I try to post and talk about a lot of main dishes that are easy, quick, and flavorful. I'm all about things being simple; after all, the time I get to spend in the kitchen without a child clinging to my leg is precious little! But, I have to say that every now and again, I really, really enjoy being able to prepare a meal that took a long time to make. There's just something about all that time invested in the dish that makes it taste so much better. The flavors get to develop so much more fully, and the meat (if you're using meat, that is) just becomes so much more tender and tasty.
I saw Sunny Anderson making this Chicken in Pumpkin-Ancho Mole Sauce on TV one afternoon, and right away I knew that this meal was going to be the very next lazy-day meal that I was going to make. It just seemed so perfect for us: chicken brined in warm spices, then bathed in a thick, hearty sauce made from pumpkin seeds, reconstituted dried peppers, roasted veggies, and fresh herbs. The whole shebang is then baked in a Dutch oven for about an hour, and when it's all said and done the meat just falls right off the bone. The meat is then shredded and placed back in the sauce for another little bath. The mixture is folded into a corn tortilla, along with some fresh veggies, and then it's ready to be devoured. Oh, bliss.
This was the first time I had ever brined anything. I have always wanted to try it, so I was excited about the whole experience. It's definitely easy; it just takes some planning ahead. I had to boil the brining liquid and then allow it to completely cool (so as not to cook the chicken prematurely) before putting the chicken in there for a swim. I actually did all this the day before I was going to cook it, since Sunny says you can do this up to 24 hours ahead of time. I'm not quite sure what it would have tasted like had I not done this, but I can tell you that the meat was unbelievably moist and delicious this way. I highly, highly recommend brining for the whole 24 hours. The spices are present in the final product; you can taste the cinnamon and the cloves there along with the flavors in the sauce. They are a perfect marriage.
The sauce, dubbed a "mole" by Sunny even though one traditionally associates the word mole with the inclusion of chocolate in a sauce, is completely free of the ingredient. Sunny points out in the episode that mole simply means "sauce," so that doesn't necessarily mean you have to add chocolate. She prefers it this way. The sauce is plenty rich without the chocolate, but I would like to know what this would taste like if I were to add just a bit next time..
As is, the sauce is thick and full-bodied, thanks to the heft of the pumpkin seeds and the meaty reconstituted peppers. Sunny only used ancho chilies; I used a combination of ancho and guajillo. Guajillo is twice as spicy as ancho, but is still considered to be more smoky then hot. I also used 2 jalapenos in there, as directed, and found the sauce to be pretty darn spicy. I loved it, don't get me wrong, but I just thought I'd throw that disclaimer on there! It's not for the faint of heart. The cilantro adds brightness, and the roasted veggies make the sauce taste fresh. I was absolutely in love with the sauce. It was so complex, and it just worked so well as a condiment on this twist on a taco. I am quickly becoming obsessed with this idea of a seed- or nut-based sauce (pesto, anyone?) that you can slow-roast your meat in and then shred it back into. The possibilities....oh, they boggle my mind. But for now, I have this exquisite mole.
Chicken in Pumpkin-Ancho Mole Sauce
adapted from Sunny Anderson
8 cups water, divided
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 bay leaf
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
1 tsp. whole black peppercorns
1 tsp. whole cloves
6 bone-in, skinless chicken thighs (Sunny used breasts)
3 ancho chiles (dried poblano peppers)
2 guajillo chiles
2 large jalapenos, halved
1 large onion, quartered
3 Roma tomatoes, halved and seeded
4 whole garlic cloves
1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup pumpkin seeds (Sunny used 1 cup)
1 large bunch cilantro leaves
16 corn tortillas, kept warm
2 limes, cut into 8 wedges
2-3 cups fresh spinach leaves, shredded
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 bunch radishes, thinly sliced
1. In a medium saucepan, combine 6 cups water with kosher salt, sugar, bay leaf, cinnamon, black peppercorns, and cloves. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring gently. Once the sugar and salt have dissolved, remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. Transfer to a large bowl, add the chicken, and refrigerate, covered, at least 2 hours or overnight.
2. Bring the remaining 2 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. In a medium heatproof bowl, add the ancho and guajillo chiles and cover with the boiling water. Weigh down with a plate so the peppers remain underwater and let them soak for 15 minutes. Remove and discard the stems when the peppers have softened.
3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. On a sheet tray toss the jalapenos, onion, Roma tomatoes, cloves of garlic, and cumin seeds with 2 Tbsp. oil. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Roast until nicely caramelized with good color, 25 to 30 minutes. Add the pumpkin seeds to a dry, hot skillet on high heat. Stir often, until the pumpkin seeds are golden and begin to pop. Transfer to a food processor along with the roasted vegetables. Add the soaked chiles, about 2 Tbsp. of chili soaking liquid, the cilantro leaves, and the remaining 2 Tbsp. olive oil to the processor. Puree until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper, if necessary.
4. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator, blot dry with paper towels, and place in a large Dutch oven. Pour the mole sauce over top of the chicken, cover Dutch oven with a lid, and place in the 400 degree oven until the chicken is cooked through, 55 to 60 minutes.
5. Remove from the oven and transfer chicken to a cutting board to cool. When it is cool to the touch, shred the chicken and add it back to the sauce. Spoon the mole into corn tortillas and serve with lime wedges, shredded spinach, red onion, and radishes.