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It's all in the sauce; Ole for mole

PORTLAND, Ore. - Love chocolate, hut you've sworn off sugar? Trying to help
your family fight the obesity and diabetes that are sweeping Indian country
- not to mention looking to keep your food budget in line?

Check out mole, the concoction that rhymes with ole. Mole originated with
the Aztec word molli. It's a rich chutney-like brew made of pure cocoa,
various chilies, fruits, and all manner of spices and toasted nuts. It's
the ultimate sauce if you want a Southwest hit that stands salsa on its
head.

All the world's great cuisines know that a full-bodied, aromatic sauce
simmered down to a velvety brew is the key to lighting up the eyes of those
gathered at the table. Rice and beans, grilled vegetables, warm salads,
fish and meats: sauces turn this plain fare into food fit for gods. Dressed
for success, rice and beans acquire zip - even grandeur. Families slow down
and enjoy. Eating turns from an idle pastime into what we want it to be -
one of life's sublime pleasures that knits people together.

Open any South American cookbook, or try a Google search on "mole," and a
raft of recipes - each with its own variation on the theme - will appear.
What savvy cooks need more than a set of instructions, though, is the
method behind the madness. Indeed, most mole recipes look like a laundry
list of impossible-to-find ingredients combined with a sequence of steps
that can take the wind out of the best-intentioned sails before things even
get underway.

To get mole, all you have to do is swirl spices like cinnamon, cloves,
pepper and coriander together with some pure cocoa powder and toss them in
an oiled skillet with some onion and garlic. Then seed some chilies - your
choice, depending on how much heat you want - and toss them in a blender
along with a corn tortilla, a handful of raisins or an apple and whatever
nuts you have. Add just enough water or stock to make a puree and then pour
the contents of the blender into the skillet to cook down with the
aromatics. Tomatoes can go in, too, if you want - either "down and dirty"
plopped into the blender or peeled, seeded and chopped into polite,
bite-sized pieces for the skillet.

That's mole: essentially a stew of chilies made rich and thick by the
chocolate, spices, nuts and fruit. Spooned on sparingly, it can go a long
way in helping even those watching their calories enjoy their food and
stick to their eating plans.

Traditional mole is generally considerably richer, though. Most recipes
instruct cooks to saute or fry each ingredient before it goes into the
blender: the chilies, the raisins ... most everything that gets added.
More, lard is the oil of choice for recipes that rely on doing things the
old way.

Now that you get the idea behind mole, perhaps walking through a
traditional approach won't be too intimidating. Judy Howe of the Old Mexico
Grill in Santa Fe, N.M. offers the following method for making what she
calls "Mole Poblano".

Lightly toast half a pound of ancho chiles and soak them in hot water.
While the anchos soak, roast, peel, seed and deep-fry two pounds of poblano
chiles and half a pound of jalapenos. Once done, put all the chiles in a
blender to get a paste. Then make a spice mix by toasting coriander seeds,
seeds from the ancho chilies, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, anise, cumin
seed, allspice and whole cloves in a 500-degree oven for five careful
minutes before cooling and grinding.

She also toasts sliced almonds, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds and pulses
them together in a food processor with raisins, dried apricots and corn
tortilla chips that have been fried in oil for five seconds. That done, she
takes some official Mexican chocolate (ibarra), chops it up and melts it in
a double boiler. If you're still with Howe, grab your whisk because the
next stage is the skillet, the lard and all the various pots and bowls of
things stirred in and simmered down.

Mole, then, can be approached in a range of ways given the time a person
has to spend, the ingredients at hand and how much extra fat the family is
interested in trimming from the sauce. Powdered cocoa, for example, has far
less cocoa butter than do the hard chunks of unsweetened chocolate
available for making things like brownies. And taking a short hike around
all the frying, not to mention the lard, can also help those inclined.
Fresh fruit is another angle. Going fresh instead of dried still gives the
spicy brew a sweet edge, but fresh fruit is less concentrated and, hence,
easier on the waistline.

In summary, if you're in the mood to experiment, start with a dab of oil in
the pan and some onion and garlic. Toss in some cinnamon, cumin, coriander
and what have you along with 3 - 4 spoonfuls of cocoa. Mix in the blender
your chilies and fruit, and a corn tortilla if you have it. Chop your nuts.
Stir everything in together. Add some tomatoes, or even tomatillos if you
feel like going green. Simmer the whole mix down while you're warming up
some beans and rice or whatever else sounds good for dinner, and you're
good to go. It's good to sit down with those you love; good to savor some
very fine fare.