by Kaitlyn Goalen
photographs by Jillian Clark
Each year around October, I begin to think about what I’d like to make for Thanksgiving. There are some stalwarts that make it into the menu every year (my grandmother’s chile-cheese dip, a sweet potato-cardamom-coconut pie from a cookbook I edited, cornbread stuffing), and then I start scouring the websites and cookbooks of my favorite authors for more inspiration. I look to Nigel Slater, the British author, for vegetable inspiration; I lean on Ina Garten or Julia Child for a reliable mashed potato recipe. One by one, my meal is planned down to the very last dish, until all that’s left is the turkey.
And that’s when I lose interest. I make turkey once a year, for Thanksgiving. I’ve run the gamut of techniques, from roasting whole to spatchcocking, from grilling to even frying. Always, the end result is good, but never enough to make the ingredient stand out for me. Even at its best, turkey leaves me unmoved.
So last year, I began to think about turkey beyond the context of the Thanksgiving table. Once you bypass the zillion Norman Rockwell-worthy turkey recipes in the world, you get to turkey mole, a rich Oaxacan dish that is arguably the second most iconic way to cook these plump birds.
The sauce is notorious for representing one of the few savory uses of chocolate. Along with a laundry list of spices and chiles, it’s thickened with nuts or seeds and used as a braising liquid for whatever protein is on hand: Historically, that was wild turkey.
I made a version of the dish using turkey breast and was blown away. Here was a recipe that I could revisit throughout the year. Here was the turkey dish that could convert me. And since then, I’ve made more versions of the recipe, tweaking and refining until I’ve reached an iteration that I love. Now, as we approach Thanksgiving and I’m thinking about my menu, it’s dawned on me that my mole recipe, meant to be my antidote to the classic American turkey, actually shares plenty of DNA with the Thanksgiving table. From the squash to the warming spices of cloves and cinnamon; from the stale, stuffing-like bread to the gravy-esque consistency of the sauce: this mole is the ultimate mash up, a one-pot Thanksgiving.
It’ll never replace the annual spread of options for my family, but it’s extended my lease on turkey, allowing me to see it as more than a centerpiece.
Quite a few of the steps in this recipe are dedicated to creating the spice mixture and the sauce. It may seem finicky to grind your own spices, but don’t take shortcuts – the result is so much better than what you’d get with a pre-ground version. With regard to the chiles, you can mix and match with different varieties. Leftovers of this dish will freeze beautifully.
1 acorn squash
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
10 dried ancho chiles
10 dried guajillo chiles
10 dried chiles de árbol
4 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 teaspoon aniseed
1 teaspoon black peppercorn
1 teaspoon cacao nibs
½ teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried oregano
2 dried bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick, crushed with the flat side of a knife
3 cups boiling water
½ cup raisins
2 cups cubed stale bread or cornbread
4 to 5 cups chicken or turkey broth
1 onion, diced
Cloves from 1 head garlic, minced
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 turkey breast halves
Rice for serving
Preheat the oven to 350°. Halve the acorn squash lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and rinse under cold water, removing any fibers. Dry on paper towels and reserve. Rub the insides of the squash halves with 1 tablespoon of the oil, and season with salt and pepper. Place cut-side up on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes. Flip the squash and bake for another 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool. Leave the oven on.
Remove the stems from the chiles. Scrape out the seeds, and reserve. Tear the flesh of the chiles into pieces and set aside. In a medium skillet over medium heat, toast the chile seeds and the sesame seeds until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder. To the skillet, add the aniseed, black peppercorn, cacao nibs, and cloves and toast until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to the spice grinder, along with the thyme, oregano, bay, and cinnamon. Grind the spices to a powder, and set aside. (Alternatively, you could grind the spices with a mortar and pestle.)
Add 2 cups oil to the skillet and heat until it reaches 300° on a thermometer. Add the chile pieces to the oil in batches, frying for about 20 seconds per side. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the chiles to a heatproof bowl. When you’ve fried all the chiles, add the boiling water to the bowl and weigh down the chiles with a heavy pan to keep them submerged. Soak for 15 minutes.
Return the oil to 300°. Add the reserved squash seeds and raisins and fry for 90 seconds. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate. Add the cubed bread to the oil and fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer to the plate with the raisins and squash.
Drain the chiles, reserving 1 cup of the liquid. In a high-powered blender, add the chiles, squash seeds, raisins, bread, ½ cup of the chile liquid, and 2 cups broth. Carefully puree into a thick sauce, adding more of the remaining ½ cup chile liquid if needed. Set aside.
Peel the roasted squash flesh from its skin and place in a bowl. Add 1 cup of broth and 1 teaspoon salt, and whisk together to combine into a smooth puree. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large Dutch oven. Season the turkey breasts generously with salt and pepper. When the oil shimmers, add the turkey, skin side down, and sear until golden, 7 to 8 minutes per side. Transfer the breasts to a cutting board. Add the onions to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and softened, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant. Add the reserved spice mixture and 1 teaspoon salt and stir until well coated, about 1 minute. Add the diced tomatoes and stir, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the chile sauce and the squash puree and whisk well to combine. If the sauce is very thick, add 1 to 2 cups broth. Return the turkey breasts to the Dutch oven and submerge them in the sauce. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then cover and transfer to the oven. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring every 20 minutes, until a thermometer inserted into the center of each turkey breast reaches 150°.
Remove from the oven, remove the lid, and let rest for 20 minutes. Transfer the turkey breasts to a cutting board and thinly slice (or pull, if you prefer) the meat.
Return to the pot with the sauce and stir to distribute. Serve over rice.