Alex Pardo, part owner and chef of Jalapeé±os in Gloucester, grew up making day trips from his home in Mexico City to the city of Puebla, where people traveled for mole the way they travel to Essex for fried clams.
Mole, the savory Mexican sauce most of us know as chocolate and chili pounded to a smooth paste, is a traditional food for celebrating Cinco de Mayo.
There are a few mole legends, but in Pardo's version mole ingredients were first mixed in a molcajete (a lava rock mortar and pestle) in 1862 by Puebla nuns planning a quick escape from the offending French army. The nuns threw together foods that would best suit a long journey. Their chocolate and chili mixture, packed with protein and vitamins, was satchel-ready to make an old turkey or hunk of venison cooked over a campfire delicious and nutritious. Miraculously, the Mexican Army defeated the French on May 5, and Cinco de Mayo became the El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla, The Day of the Battle of Puebla. (It is NOT Mexican Independence Day, which is Sept. 16.) Cinco de Mayo can be a horn-honking, flag-waving celebration in this country, particularly in cities such as Chicago with large Mexican communities, but in Mexico it's recognized regionally, certainly in Puebla.
Alex Pardo's father owned a glass company in Mexico City. One of four children, Pardo lost his mother when he was only 7, and grew up loving kitchen smells and activities beside his older sister and grandmother who took over meal preparation.
"We always had three-course meals," Pardo told me when I asked about his early food memories. "We would always start with soup —my sister made a wonderful soup with noodles in a chicken and tomato broth with cilantro and onion. And then we might have a Pork Milanese: pork lightly breaded, pan-seared to a nice crust, and then finished with cilantro and lemon. Or Fish Veracruzana, a white fish with green olives, onion, garlic, peppers."
Pardo later managed a restaurant in Cancun, where he met his wife, Kristen, a Gloucester native. After a few years bouncing back between Gloucester and Cancun, where the two returned briefly with their new baby to try to begin a business, the Pardos returned to Gloucester permanently. Pardo worked for a while in the Northern Italian restaurant in Essex, The Apple Orchard, where he learned to love risottos and loin of venison in a red wine and plum sauce, finally opening Jalapeé±os in 1992, which has been a favorite Main Street destination for margaritas and fajitas ever since.
Now, there are three more co-owners of Jalapeé±os: Pardo's brother, Luis Pardo, Jamie Nora and Steve Bradley. The restaurant will soon be opening for lunch, at which Pardo is excited to express his lifelong love of hamburgers: "Ever since I was a kid I loved hamburgers ö I'd have two in my mouth!" he laughed.
Most of us won't make it to Puebla for Cinco de Mayo, but we can enjoy Pardo's Chicken Enchiladas with Mole either at Jalapeé±os or at home with his recipe. Mole, Pardo explained, has many variations in Mexico, the way curry in India comes in hundreds of flavors. Moles are often a combination of more than 30 ingredients, many of which are elaborately toasted and ground before mixing together. According to Rick Bayless, chef and owner of the well known Southwest restaurant in Chicago, Frontera Grill, the components to mole are generally five distinct tastes: chiles, sour (tomatillos), sweet (dried fruits, honey), spice and thickeners (nuts, bread crumbs). The traditional chocolate and chile mole from Puebla can take all day to prepare.
A continent away from his birthplace, Alex Pardo married a Gloucester native, with her raised their two daughters, Katianna,18 and Sara, 20, and has run a successful restaurant.
"I love this community," he says. "I love the Gloucester support. As the years go by it just gets better."
Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times' Taste of the Times section and is written by Heather Atwood, an author and mother from Rockport. Questions and comments can be sent to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow her blog at www.heatheratwood.com.
2 cups mole sauce (see recipe below)
1/2 cup of corn oil (or other cooking oil suitable for frying) plus 1 tablespoon
1 pound cooked chicken, shredded
8 corn tortillas
1/4 white onion, diced
1/3 cup sesame seeds
salt to taste
1. Heat mole sauce in a saucepan and the 1/2 cup of cooking oil in a frying pan.
2. In another sauté© pan, place 1 tablespoon oil and heat the chicken until it starts to get crispy. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons mole sauce and mix in with the chicken.
3. While chicken is heating, soften the tortillas in the heated oil and place on a plate. Drain excess oil. Add some chicken and fold over tortilla.
4. Add some mole sauce over the folded chicken stuffed tortillas and garnish with sesame seeds and onion.
Serve and enjoy!
Recipe courtesy of Alex Pardo, Jalapeé±os Restaurant, 2012.
Makes enough for smothering one cooked chicken or a pork shoulder.
5 ancho dried chiles
1/3 cup sliced pine nuts
1 small onion, chopped
1 or 2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup raisins or diced prunes
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon each: cinnamon, ground cloves, dried oregano, powdered cumin, ground coriander, ground anise seeds
3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
freshly ground pepper
1 cup water (or more, as needed)
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, melted
Soak chiles in very hot water until soft, about 30 minutes or so. (Make sure they're submerged by setting a lightweight bowl on top of the chiles.)
In a small skillet, sauté© onion in vegetable oil until soft and translucent.
Add garlic and sauté© another minute.
Add spices and herbs and cook, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds, being careful not to let them burn.
In a blender, grind together the almonds, cooked onions, tomatoes, spices, raisins or prunes, sesame seeds, salt, pepper, and water. Puree until smooth.
Remove seeds and stems from the chiles and puree very finely, passing the chiles through a food mill. (If you don't have a food mill, press the puree through a mesh strainer to make remove any skins. Some people just puree them in, but they can be tough.)
Blend the chile paste into the mole along with the melted chocolate and add additional water, as necessary, until the consistency is smooth and slightly pourable.
Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Recipe adapted from "The Sweet Life in Paris" (Broadway Books) by David Lebovitz.