Iguana Mole, Chayote Salad and Mushroom Quesadillas

I keep three big tubs of chilies in my cool climate pantry, but cooking Mexican has been on the back burner for a while. When I came across a bag of chile costeno rojo, I felt the need to put the front burners on high.

The chilies costenos are small, tough-skinned and fiery little buggers, about 3 inches long or so. I’ve used them in the past to make a Oaxacan coastal mole known as Mole de Iguana Negra, traditionally using iguana.
Since there’s nothing like that available in BC, I use pork ribs. I was first introduced to the dish via Claire Archibald, chef and co-owner of the now closed Cafe Azul in Portland, Oregon. A stylish Mexican regional restaurant, Claire prepared the dish with baby back ribs over country-style ribs as suggested in Diana Kennedy’s book My Mexico. If you have access to these chiles, – keep your eyes peeled the next time you’re in a Oaxacan market – the recipe is an easy introduction to the art of mole making. It uses cooked tomatillos as a base along with spices, and masa as a thickening agent.
I’ll go through some of the steps in making this dish, as I know you’ll be inspired to follow up with buying D.K’s book and making the recipe.
Begin by par-poaching the ribs in just enough water to cover, along with a 1/4 chopped onion and freshly cracked pepper. (My addition). Once the ribs are firm but cooked through, remove to a platter. Strain the broth and set aside for later use.
The recipe asks for 40 chilies but I must stress to use the weight measurement in the book as the size of the chilies varies. I ended up using more like 60 chilies to achieve the suggested 115 grams. Choose whole chilies. Now you must stem them, remove the seeds and inner membrane. The sensitive should wear gloves to do this. I find that gloves impede my progress, and really, the pain isn’t that bad!
You are now going to toast all the chilies on a comal or dry cast iron skillet, being careful not to burn them. You may want to open a window, the fumes can be irritating to the lungs.
Soak the toasted chilies in a bowl of hot water for at least 20 minutes if not more. You want to soften the skins.
Avocado leaves are a valid substitute for the required hoja santa here, most likely the former is easier to find than the latter. I happen to have had some dried avocado leaves on hand, which were toasted and crumbled into the blender with some pork broth, garlic, onion, peppercorns, oregano and cloves.

As with all moles, the blender is your best friend, so make sure yours is in good shape – a sharp blade is most important. The other emphasis is on frying and reducing your sauce to season it. This mole is no different. Once the spices are smoothly blended, fry with a bit of oil or lard in a deep saucepan, stirring continuously for one to two minutes.
The soaking chilies are drained and blended along with a good dose of pork broth until smooth. Really smooth.
Hello down there.

Add the pureed chilies to the reduced onion-spice-herb mix by running it through a fine strainer, over a saucepan, extracting as much juice and flesh as possible. Cook over med-high heat, stirring for about five minutes. Add the blended tomatillo-masa mix. Add the pork ribs and more broth if needed to keep a medium consistency. Simmer until some pools of oil appear on the surface and the ribs are tender. Those pools of oil are exactable what you are looking for in a mole.
Serve with bowls of steamed rice and hot tortillas. I also made a salad of chayote, peeled and cubed, apple, watercress and pomegranates to cool down the palate.

Next day, with still more costenos to use up, DK’s cookbook suggests a mushroom filling using toasted and ground costenos, blended with raw garlic, water and toasted hoja santa. The mix is fried a bit, chopped mushrooms are added and simmered until most of the liquid has been absorbed. This will be a filling for empanadas or quesadillas.
Soaking chiles and removing the seeds tones down their heat, along with repeated rinsing in cold water, but not too much, you don’t want to ruin a chile’s integrity of flavour.
The recipe’s requested addition of salty cheese for the quesadillas was okay, but I would have preferred jack or mozzarella to counterbalance the chilie’s intensity. Salt seems to intensify chile heat. I tried some pickled rajas (strips of roasted, peeled anaheims, pickled in lime juice) for counterbalance, but ended up adding cool plain yogurt, as that’s all I had on hand. Sour cream or crema would also do the trick.
They were still delicious, but hell fire! This would be great dish with seared beef.

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