Makes 1 quart
Mole, perhaps Mexico's most famous sauce, is really a whole family of sauces based on varying proportions of chiles, spices, seeds, nuts, fruits, and, famously but not invariably, chocolate. Because moles are time-consuming to make from scratch -- it is not uncommon for one to have thirty ingredients -- I devised this rich, satisfying, but simplified sauce that uses many classic mole techniques: toasting the chiles and garlic in a hot skillet, soaking and pureeing the chiles, frying the sauce to develop its flavors. Based on sweet, mildly spicy ancho chiles, it is a thick pureed sauce with resonant flavor, though it is lighter and has much less fat than traditional moles.

This sauce is so versatile I often double this recipe, divide it among 1- or 2-cup containers, and freeze it. You can use it to season bean soups, doctor up canned beans, or braise pot roast and chicken. Toss it with shredded leftover pork or chicken or with shrimp and roll up in hot tortillas for a quick lunch or snack. Made ahead, it can become a splendid last-minute sauce for any number of roasted or grilled meats -- it needs only to be heated and enriched by the juices released from the meats after slicing.

You can also make a marvelous chili by stewing 2 pounds of 1/2-inch chunks of trimmed stewing beef or venison in the sauce until it is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours over low heat. Brown the meat in 2 teaspoons rendered bacon fat or peanut oil first. Add dark beer, 1/4 cup at a time, to the sauce to replenish the level as it cooks.

Mexican chocolate, made by grinding cocoa beans with sugar and often with cinnamon, almonds, and milk solids, is available at specialty food shops.

  • 6 dried ancho chiles
  • 5 garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 1/2 cups unsalted homemade or canned low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vegetable oil or rendered bacon fat
  • 2 medium onions, chopped medium fine
  • One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes or whole plum tomatoes, pureed, with their juices, in a blender
  • One 1-ounce chunk smoked ham, cut into 4 pieces
  • 3/4 ounce Mexican chocolate or 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 to 2 teaspoon sugar
  • Kosher salt
With scissors, split open the chiles, and discard the stems and seeds. Cut the chiles into large flat pieces. In a large heavy skillet, toast the chile strips over moderate heat, turning occasionally with a spatula to prevent them from burning, until they begin to darken and smell pungent, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl. Cover with about 2 cups boiling water and let soak for 20 minutes, or until softened.

Meanwhile, add the garlic cloves to the skillet and toast for about 15 minutes, turning occasionally, until the skins have blackened in spots and the garlic has softened somewhat. Remove from the heat.

In a blender, combine the garlic, cinnamon, basil, oregano, cumin seeds, chicken broth, and vinegar. Drain the ancho chiles and add to the mixture. Blend at high speed until smooth, about 1 minute.

In a large nonstick skillet, combine the oil and onions, cover and cook over low heat until the onions have begun to release some liquid, about 5 minutes. Uncover, increase the heat to moderate, and sauté the onions until golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes.

Add the ancho chile mixture and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and ham, partially cover, and simmer until the sauce is very thick, about 25 minutes.

Add the chocolate and simmer until the sauce is very thick and has reduced to about 4 cups, about 10 minutes longer. Discard the ham (which will have given up its flavor) and add the sugar and salt to taste.

The sauce can be refrigerated, covered, for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 3 months.

Adapted from A New Way to Cook by Sally Schneider (Artisan 2001).