I remember walking into my first cooking class with Diana Kennedy and being surprised at how small she was. I wasn't surprised at all, however, at the first words out of her mouth once the class started.
"Mexican food is laborious" she intoned in that very British accent, with heavy emphasis on the word laborious. In fact, she drew out each syllable and rolled the "r".
I'd been cooking from her cookbooks for years by the time I took the class, I already knew that to do it right and have the final dish taste reasonably close to what it did in Mexico took a lot of time, patience and some attention to detail. Time and patience I'm pretty good at, attention to detail has never been my strong suit.
At first glance Mexican recipes tend to be a little intimidating given the length of the list of ingredients and the various preparation methods. The reality, though, is that with only a few exceptions, they really aren't that difficult. Time consuming yes, but difficult? No.
One of the more fascinating culinary experiences I've had in Mexico was to watch Abigail Mendoza prepare Mole Negro from scratch in Teotitlan del Valle in Oaxaca. Mole Negro isn't difficult, but the process is long and it is involved, but the resultant sauce is complex, elegant and layered with haunting fragrance and nuance. Because of the time and energy that goes into making Mole Negro it is usually served for fiestas and special occasions. With Día de Muertos coming up it will, no doubt, appear on alters as an enticement and offering to the returning souls. Not being nearly that ambitious I went in search of a much less laborious project and came up with Pollo en Pipián Rojo from Cuisines of Mexico, Ms. Kennedy's first cookbook, now out of print.
True to form, the recipe covered 2 full pages and had what looked like 25 ingredients. Luckily, I've made this recipe before and knew that it wasn't all that hard.
In the recipe, the first step is to prepare the chicken. She takes a whole chicken (3 1/2-4 lb) and simmers it with aromatics to create a rich chicken stock. I had some insipid boneless, skinless chicken breasts I wanted to move out of the freezer so I used those instead. I could have just thawed them and tossed them into the sauce at the end to cook, but decided I'd give them the whole bird treatment so that I could get the flavorful stock. So into the pot with the chicken went half a white onion, a couple of peeled cloves of garlic, some parsley, a bay leaf and some thyme.
Then I turned my attention to the chiles. I've got quite a stash of dried chiles that need to be used up soon. This particular recipe required ancho chiles, which are dried poblano chiles. I also had some smoked pasillas from Oaxaca that add subtle flavor to any dish in which it is used. Pipián is not nearly as complex in flavor as a mole, and I though the smoked pasillas might provide some interesting flavor variations.
The 3 smoked pasillas are on the left and the 6 anchos on the right. The first step is to lightly toast the chiles and make them pliable enough so that they can be easily stemmed, seeded and deveined. Over toasted and they tend to get brittle making them harder to work with.
I think the pan is a 9" omelet pan from Calphalon that I've had for eons. What I like about it is that it conducts heat very well and very evenly which makes it the perfect pan for toasting chiles. Once toasted I slit the chiles down one side, removed and reserved the seeds and then into a bowl for the soak.
The chiles need to be totally submersed in the hot water in order to soften. If they want to float, just weigh them down with something. I here I used a plate. We used to process a lot of guajillo chiles at work, up to 15 or more pounds each week. Toasting wasn't so hard, we used our commercial woks, but training employees in how to know when the soaking was done on such a large volume was a little challenging at first. Cooking relies on the senses and with chiles the sense of touch is vital. What I used to tell my employees was that once toasted chiles feel a lot like a piece of vinyl, kind of tough and leathery, but once soaked they become supple and velvety. And so it was with the anchos and smoked pasillas I soaked. After about 20 minutes under water they had that plush velvet feel to them. Drained, they went into the blender along with a big old clove of peeled garlic and enough chicken stock to release the blender blades. The secret here is to make the puree as smooth as is absolutely possible. A gritty puree will result in a gritty finished sauce.
With the chicken poaching and the chiles pureed the next step was to tackle the seeds and spices that give pipián it's accent flavors and body. The reserved chile seeds, 1 generous tablespoon in all, I tossed back into the pan and gently heated them through until they were a rich brown color. Because the seeds do contain volatile oils that can cause a lot of nasal and throat irritations when released I made sure to turn on the hood over the range to help exhaust the noxious fumes. But I did manage to get good color on the chile seeds
To them I added about an inch of canela, 3 or 4 whole cloves and 4 or 5 whole black peppercorns
Into the grinder they went. For years I used a standard Braun coffee grinder for Mexican cooking. It worked well, but sometimes I had to do things in batches and it was sometimes a pain to clean because it couldn't be immersed in water. A couple of years ago I found this unit on sale and love it. the grinding bowl detaches for each clean-up and it holds almost a cup of raw product prior to grinding.
It made quick work of the seeds and spices to produce this finely ground mixture
Many pipiáns use pumpkin seeds, this particular recipe uses 3/4 of a cup of sesame seeds. not an uncommon ingredient in Mexico. Those were toasted off until they also became a deep rich golden brown.
Then they, too, had their turn in the grinder
With both the chile seeds and the sesame seeds it is important to get the seeds ground as finely as possible as the grind will help determine the smoothness of the final sauce. The finer the seeds are ground the smoother the sauce.
With the mis en place completed I drained the chicken reserving the broth, set it aside and heated 3 tablespoons of corn oil in a large skillet. In first went the ground seeds and spices to be cooked and constantly stirred over low heat for about 3 minutes
Then the pureed chiles were added
And cooked over a fairly high heat for 5 minutes stirring constantly until any excess liquid had been cooked out and a paste remained.
The stirring is critical. The seeds contain so much oil and the high heat over which it is cooked makes it easy to burn the mixture. To this paste 3 cups of the reserved chicken broth were added. The mixture readily dissolves into the broth and starts out about the consistency of Half & Half.
The sauce will thicken slightly to about the consistency of heavy whipping cream that will coat the back of the spoon but still leave a clear line when a finger is drawn across the back of the spoon. Kind of like this -
Yeah, the spoon's a little bleary but I am holding the spoon upright and the sauce is staying in place and not running down the back of the spoon. That's "coating the back of a spoon".
Now is the time to add salt. Dried chiles love salt and I used a little over 2 teaspoons of salt in the sauce, which was about right. In Mexico a large avocado leaf would be toasted, finely ground and added to the sauce at this point. I didn't have an avocado leaf so I left it out. I did slide the 3 chicken breasts into the sauce to heat through and then plated them.
With moles, pipiáns and other saucy dishes in Mexico, it's all about the sauce, not the protein food that's served with it. Most Mexicans would have served this with twice as much sauce as I did. Rice to help soak up the sauce and calabacitas with zahnorrias (carrots) added sweetness to the plate, the pipián was the star no matter how much sauce was or was not used. Here is the chicken up close and personal.
I actually did a few steps here and a few steps there throughout the afternoon, doing other things in between. Had I made entire recipe from start to finish at one time, I think it would have taken at least 90 minutes and probably more realistically, 2 hours. Cooking is a stress release activity for me so I tend to go at a rather leisurely pace and take my time reading the recipe and going step by step. I loved the deep brick red color of the final sauce and the velvety smoothness of it. I do think it was a wee bit unbalanced with a few bitter undertones. I suspect they were from the chiles, possibly the smoked pasillas. A little sugar would have probably rounded off the bitterness. But no one's complaining and the pipián disappeared in much quicker time than it took to prepare it.