12 September 2016 – Extra Crispy
I arrived in San Juan Yolotepec, a minuscule village in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, on a bright June morning at about 8 a.m.—confusingly the same time it had been when I’d left the closest major city, Huajuapan de León, an hour earlier. While the rest of the country had skipped forward an hour at the beginning of spring, Yolotepec, perched on a scrubby hill near pretty much nothing, had remained stubbornly in the past. Neftalí Gonzalez, the dentist who’d driven me up here, to the village of his birth, explained: “Nature doesn’t use Daylight Saving, so why should we?”
That morning, there was barely any “we” in sight. A man on the main square announced via loudspeaker that a truckload of hot, crispy pork cracklins was for sale, describing them in language that bordered on the licentious. On the other side of the church, a small crowd had gathered at the Confradia, a covered concrete plinth that serves as a sort of community auditorium, to prepare mole powders for the following weekend’s festivities in honor of Yolo’s patron saint. Maybe two dozen people had gathered—an unusual amount of activity for a village that, like so many in Mexico, has lost the majority of its population to immigration.
At the edge of the Confradia, two women tended a pair of comals (big, clay roasting pans heated over coals) toasting animal crackers, to be ground along with bittersweet pasilla chiles, cinnamon, cloves, and pepper to make a mole amargo, or bitter mole. (When I asked what they used before animal crackers, one of them said, “Who knows? Even these are scarce now!” as though animal crackers were an endangered species).
Another dozen people sat with kerchiefs tied around their mouths and noses, stripping seeds from bushels of driedcosteño chiles. They chatted delicately, like actors marking their roles in rehearsal, which I understood as soon as I walked over and took a deep breath of the capsaicin-laced air. I heaved a hideous throaty cough. Everyone laughed, which, of course, started a whole chorus of agonized hacking that scattered the crowd to the edges of the Confradia where the air was clean.
When you have that many people gathered in a town to spend a day working, you have to feed them, so a pair of ladies—who like Neftalí and many of the others at the Confradia, had come up for the weekend from Huajuapan–took over the communal kitchens to prepare communal meals in big clay pots. The breakfast that morning washuevo con mole.
It’s a simple dish: Several round omelets, each maybe half an inch thick, are cut into wedges and bathed in a soupy sauce the color of fresh blood, made from a hand-ground mixture of dried guajillo and puya chiles, the former for color, the latter for heat. Together, they’re fragrant and floral, sweet and sour, like tamarind or dried hibiscus flowers. The ladies in the kitchen, Doña Inocencia and Doña Alba, ladled the omelet and its sauce into a shallow ceramic bowl and served it with a pair of warm tortillas, offering it up happily despite the fact that I’d contributed precisely nothing out there in the Confradia. Taking all that coughing into account, you could argue I’d even derailed the day’s efforts. Fortunately, we had an extra hour to work with. There are benefits, as it turns out, to lagging behind.
Huevo Con Mole
- ½ pound guajillo chiles, dry, whole, and stemmed
- ½ pound puya chiles, dry, whole, and stemmed
- 2 pounds tomatoes
- ¼ pound green tomatoes
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- ½ yellow onion, roughly chopped
- 2 branches of epazote (in English it’s apparently wormseed but it should be available under the proper name at Mexican grocers; if you can’t find it, it’s not the end of the world)
- Salt to taste
- ~5 cups water
- 20 eggs
- ~1 cup canola oil
- Place the chiles in a saucepan with enough water to cover and bring to a rolling boil (this can be done in batches). Cook them for about 5 to 10 minutes, checking frequently, or until they’re soft but not dissolving. (If you’d like to make a milder version of the dish, remove the seeds from the puya chiles, which give the dish its heat.)
- Once the chiles have softened, remove them from the water and leave them to cool before puréeing in a food processor. Use some of the reserved water as you go. The consistency should be something like a thick tomato soup.
- When the chiles are thoroughly blended (if you want this to be really fine, you can put it through a strainer to remove any remaining chunks of seeds), add the onion and garlic, and continue blending until smooth. Remove from the processor and set aside in a large pot.
- Boil and peel the tomatoes, then blend them to a liquid, adding as much water as you need to reach a similar texture to the chile mixture. Once blended, add the tomatoes to the pot with the chile mixture and bring the whole thing to a boil. Add salt and as much water as you like to reach the desired texture, which can be very soupy or slightly thicker, if you prefer. Leave at a gentle boil for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring to make sure it doesn’t burn and checking for taste as you go. If it’s too spicy, add water. If it’s not flavorful enough, add salt. Also, add a couple tablespoons of oil.
- As the sauce comes to a boil, whisk the eggs together in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Using a pan of desired size (a 12-inch skillet should do), add plenty oil and fry eggs into a few omelets—similar to a Spanish torta—roughly a half-inch thick. Use as much oil as necessary to make sure they flip easily in the pan (the excess oil will go into the sauce, so it’s OK). Once the omelets are made, set them aside and allow them to cool slightly before cutting them into quarters.
- In the last couple minutes of the sauce cooking, add the epazote (if you found it) it to the soup and allow it to cook. Once the herb has become aromatic, add the omelet wedges and lower the heat to a gentle boil, and leave it cook long enough to make the eggs hot again. Once it’s all at a consistent temperature, remove from heat and serve with tortillas, beans, or rice.