I love Rick Bayless. It’s out there now.
I’ve always loved his cookbooks; his words practically vibrate with passion for Mexican cuisine. I loved him even more after I saw him on Top Chef Masters and learned that (1) he seems to be exceptionally nice and (2) under his clean-cut, shirt neatly tucked in, giving you a 45 minute loving lecture on varieties of guacamole, he’s really just a stoner hippie nerd who loves a good taco at heart. And that is something I can get behind.
For dinner tonight, we pulled out the classic Mexican Kitchen, skipped to the “Fiesta Foods” section and stared it right in the eye: mole. Quail with smoky peanut mole, to be specific, with a side Caesar salad, Topolobampo style.
To put it simply, mole is a simmered sauce, often made with chocolate and usually with nuts, that contains seven to ten million different ingredients that you cannot get at your run-of-the-mill grocer, unless you live in Mexico City. Several of the moles in the book – I’m looking at you, Oaxacan black mole – called for chiles I’d never heard of, and I routinely keep 4-5 different kinds of dried chile around the house. So I feel no shame in telling you that this dish was selected in part because I’ve never prepared quail before, and in part because I could source all the mole ingredients from convenient places and the whole thing would take less than a thousand hours.
Please know that I am not being at all hyperbolic.
The side dish I picked because can you really just eat quail? I mean, quail alone is not really a well-balanced meal as it is, and quail are also teeny tiny. I’m always on the lookout for a good Caesar dressing – I’ve never really made one that I LIKE liked – so I thought we’d give Rick’s lime and chile-spiked version a try. I mean, it’s Rick Bayless. If there is a more polite chef who is less likely to lead you astray, kindly point me toward him or her.
That’s what I thought.
The core mole ingredients were dried ancho chiles, chipotles in adobo, tomatoes and peanuts along with standards like onions and garlic, additional spices and bread as a thickener. After being toasted, broiled, sauteed or manipulated in some other way, all the ingredients eventually wind up in my old friend the blender along with some chicken stock to keep the blender from just giving up.
Then, because the ingredients have not yet been mauled enough, they are thrust into a hot, oiled pan to fry; it concentrates the flavors, deepens the color AND gives you hundreds of wicked spatter burns from teeny splashes of mole base shooting out of the sizzling pan and onto your hands and forearms. Since the droplets are so little, the resulting blisters look remarkably like warts. Cute! (I would expect more of a warning from Rick; this is the one way in which he’s let me down.)
The toasted, broiled, sauteed, blended, fried mole base then gets hit with some more stock, red wine, cider vinegar and bay before being left to simmer for 45 minutes to really meld all the flavors. As a side note, I offer a word of caution: Perhaps you keep unfiltered cider vinegar around, and perhaps you are nearly at the bottom of the bottle. Perhaps when you check to see how much vinegar is left, you think what you are seeing is merely vinegar clouded by sediment, and not vinegar hiding a viscous sinew of coagulated proteins formed from all the lonely days and nights the amino acids in the vinegar have been bumping up against each other in the bottle. IF this were the case, you might go to add a tablespoon of vinegar to your mole and watch in horror as a gelatinous mass slides out of the bottle and into your sauce.
If this does happen to you – and I hope you’ll take more precaution with your unfiltered cider vinegar from now on – know that (1) your mole will still taste damn fine and (2) the mass will never entirely denature itself, so you’ll be able to pick out the stringier bits later on. Try not to be too disturbed by #2.
Just in case.
While the mole simmered, I took a load off while Brian made the salad dressing. It’s an unorthodox take on Caesar that ends up tasting remarkably like a really good classic dressing with a mild pop of chile. Plus, we got to use the new (free, thanks BlogHer!) 4-cup Cuisinart food processor, hereby officially dubbed the FoProMin (pronounced FO-pro-min, as though it were an over-the-counter generic brand pain reliever).
There’s no lemon juice at all, the citrus instead coming from the zest of a coupla limes. Sherry vinegar brings the acid, a chile pepper adds heat, and raw egg helps it thicken. Rick has you start off in the FoProMin and then finish whisking the oil in by hand so you don’t just make mayo. Which, I’m glad of that, but I bet that would be some damn fine mayo.
While Brian worked the dressing, I made some croutons with stale bread coated with roasted garlic oil and then concentrated on trying not to eat them all as snacks once they were out of the oven.
Then all was ready, and it was time for the quail.
Quail are really pathetic looking little creatures, and it’s hard not to snap their featherlight bones just by staring at them too intently. They don’t really look like food. They’ve always had a fancy-pants connotation for me, but when I saw them in real life I just thought, “My god, this is what people had to do before we had chicken.” It was hard not to laugh at them, yet it was also challenging not to be saddened. Oh, and a little squicked, because it does kind of seem like you’re eating a pigeon, Latin name “Sky Rat.”
I was a little scared to even introduce them to heat. So I made Brian do it.
Salt, pepper a little olive oil and a cast-iron pan on the stove taking the place of the grill, and the quail were on the move. And I gotta tell you, they don’t get any more attractive as they cook. If anything, they try to shrink into themselves, almost like some kind of defense mechanism. Helpful hint, quails who may be reading: by the time you’re in the hot pan, it’s TOO LATE. Still, they colored up nicely, the finished mole tasted bananas, and I was excited to sit down to dinner.
I also really, REALLY wanted to eat those fricking croutons. I fucking love croutons. When I was a kid, playing at friends’ houses, I’d always filch croutons as a snack. We never had them at my house and no, I was not a normal child. The crouton addiction was the least of my problems.
I threw together the salad and plated up the quail:
And here’s the thing about it. The mole was incredible. Such an amazingly deep and complex flavors, so perfectly melded; you really have to focus to pick out individual ingredients because they come together so harmoniously and blossom in waves of flavor on the tongue. Nutty, smoky, just a tad spicy, with some sweetness and acid to balance, it was the closest thing I’ve had to a food revelation in a while.
The salad was similarly excellent. It’s not often that you hear me say, “Damn, that was an effing good salad,” but this was truly a most effingly good salad. Creamy, just enough acid, a spicy tingle from the chile, the wonderful crispness of the lettuce and the homemade croutons; oh, the croutons. I’d have been perfectly happy throwing a chicken breast on it and calling it a day. Because the quail..
…how can I put it? I know, with brutal candor: I think quail is fucking disgusting. I have nothing against gaminess – I love a piece of lamb that really tastes like lamb – but this is something else altogether. Some kind of earthy funk, and not in the good, truffle kinda way. In the bad, “I wish I hadn’t wasted this amazing mole on this pathetic little bird” kinda way. I really, really couldn’t stomach it. Even more shocking? Neither could Brian, and he will eat ANYTHING, including things he doesn’t actually like. And he? Could not bring himself to finish the quail, teensy though they were.
Thankfully we have about a full cup of leftover mole and a squeezy bottle full of salad dressing, both of which Rick promises will keep for several days, so I sense some high quality, quail-less meals in my future. And I don’t blame Rick at all for the ultimate failure of dinner. He did everything he could; it came down to a showdown between quail and me. I’m guessing the quail won, since it left uneaten and I left hungry.
I am still alive, though. So SUCK ON THAT, quail.