By Catharine L. Kaufman — a.k.a. The Kitchen Shrink
“Tra-La…It’s May… The lusty month of May…” sings Queen Guenevere in the Lerner and Loewe musical, “Camelot.” While both the song and most people’s fancy turn to amorous birds and bees at this time of year, my perpetually chilly self is celebrating the return of warmer days. I may be anxious about, and ready to do battle against global warming, but only as long as the sun turns up the thermostat in my neighborhood.
In addition to the rising mercury, the cockles of my heart (whatever that may be) are kept cozy warm by the sight of luscious produce shelves at farmers’ stands and supermarkets. Oh what abundance and beauty May brings! The colors of each nation’s flags can be found in the fruits, vegetables and flowers tumbling from spring’s cornucopia. To my hotelier husband, they signal the soon to begin summer rush of travelers bound for vacations and business gatherings. To my eighth-grader, May is home stretch before the end of another school year, while to her 11-year-old nature-loving sister it’s an excuse to get silly reciting, “April showers bring May flowers… and Mayflowers bring Pilgrims.”
May is Prom month if you’re in high school. It’s graduation jitters to college students worried about the ‘real’ world. Some 10 percent of the 2.4 million couples who tie the knot each, do so in May—the same month in which Moms are treated as queens for a day, and most of us resolve to get back in shape as our bodies emerge from their cocoons of winter clothes.
May Day celebrations started in pre-Christian Europe, and have been ever since heralding the approach of summer. Its traditional English rites include the crowning of a May Queen and dancing around a beribboned Maypole.
An entirely different party kicks up its heels in Mexico on the fifth day, or Cinco de Mayo, to commemorate that country’s victory over the French in the 1862 Battle of Puebla. While Mexico’s Independence Day is a national holiday held on September 16, it never quite made it across the border as its more popular cousin, Cinco de Mayo has done, continuously, since 1863. It’s a huge brouhaha, not only in California, but New Mexico, Arizona and wherever anyone—not just people of Mexican descent—celebrate it. Just as we share each other’s heritage during St. Patrick’s Day and Chinese New Year, when we dress up, sing songs, pay homage to imported traditions and immigrant ancestors, and—above all—enjoy the foods provided by our tapestry of cultures.
This May, I cannot resist the heady flavors of the famous mole chicken, Mexico’s national dish, with its authentic recipe and fascinating—although probably apocryphal—story. It goes like this: Shortly after Mexico was conquered by Spain, an archbishop was sent to convert the population of the new territory to Christianity. A group of nuns in a little convent perched in the hills received word that an archbishop was coming to visit. The mother superior was shaken since they were very poor and didn’t have provisions to feed His Eminence. Desperate to prepare a special meal for their important dinner guest, the mother superior collected the few provisions she could find and brought them to the cook, asking if some dish could be made from them. She offered the cook a block of chocolate that had been given to her as a birthday gift, although she had been saving this treat to give the children during the Christmas. She also decided reluctantly to sacrifice the convent’s old red rooster, and threw in a few hot chilies for flavoring. The Mexican cook concocted a dish with the chicken, chocolate and chilies, and everyone said a fervent prayer that the archbishop would approve. Well, he was so impressed by the flavors of the chicken with mole sauce, that he took the recipe back to Spain and declared this spicy creation the national dish of Mexico.
My dear friend and mentor, Marian Jones, was dining at her favorite Mexican restaurant when her taste buds practically did a fandango from the mole dip appetizer. She begged the owner for the recipe. He refused to divulge this family secret that had been jealously guarded for generations, but graciously gave her a carton of the dip to enjoy at home. Marian played dip detective and cracked the mole code. This divine dip can also be used as a sauce over baked chicken, as did the clever cook at the convent. Whether a dip or a sauce, it will knock your calcetines off!
Mole Dip or Chicken Sauce
3 pasilla chili peppers
3 ancho chili peppers
1 teaspoon of ground coriander seed
1 teaspoon of nutmeg
1 teaspoon of ground cloves
1 teaspoon of anise seed
1 teaspoon of cinnamon (optional)
1 cup of ground almonds or almond meal
2 cups of chicken broth
1 round of Mexican chocolate
2 blocks of semi-sweet baking chocolate
Salt and raw sugar to taste
Roasted sesame seeds for garnish
Remove the seeds from the chilies. Finely grind the chilies in a food processor.
In a medium saucepan, heat the chicken broth and add a heaping tablespoon of the ground chilies, the chocolate, spices and almond meal. Melt the chocolate and continue to cook gently until the mixture thickens. Adjust to taste by adding salt, raw sugar or more ground chilies.
Cool the dip and place in a Mexican ceramic bowl. Sprinkle with roasted sesame seeds and enjoy with your favorite chips and cerveza on May 5 or all year round.