Recently, I was invited to a friend’s house in Patzcuaro (Michoacan), Mexico, and we spent the week madly cooking. The market there was so fantastic -- fat yellow chickens, fresh chayote, baby jicama, a rainbow of fresh and dried chiles, heaps of garlic and herbs. Indian women sat with produce from their gardens on blankets in front of them. They always had the freshest ingredients, including hand-patted corn tortillas, and when things were slow, they’d trim the thorns from nopales (cactus paddles).
We brought a couple of cookbooks, but the one we used most was Chicago chef Rick Bayless’ "Mexican Everyday," from the public television series “Mexico -- One Plate at a Time.” Season 9, in fact, is titled "Only in Oaxaca."
We cooked with our friend Rob’s collection of lead-free local pottery, putting the clay casseroles right on the gas burner. That week, we made so many wonderful dishes, but the one that stands out for me is “Chicken in Oaxacan Yellow Mole with Green Beans and Chayote.”
We bought one of those yellow chickens in the market, and stewed it with dried guajillo chiles, diced canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, green beans and chayote. At the end, you throw in some hoja santa leaves torn into pieces, or roughly chopped cilantro. I voted for hoja santa. Slightly thickened with masa harina, the sauce is redolent of chile and garlic -- and also spiced with a little cumin, allspice and cinnamon.
The lovely colonial town of Patzquaro isn’t exactly a mecca for wine lovers, but we did manage to ferret out a few bottles of Rioja from the stocks at a cafe on the main square. The one we drank was a Cune Rioja reserva from Rioja Alta -- not their famous Viña Ardanza or Viña Arana -- but a perfectly delicious and reliable Tempranillo-based blend that we were extremely happy to find.
The Rioja’s gentle spiciness, bright fruit and smooth, ripe tannins work beautifully with the mild-mannered chicken mole. The red doesn’t blow out the chicken or the vegetables, but takes just enough edge off the heat that all the elements work in harmony.