By Steve VandeGriek; Photos by Jan Behmer ©2017
The city of Puebla lies roughly one hundred miles southeast of Mexico City. On the fifth of May in 1862 it was the scene of a battle early in the French-Mexican War. Six thousand French soldiers assaulted the city from the north. An improvised army of about two thousand Mexicans resisted the attack for an entire day. Five hundred French troops were lost and fewer than one hundred Mexicans. Although not a major strategic victory, it was a moral one just six months into the six year long war. Mexican resolve toughened throughout the country. Puebla de Los Angeles, as it had been known, was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the general who commanded the Mexican forces in the battle. The anniversary of the Battle of Puebla is a national holiday in Mexico – Cinco de Mayo – a quieter occasion than the party event it has become in the U.S. Much like St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland versus what it is here.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Middle Eastern immigrants settled in sizeable numbers the in the Puebla and neighboring Veracruz regions.
Nota Bene: Salma Hayek was born in this area to a Mexican mother and a Lebanese father. Thank you both.
But I digress. We’re concerned with another product of this immigration – Tacos Arabes. Originally slices of lamb carved from a vertical roasting spit and served in a pita with yogurt sauce, they have some time ago become Mexicanized and are a favorite in the state of Puebla. Obviously, numerous versions exist. This is one.
Tacos de Arabes
1 t. each of cumin, oregano, cinnamon, Kosher salt, black pepper, coriander
3 cloves garlic, crushed 3 slices bacon, diced
8 T. lime juice 4 T. apple cider vinegar
2 lbs. boneless pork (shoulder roast, chops, sirloin, whatever you have on hand – it’s a taco)
8 or so thick 6” flour tortillas
Put the pork in the freezer for 30-45 minutes to firm it for easier slicing.
In a large zipper plastic bag, place the spices, garlic, lime juice and vinegar. Shake well.
Using a sharp knife, slice the pork as thin as you can. If you wish, pound it thinner between sheets of plastic wrap. Alternatively, you can cut the meat into strips about 1/2 in. square, like cheese sticks.
Place the pork in the plastic bag and shake it to coat all the meat. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least a couple hours. Squish it around and turn it a few times.
Put a large cast iron or nonstick skillet over medium high heat. When it is hot, spray it lightly with nonstick spray. Working in batches, place the pork slices in the pan in a single layer. Cook a few minutes on each side, until the meat crisps and browns. Remove to a platter and ten with foil to keep it warm while you do another batch, etc.
Warm the tortillas briefly if you like, don don’t let them get stiff.
Wrap a tortilla around a few slices of pork and serve with your favorite salsa and some yogurt sauce.
Mix a cup of plain Greek style yogurt with the juice of a lime, two cloves of minced garlic, 2 t. of cilantro, 2 T. grated cucumber and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle over the pork or serve on the side.
An even more traditional –dating from the colonial period – fare of the Puebla region is Mole, pronounced mo-lay. There are dozens of basic styles of this sauce, most of them complicated, time consuming and using as many as forty ingredients – nuts, spices, herbs, fruits, vegetables, often chocolate, several different kinds of chilis – everything roasted separately before being cooked together. Mole means “mix” in an ancient dialect. Traditionally, whole families could spend a couple days making a cauldron of mole sauce for a special occasion.
The different styles come in a variety of colors, depending on the ingredients used – yellow, green, red, brown, black – and are served over chicken, duck, turkey, shellfish, enchiladas, pork or even vegetables and fruits. In Puebla, a common presentation is chicken baked in the finished sauce.
The recipe offered here is a greatly simplified version of a mild dark mole. While this adaptation lacks the complexity of the days-long preparation, it provides a credible mole experience with a fraction of the effort. It uses only the ancho chili, mild but with lots of earthy depth. You could add a piece of a chipotle if you want to up the heat factor.
Simple Mole Poblano
3 ancho chili peppers 1 14 ½ oz. can diced chopped tomatoes
½ chipotle pepper (optional) ¼ C. dried apricots or raisins
3 T. vegetable oil or lard ¼ C. blanched almonds or ¼ C. almond butter
1 medium onion, chopped 2 T. sesame seeds
½ t. cinnamon 1 ½ T. breadcrumbs
1/8 t ground cloves ½ t. sugar
½ t. black pepper ½ t. salt
1 T. oregano
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped, or roasted 2 oz. chocolate, chopped (Mexican is best, but
1 ½ C. chicken stock semi-sweet baking chocolate works fine)
Place a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Cut the stems off the ancho chilis and the chipotle, if using. Tear open and remove all seeds. When the skillet is hot, throw in the chilis. Press them down with a spatula and toast for a few minutes until they just begin to smoke. Remove them to a bowl and cover with water and a plate to keep them submerged. Lower the heat to medium.
If roasting the garlic, which I recommend, put the cloves in the pan with their skins on and toast for about ten minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until they soften and blacken a bit. Remove and let them cool, then slip the skins off.
Add the oil or lard to the pan, and the onion, and cook until the onions soften, about 5 minutes. Add the cinnamon, clove, black pepper and oregano and stir for a minute. Remove the chilis from the water and add to the pan. Reserve a half cup of the water.
Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds or so. Add the stock and the ½ C. chili water and stir well.
Add the tomatoes and cook for a few minutes. Add the apricots or raisins, the almonds or almond butter, and the sesame seeds. Stir well. Add the bread crumbs and stir well to thicken. Add the salt and sugar. Add the chocolate and stir until it is completely melted.
Continue cooking for several minutes, stirring often, until the sauce thickens a bit, then pour into a processor or blender, and puree until very smooth. Return to the pan and simmer on low heat to thicken some more. The sauce should be the texture of ketchup, but bear no further resemblance to it.
Serve over whatever you like. If you don’t use it all, mole freezes very well.
*Note. I like to lightly toast the almonds and the sesame seeds for a couple minutes before adding them. Do them in the dry saute pan after doing the chilis and garlic. It’s not strictly necessary, but it adds some nice depth.
To bake chicken in the sauce, Puebla style, brown 4 breasts with a little oil in the saute pan. Spray a 9”x13” baking dish with nonstick spray and spread some mole over the bottom. Place the chicken in the dish and cover with the rest of the sauce. Bake uncovered at 400° for about 40 minutes, until the chicken is done and the mole develops a slight glaze. Sprinkle some sesame seeds over the top.