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A Splash of Magic

In France, a sauce is just an entree's sidekick. But a rich complex suace is the very heart of the Mexican meal.

March 04, 1998|ZARELA MARTINEZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Martinez is owner of Zarela Restaurant in New York. Her latest book is "The Food and Life of Oaxaca" (Macmillan, 1997)

When I was pregnant with my twin boys, the only thing that brought on morning sickness was the smell of roasting chiles. Unfortunately, all I felt like eating were fresh corn tortillas with searingly hot chile sauce. A tortilla was often my whole meal.

My housekeeper at the time constantly warned me that my babies would be born with chilcual, a rash that results when a mother overindulges in hot chiles. I want to say that the boys weren't born with any chilcual, though they do have an extraordinary taste for all things spicy. Just like their mother.

I didn't know that my taste for tortillas with sauce followed an ancient pre-Columbian tradition. In the homes of the Aztec lords, as Sophie Coe reports in "America's First Cuisines," a meal usually started with tortillas and tamales paired with a sauce.

The tortilla and sauce dishes had to be brought on the palm of the hand, not held by the rim. Ancient reports do not say how the lords ate the combination, but in less elegant circles, the method was apparently to take a tortilla in the left hand and spoon sauce into it with another tortilla held in the right.

Sauces are still the heart of a Mexican meal. A festive French meal centers on meat (or poultry or fish) cooked in any of several distinctive ways with a sauce that complements it elegantly. In Mexico, it's the other way around.

In many dishes, the meat, which is cooked very simply, is actually just an understated counterpoint to the fascinating textures and flavors of the sauce, which is the true star. The sauces range from almost purely pre-Columbian purees based on fresh herbs to rococo mixtures of Old and New World ingredients.

The Spaniards found the indigenous peoples of Mexico making complex pureed sauces called molli, which became mole in Spanish. Ever since, mole has been the quintessential Mexican celebratory food. These days, moles are especially associated with central and southern Mexico. The most famous is mole poblano, from Puebla, but Oaxaca is acknowledged to be the capital of mole-making, the place where it has been raised to its highest glory.

There is no iron-clad rule about which ingredients to use, but many moles and similar sauces contain tomatoes or tomatillos, onions, garlic, herbs or spices, a variety of fresh or dried chiles and something to thicken the sauce. The thickener may be bread, corn masa or crumbled tortillas, but more often it's ground seeds or nuts.

And often, the thickener is the main ingredient of the sauce. Pipianes are always thickened with some sort of seed, such as pumpkin or sesame seeds, or corn kernels. Almendrado is thickened with almonds, encacahuetado with peanuts and alcaparrado with capers.

A wide range of herbs and spices is used. The Oaxacan version of mole verde uses the native Mexican herbs hoja santa (Piper sanctum) and epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides), along with Italian parsley and fresh, rather than dried, chiles. In some moles, the flavorings are as simple as a little black pepper and cloves; others, such as manchamanteles, feature extravagant combinations of tomatoes, chiles, herbs, spices and fresh or dried fruit.

Main-course sauces are not difficult to make, but they do require good logistics and a few basic pieces of equipment. Many of the ingredients need special preparation before being ground or pureed together. Nuts and seeds are usually fried or toasted. Dried chiles are toasted to bring out their aroma. I also like to toast some spices before grinding them in a coffee or spice grinder.

A good griddle (comal) or cast-iron skillet is essential, not only for toasting seeds and chiles but also for slow-roasting fresh chiles, tomatoes, tomatillos, onions and garlic. This step gives many sauces an elusive, characteristic smoky flavor. (Don't use a griddle with a nonstick coating such as Teflon, by the way--extended heat will make the coating come off.)

More labor-intensive is the grinding of the seeds, nuts and chiles. In Mexico, home cooks can buy mole pastes ready-made in the market and simply add "wet" ingredients such as tomatoes and onions, or they can assemble the dry ingredients and take them to a neighborhood mill (molino) for grinding. Very few people grind in the ancient molcajete (volcanic stone mortar) when you can get a heavy-duty electric blender or food processor.

In my kitchen, I grind the nuts or seeds in a food processor (they tend to clog a blender) and puree the wet ingredients in a blender, and then strain everything through a medium-mesh sieve to achieve the velvety texture I want. The pureed and strained sauce is then fried in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven in a little fat to seal and deepen the flavor.

The Spaniards brought the pig to Mexico and, ever since, the favorite cooking fat has been lard, which adds richness and silkiness to a sauce. Sadly, lard is so expensive that many people now use vegetable oil, which gives a very different effect.

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