Holy mole!

Try a Oaxacan adventure

By Lucy Herrman
Posted 3/5/20

Oaxaca, Mexico, is a beautifully preserved Spanish Colonial city with impressive cathedrals and historic monasteries, picturesque cobblestone streets lined with brightly painted buildings, and a traditional zocalo (the central square) with an abundance of sidewalk cafés and restaurants.

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Holy mole!

Try a Oaxacan adventure


Oaxaca, Mexico, is a beautifully preserved Spanish Colonial city with impressive cathedrals and historic monasteries, picturesque cobblestone streets lined with brightly painted buildings, and a traditional zocalo (the central square) with an abundance of sidewalk cafés and restaurants.

Some 19 native peoples still speak their languages and practice their native crafts of weaving, carving and creating pottery. There are museums of contemporary, modern, pre-Spanish and textile art. It is no wonder that artists of all kinds flock there to paint and to develop their skills as printmakers.

But to my delight, Oaxaca also happens to be a world-class city of complex cuisine. In short, a mecca for foodies.

Recently, my husband and I took a trip to visit this magical city. While snowy and cold in Taos, it was sunny and warm in Mexico. So it seemed like a good time to get out of town and go to Oaxaca. We talked to some friends who had been there, did some of our own research and arrived armed and ready to experience the culture and food of Oaxaca.

Oaxaca claims that mole -- a sauce with numerous ingredients, often including chocolate and chiles -- was invented in that region during pre-Spanish times. The native people introduced chiles to the European explorers, and the word mole may have derived from the native Nahuatl word "molli," or sauce. Today, Oaxaca lays claim to seven distinct moles: negro, rojo, amarillo, verde, chichilo, coloradito and manchamantel, all differently colored and flavored, based on the use of distinctive chiles and herbs.

A restaurant around the corner from our hotel offered the "seven moles of Oaxaca," so we were able to sample them all at once. Some were based on chiles and some were based on nuts. Some were pre-Spanish in origin and others were developed later. Some were spicy hot, some were sweet, some had chocolate and some had flavors we could not recognize. But I can attest that every mole is delicious and sublime in its own way.

Making mole from scratch is a painstaking, lengthy process that sometimes takes days to complete and incorporating as many as 40 different ingredients. Every family has its own traditional recipe and method of making mole. The effort to make them means that even in Mexico, some moles are saved for holidays and festivals.

A few mole pastes are available to buy premade in the market, such as mole negro, mole rojo and mole coloradito. You can even get them here in the United States through specialty stores or Amazon. But if you are up to it, it can be fun to make mole from scratch.

I believe the best way to learn about a cuisine is to take a cooking class. So I looked into it and decided that Casa de los Sabores sounded like the perfect place in Oaxaca to learn. Pilar Cabrera, the teacher, is the chef/owner at La Olla, a wonderful little restaurant offering Pilar's gourmet interpretations of the traditional dishes. So I knew her class would be something special. And from the moment we met at La Olla, I knew we had come to the right place.

First, we walked a few blocks to the market, where Pilar introduced us to the vendors she entrusted to provide the finest ingredients to her restaurant: women selling local herbs and greens, such as hierbabuena, yerbasanta and epazote. We bought impossibly adorable tiny tomatillos, gorgeous bouquets of squash blossoms and organic heirloom tomatoes.

We also selected fresh chiles de aqua (loosely translated as "water chile"), an heirloom variety similar to a fresh guajillo chile. We watched cheesemakers as they worked creating balls of quesillo and queso fresco. At the poulterer, Pilar identified the free-range chickens by their natural color and warned against the yellow ones. "They are dyed!" Pilar declared emphatically.

And we perused baskets of the famous gusanito de maguey -- a grub that feeds on the maguey agave plant used for making mezcal, and is a key ingredient in many popular Oaxacan recipes. And right there next to them were baskets of dried spiced grasshoppers.

Once we had our ingredients, we were dispatched in taxis to Pilar's home where the cooking class would commence. There we donned aprons and Pilar talked about each recipe, the ingredients for which were separated into baskets. As she explained, a true mole is simply a sauce -- albeit a very complicated one. But some are much more straightforward to make than others.

That is why, for our class, Pilar chose mole amarillo, or yellow mole, for our main dish. This mole, which is really orange, is one of the easiest to make because it involves fewer spices and more fresh ingredients. We also made quesadillas, salsa, sopa and dessert.

We took our stations around her enormous counter and got to work. Garlic, onions, tomatoes were scorched on a comal or griddle. Dried chiles were stemmed, deseeded and soaked in hot water. Chayote, potatoes, and green beans got trimmed, diced and blanched. Nopales cactus pads were sliced and massaged until they gave up their slime and were ready to rinse. Guavas were hollowed out, vanilla beans were scraped and rice was combined with milk and put on to simmer.

We took turns pulverizing salsa ingredients, including a few of the gusanitos de maguey, in a large well-used molcajete (traditional Mexican version of the mortar and pestle). When ready, the ingredients for the mole were blended in a blender and slowly poured into a slurry of masa cooking in a large cazuela (cooking pot), which we stirred until thickened.

We made fresh tortillas on Pilar's tortilladora, some with less than great success.

And then, a little surprise.

We were directed to the living room, where a mezcal tasting awaited. Pilar explained the difference between blended and artisan mezcal. She admitted that she buys hers directly from the producers, and she pointed to a row of beautiful huge glass jugs without labels that lined her wall.

To accompany the tasting, we ate the appetizer we made: squash blossom quesadillas with salsa straight from the molcajete. Delicious! And now I can proudly say I have tasted maguey worms.

After we finished our mezcal tasting, we were called to the table for lunch. We took our seats, and Pilar's staff brought out the results of our combined efforts: Sopa with nopales cactus, lima beans and clear broth. Mole amarillo with poached chicken, chayote squash, green beans and baby potatoes. Guayabas (guavas) stuffed with creamy rice pudding. Traditional hibiscus water, local beer and a lovely vino tinto (red wine).

The luncheon we helped prepare was a uniquely visual and incredibly flavorful culinary experience.

I, for one, plan to duplicate this mole at home. I hope you do, too! And although we have said adios to Oaxaca, I look forward to remembering Oaxaca's divine cuisine for some time to come.

Buen provecho!

*Note: I have adapted the following recipes from those by Pilar Cabrera. To preserve their authenticity, I have made as few changes as possible. However, I have included some suggestions for ingredient substitutions.


Squash Blossom Quesadillas

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup chopped white onion

12 squash blossoms

2 cups julienned jalapeños chiles, seeds and veins removed

12 leaves fresh epazote (you can substitute 12 sprigs of cilantro)

Shredded quesillo (or string cheese pulled apart into threads)

Pork fat drippings

Salt and pepper to taste

12 small corn tortillas

Sauté onion and jalapeño until softened. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Assemble the quesadillas as follows:

1. Brush the inside of a tortilla with the drippings;

2. Fill each with a tablespoon of cooked filling;

3. Open a squash blossom and spread across drippings;

4. Top with epazote or cilantro;

5. Sprinkle with shredded quesillo.

Fold tortilla in half and cook on a comal or griddle until crispy on one side. Flip and repeat.

Makes 12 quesadillas.



Oaxaca Pasilla Chile Salsa with Maguey Agave Worms

3 cloves garlic

2 Oaxacan pasilla chiles (or any smoky dried pasilla chiles)

3 dried maguey worms (optional)

5 tomatillos (about 1 cup)

1/2 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt

Remove the stems and seeds from the chiles. Roast the chiles and the garlic on a comal or griddle for a few minutes until slightly blistered. Tear the chiles into pieces and place into a bowl. Cover the chiles with hot water and allow to soak about 20 minutes.

Roast the tomatillos until slightly blackened, about 5-8 minutes. If using, lightly roast the worms on both sides until they begin to emit an aroma, about 1 minutes.

Grind the garlic cloves and the worms in a mortar and pestle or a stone molcajete. Add the chiles in batches and grind well. Add small amounts of water to facilitate grinding. Then add pieces of the tomatillos and grind well to incorporate. Add more water as needed to thin the mixture. Flavor with salt and pepper. Serve immediately in the molcajete.


1 medium onion cut into wedges

5 cloves garlic, peeled

2 good quality Roma tomatoes

1 medium chayote, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes

6 baby white or yellow potatoes, cut in half

1 cup green beans, trimmed

5 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed, seeded and toasted

2 costeño amarillo chiles, stemmed, seeded and toasted (or use dried poblanos)

1 chile de árbol, stemmed, seeded and toasted

3 fresh chiles de agua (or use 3 fresh guajillo or hot banana peppers)

1/8 teaspoon ground clove

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon corn oil or lard

1 bunch yerbasanta, tied with string (may substitute cilantro)

1 bunch hoja santa, tied with string (may substitute mint)

1 cup masa flour

1 quart chicken broth

6 boneless poached chicken breasts

Edible flowers, for garnish

Roast the onion, garlic, tomatoes and fresh chiles on a comal or griddle until evenly toasted. Place the fresh chiles in a bowl and cover with a plate to steam; then peel and seed the chiles. Soak the toasted dried chiles in boiling water until softened.

Bring 6 cups of water to a boil and add 1-1/2 teaspoon salt. Add the chayote, the potatoes and the green beans and cook until al dente, 5-7 minutes. Drain vegetables and set aside.

Strain the dried chiles and put them in a blender with the garlic, onion, tomato, pepper, clove, cinnamon, cumin and oregano, and 1 cup of chicken broth. Blend until smooth.

Heat the oil or the lard in a large heavy pot. Pour the contents of the blender into the pot and cook for about 5 minutes.

Put the masa flour in the blender with 2 cups of the chicken broth and blend until smooth. Add this to the sauce in the pot, stirring constantly for 5 minutes over medium heat. Add more broth as necessary. Add the tied bunches of herbs and some salt. Cook over low heat for about 7 minutes until thickened. Remove the herb bunches.

To serve, place a sliced poached chicken breast on a plate surrounded by the chayote, potatoes and green beans. Ladle the mole amarillo over the dish. Garnish with edible flowers and sliced radishes.


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