a good Latin grocery store, or you might be able to grow it yourself – I think I am going to try!), then certainly make a mole verde, as it’s definitely worth it. If you can’t find it, you might try other herbs with a similar flavor profile – I haven’t tried myself, but perhaps fennel fronds would work in this instance. But it’s pretty awesome if you find hoja santa, as it’s really a unique, fun herb.
- 1 3-4 lb chicken, cut into 8 pieces
- Salt, pepper and ground cumin
- 1 T olive oil, lard or bacon fat
- ¼ c white wine
- 6 c chicken broth
- 2 T cilantro stems
- 2 bay leaves
- ¼ t ground cloves
- 1 t ground cumin
- 3 fresh jalapenos, seeded and cut into a few chunks
- 6 large tomatillos, husks removed and quartered
- 1 small onion, peeled and cut into chunks
- 2 fresh thyme sprigs, leaves picked
- 2 fresh oregano sprigs, leaves picked
- ½ c masa harina mixed into 1 c water
- 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
- 10-12 medium-sized leaves of fresh epazote
- 5 medium-sized fresh hoja santa leaves, thick stems removed
- Pat the chicken dry and season with salt, pepper and a little ground cumin.
- Heat a large, heavy Dutch oven to medium-high heat and add oil. When shimmering, brown the chicken, a few pieces at a time, on all sides. Remove and set aside. Add wine to pot and scrape bottom of pot to release the tasty brown bits. Add back the chicken pieces, all but ½ cup of the chicken broth, and the cilantro stems and the bay leaves. Make sure you nestle the chicken so that all will be as covered by the broth as much as possible. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, and allow to simmer, covered, for 30 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.
- Meanwhile, in a blender, add the ground cloves, cumin, jalapenos, tomatillos, onion, thyme, and oregano, as well as the remaining ½ cup of chicken broth. Puree until smooth and set aside.
- When the chicken is cooked through, remove and set aside on a platter and cover with a piece of foil to keep warm. Strain the broth and add back to the Dutch oven. Pour the pureed sauce into the broth, whisk in, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the masa harina slurry to the simmering sauce, whisking to ensure that lumps don't form. Allow to simmer, whisking occasionally, until the sauce has thickened some, coating a spoon, about 15 minutes.
- Add the parsley, epazote, and hoja santa leaves, as well as about ½ cup of water to the blender. Puree, stopping to scrape down the sides, ensuring that the result is a bright green sauce. Pour this into the simmering sauce and whisk in. Add back the chicken to rewarm and simmer for 4-5 minutes.
- Serve with steamed rice and hot tortillas.