Cooking authentic ethnic food is an admirable undertaking, and it can also be highly therapeutic — if you enjoy spending an entire day in the kitchen.
Three of the world’s great culinary traditions — French, Indian and Mexican — rely on complex sauces for a number of their traditional dishes. Making each is a complicated process. Once you master the recipe and know what flavor you're going for, you can tweak it to please your own palate.
Preparing auténtico mole sauce, the essential component of some of the greatest and most complex culinary dishes in the world (and not just Mexican), takes a lot of time, not to mention some 25 to 30 ingredients.
Similarly, making a real curry starts by making your own powder, but you don't just grind up a bunch of curry leaves. You need about six to 12 (ideally freshly ground) spices and herbs. And while it's made with only bones, aromatic vegetables and herbs, glace de viande, the basis for a number of celebrated French stews, takes a full day to slowly reduce to the proper consistency.
Over the years, I’ve made all three from scratch, so I know how they should taste. But each has countless regional and local variations, so a definitive recipe is elusive. Oaxaca alone has seven famous moles, and family recipes are often secretly handed down from one generation to the next.
While the seasonings in Indian curry powder are more or less the same throughout the vast subcontinent, the ways in which they’re incorporated into dishes can be quite different. Southern Indian dishes, for example, often include sautéed onions and coconut and are also typically hotter than those from the north. And the proportions of the various spices in the mixtures can also vary from neighbor to neighbor.
And French chefs are famous for tossing trimmings and leftovers into a stockpot for their glace de viande (meat glaze). The point is, with these sauces, there is no absolute right.
The other thing about these sauces is that while they truly are your passport to great ethnic cooking, there are clever little shortcuts that can yield (almost) the same terrific results in a fraction of the time.
Genuine mole sauce has a seemingly mystical concert of tastes that's been evolving since the 16th century. In Oaxaca and Puebla — Mexico’s two mole capitals — you still find home cooks roasting several kinds of chiles, nuts and spices individually on a comal before grinding them and slowly simmering the mixture to develop the robust flavors. Today, however, the sauce is more typically reserved for weddings or holidays like the Day of the Dead, when families honor deceased relatives.
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While Dos Caminos executive chef Ivy Stark and I were writing Dos Caminos’ Mexican Street Food, I taste-tested several moles. My favorites are mole manchamanteles (which translates as “tablecloth stainer,” for its array of fruits and chiles) and mole negro, the bitter chocolate-scented sauce from Oaxaca (recipe below).
After the ingredients are ground into a paste but before stock is added, Ivy suggests you scrape the mixture into small, tightly sealed containers and freeze them for up to six months. Defrost only as much as you need for each dish, add stock and use within two days.
A range of dishes can be made with mole. As an appetizer, I melt shredded cheddar cheese on flour tortillas, cut them into wedges and top each piece with a tiny dollop of mole thinned with a little warm liquid, if needed. Or you can sauté duck breasts and serve them on mole negro with a mango-red pepper and jalapeño salsa.
If you can’t make your own mole, you can still jazz up dishes — from venison to poultry to veggies — with premade sauces, available at Hispanic markets and by ordering online. Some restaurants even sell their homemade sauce.
Once you’ve tasted the homemade version, though, your taste buds may not tolerate commercial brands like Doña Maria, which seem to have a lot of breadcrumbs to thicken the mix. That's why before diluting the paste with stock and crushed canned tomatoes, I add briefly heated ground coriander, cumin, chili powder and pulverized blanched toasted almonds or pumpkin seeds, or even almond butter, then purée the mixture and strain it.
Butternut squash soup with mole is a personal favorite and a cinch to make. Just sauté a chopped onion and some garlic, add bell peppers and a couple of additional spices (if needed) along with some roasted butternut squash, the paste and a little stock. A final drizzle of sour cream or plain yogurt and a shower of cilantro give the soup eye appeal that belies its simple preparation.
Glace de Viande: Amber Gold
In the 19th century, August Escoffier simplified the hundreds of sauces used in French cooking and called them the five mother sauces. Of these, brown stock is the basis for numerous sauces, gravies and fragrant stews. When brown stock is reduced to a thick, jellylike consistency, it becomes glace de viande, and even a teaspoon can turn pedestrian fare "haute." Some cooks call it amber gold.
Yet it is far less labor-intensive than mole. Once you brown the beef bones, meat and vegetables, you deglaze the pan with wine or water to incorporate those all-important caramelized cooking bits. Herbs and other seasonings are then added to the stockpot along with a lot of water, and the liquid is gently simmered until reduced to a clear, gelatinous consistency that’s about a 10th of the original volume. While this can take up to one full day, it is mostly unattended work and well worth the time.
Quick and Easy Glace de Viande
Back in the day, every would-be chef learned to make stocks and to slowly reduce them to a glaze. Today, with the exception of top-tier restaurants, many cooks buy prefab glace de viande from companies like morethangourmet.com.
Another option for home cooks is to buy unsalted ready-made stock at gourmet stores or better supermarkets and reduce your own. Read the labels for ingredients and while the liquid simmers, add what’s missing.
Once the stock is reduced, you can cut it into cubes and freeze it in Ziploc bags. It’s a terrific way to enrich sauces, stews and soups — or stir it directly into reduced balsamic vinegar to make a rich sauce to drizzle on sautéed pork chops with apples (recipe below).
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Curry in a Hurry
In India, “curry” is actually a general term for a sauce. Countless dishes are made with curry, but they all start with more or less the same half- to one-dozen spices: some ground, some whole, and sometimes added at different stages of preparation. Indian cooks pride themselves on making their own blends.
The characteristic color in curry comes from turmeric, usually used pre-ground. Other common spices include four kinds of seeds — cumin, coriander, fennel and mustard — plus cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and chiles. It's OK to use ground spices, but whenever possible, use a new or newish jar. After a few months, spices lose the intensity of their flavors, even if they’ve been kept away from the sun.
As varied as curried dishes are throughout the country, they typically begin by quickly heating seeds and spices over high heat and grinding them into a powder. Compared with mole and glace de viande, curry powder is relatively simple to make, especially if you use a clean coffee grinder rather than a mortar and pestle to pulverize the seeds and spices. In powder form, spices lose their aromatic volatile oils. A good time- and flavor-saver is to toast them first then store them in a small jar and grind them as needed. Of course, when you're really pressed for time, you can always use a good prefab powder and boost the notes you enjoy most (e.g., savory cumin, sweet cinnamon or heat).
Every region of India has unique dishes, ingredients and spice combinations. Dairy products — like clarified butter (ghee), cottage cheese-like paneer and yogurt — and tomatoes are more frequently used in the north. The cuisine of the south is generally spicier and more vegetarian-focused. A lot of coconut products and tamarind are used in places like Chennai (formerly Madras), in the southeast, or Cochin, in Kerala in the southwest.
Curry powder can literally spice up a number of recipes that aren’t classically Indian. Add a little to tuna salad or deviled eggs, or spread a mixture of curry powder, mayonnaise and a few drops of lemon juice on flat white fish fillets before baking.
This brings up a final point: Don’t confuse (red or green) curry paste, commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisine, especially Thai, with curry powder. Both are enchanting, but Indian curries are so aromatic they can seduce you with a single wisp of flavor, then entice you into bite after bite after bite.
Three Authentic Sauce Recipes
It’s OK if you can’t find all the chiles — but the ancho is imperative. It’s the sweet, raisiny one that balances all the others. You can store unused mole in 8-ounce plastic containers in the refrigerator and use within a week, or freeze it for up to six months. Once defrosted, using within two days. (You can review a dried chile pepper chart.)
Yields 2 quarts
1 pound ancho chile peppers
1/2 pound guajillo chile peppers
1/2 pound dried cascabel chile peppers
1/2 pound chihuacle negro chile peppers
2 pounds tomatoes, chopped
1 pound tomatillos, husked, rinsed and chopped
4 slices white bread, cut into cubes
5 whole peppercorns
1 (4-inch) stick cinnamon, preferably Mexican
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 pinch cumin
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup blanched almonds
1/2 cup shelled peanuts
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup raisins
1 1/2 plantains, peeled and chopped
1 small white onion, roasted and chopped
1 small clove garlic, roasted and minced
1 corn tortilla
1 (3-ounce) piece Mexican chocolate or 3 ounces semisweet chocolate with 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon and a few drops almond extract
3 cups chicken stock, divided
3 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening
- In a heavy skillet (or on the comal) toast the chiles over low heat on both sides until their skins start to blister and they give off their aroma, about 10 minutes. Toast the anchos a bit more slowly and longer because of their thicker skins. Remove, stem and seed, and devein. Set aside.
- In a large saucepan, combine the tomatoes and tomatillos with enough water to come halfway up the side of the pan and bring to a boil. Drain; transfer to the jar of an electric blender or food processor and purée until smooth. Set aside.
- In the same pan, add enough oil to measure a half-inch deep and heat over low heat. Add the bread cubes and fry until golden brown, turning to cook all sides. Add the cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, thyme and cumin. Stir in the sesame seeds, almonds, peanuts, walnuts, raisins and plantains, adding more oil as necessary to lightly coat the ingredients. Add the onion and garlic and continue cooking over low heat for 20 minutes. Stir in the tomato-tomatillo mixture, remove from heat, and set aside.
- Cook the tortilla over a flame until dark brown and crispy. Cut up and set aside.
- In a medium skillet, add enough oil to coat the bottom and heat over medium-high heat until hot. Add the roasted chiles along with toasted tortilla pieces and cook for a few minutes. Scrape them into the large saucepan along with the tomato-spice-nut mixture. Add the chocolate and cook over low heat until the chocolate has melted. Stir in about 1/2 cup of stock.
- Transfer the mixture to the jar of an electric blender or food processor and purée until well blended, adding as much of the remaining 2 1/2 cups of stock as needed to smooth out the sauce.
- In a large, deep pot, heat the lard or shortening over medium-high heat. Stir in the purée, add enough chicken stock until it is thick enough to lightly coat a spoon and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes longer, stirring constantly. Pour through a fine strainer and season to taste with salt.
Glace de Viande
This is the secret ingredient that many chefs use to make rich and delicious stews and sauces. Ask the butcher to cut the bones for you. If you want your stock totally clear, you could pour it through a very fine strainer (or a coffee filter) before reducing it. Note that there is no salt added to the meat glaze because you can add it yourself later if you need it. These magical cubes pack a lot of flavor. A tablespoon equals the intensity of at least a third of a cup (5-plus ounces) of stock.
Makes 1 to 1 1/2 pints
5 to 6 pounds beef shinbones, cut in 3-inch lengths
5 large cloves garlic, unpeeled, lightly crushed
3 large carrots, trimmed and cut in 3-inch lengths
3 large stalks celery, with leaves if possible, trimmed and cut in 3-inch lengths
3 large yellow onions, unpeeled, quartered
2 Roma tomatoes, quartered
3 1/2 pounds beef chuck, cut in large cubes
2 cups dry white wine or 2 cups water
4 large bay leaves
3 sprigs thyme or 1 tablespoon dried leaves
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorn
- Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 450º F. Brush the bones with a little oil and place in a large heavy roasting pan; roast until richly browned on all sides, turning often to cook evenly. Remove from the oven and transfer the bones to a very large bowl. Set aside.
- Pour the fat into a 12-quart stockpot (or larger), adding more oil as needed to cover the bottom. Heat over high heat, add the garlic, carrots, celery and onions, turning to coat and cook until the surfaces are richly browned in spots. Stir in the tomatoes, cook for 2 minutes and then transfer everything to the bowl with the bones.
- Cook the beef chuck in the stockpot until browned on all sides, adding oil if needed. Return the bones and vegetables to the pot, and fill with enough cold water to cover the ingredients by 2 inches.
- Set the roasting pan on the stove over high heat. Pour in the wine/water and scrape up all the caramelized brown bits on the bottom; add to the stockpot. Add the bay leaves, parsley and peppercorns to the pot and bring to a gentle boil, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface.
- Add enough water to come to within 2 inches of the top of the pot, return to a boil over high heat, partly cover and adjust the heat down so the stock is simmering. Cook for 16 to 18 hours, adding more water every couple of hours as needed. If you stop the cooking overnight, partly cover the pan and leave on the stove. In the morning, return the stock to a boil, uncover and continue slowly cooking.
- Skim as much grease from the surface as possible, strain into a clean container, pressing gently to extract as much liquid as possible from the stock. Discard the solids and wash the pan thoroughly.
- Pour the stock through a coffee filter or cheesecloth-covered strainer into the pan. You should have 4–5 quarts of liquid. Boil over high heat and reduce down to 16–24 ounces of thick, gelatinous paste, paying attention during the last 30 minutes that it doesn’t burn. Cool to room temperature, scrape into a medium-size Ziploc plastic bag, squeeze out the air and seal tightly. Refrigerate until solid, then cut into 1-inch cubes and freeze in small Ziploc bags until needed.
Sautéed Pork and Apples with Apple-Balsamic Vinegar Sauce
This blend of caramelized balsamic vinegar and glace de viande makes a contemporary sauce to drizzle on sautéed pork chops and apples. You can similarly use it with veal chops or chicken breasts.
Leaves from 1 small sprig fresh rosemary, plus a few leaves to garnish
Leaves from 1 small sprig sage leaves, plus a few leaves to garnish
4 center-cut loin pork chops, about 3/4-inch thick
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 Granny Smith or other tart green apples, peeled, cored and sliced (reserve peels)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) glace de viande
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- Chop a few rosemary and sage leaves and sprinkle on the pork. Set aside.
- Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the apples and sauté until lightly colored, turning often, 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle on 2 tablespoons of the sugar, stir, and when the sugar has melted, add the lemon juice. Raise the heat to high and cook until the liquid evaporates.
- In a small heavy saucepan, heat the remaining tablespoon of sugar over medium-low heat until melted and lightly browned. Stir in the balsamic vinegar, bring the mixture to a boil and cook until the mixture is reduced to about 1/3 cup. Stir in the glace de viande; add the apple peels, remaining rosemary and sage. Season the sauce to taste with salt and pepper and keep warm while you cook the pork.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Season the pork with salt and pepper and quickly brown, about 1 minute per side. Cover the pan tightly, reduce the heat to low and cook until the pork is very pale pink inside, about 10 to 12 minutes. Serve the chops with apples as garnish. Strain the sauce and drizzle it over the meat and apples. Garnish with a few rosemary and sage leaves.
Joanna Pruess is an award-winning writer and cookbook author whose passions include food, travel and entertaining.