For a taste of what makes southern Colorado and northern New Mexico unique, few dishes rival a slow simmered mole flavored with chiles and chocolate.

For a taste of what makes southern Colorado and northern New Mexico unique, few dishes rival a slow simmered mole flavored with chiles and chocolate.

“Mole is a very complex sauce, and it’s one of my favorites,” said Chef Lois Ellen Frank, a specialist in southwestern indigenous cooking, award winning cookbook author and culinary anthropologist.

Frank is one of several food and cultural experts who will speak at the first ever Mountain West Seed Summit, March 2-4, in Santa Fe. The event is a collaboration of Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, the National Young Farmers Coalition, the Santa Fe Farmers Market and other organizations.

Frank also teaches classes at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, a family-owned business that has been drawing students from around the world for nearly three decades.

Mole is iconic because it features many of the region’s best-known ingredients, including onions, tomatoes and poblano peppers charred over an open flame. What makes it especially rich and unique is the pairing of dried chiles with savory Mexican chocolate.

During a demonstration at the school this winter, Frank made a mole using Mexican and refined American chocolates combined with dried ancho and guajillo chiles.

“You’ve probably heard the indigenous metaphor that food is our medicine,” Frank said as she cooked. “One chile has the same amount of Vitamin C as six oranges. This is the Native American form of probiotics. Chile is good for you and it triggers endomorphins.”

“Native peoples have always used chile as a preservative but also for its wellness properties,” she continued. “The oil in the chile is the medicine, but it also adds flavor and heat.”

Cocoa also has a long history in the region, with excavations showing it dates back at least a thousand years, she said.

“The seeds of the plant are roasted and then ground to make cocoa. When it is mixed with sugar it becomes chocolate,” she explained. “Cocoa is only sweet when mixed with sugar. The lighter the chocolate the sweeter it is, and the darker the chocolate the more ‘buzz’ it has.”

Mexican chocolate contains a higher percentage of cocoa than refined baking chocolate and also incorporates warming spices like cinnamon, allspice, cloves and anise.

Other traditional mole ingredients include nuts, seeds and even fruit, often raisins, figs or something tropical like bananas.

“Working with different chefs, I’ve learned that plantains are one of the key ingredients in Mexican moles,” said Kyle Pacheco, a star culinary student at Santa Fe Community College who grew up farming on the Santo Domingo pueblo and is now a cooking assistant at the school.

Vegetables and fruits are rough chopped, then mixed together and simmered in broth in a heavy black clay pot before being blended together to make the silky mole sauce.

Lorena Jakubczak, owner of Azteca Gourmet Tamales, is originally from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca and uses authentic mole sauces in the products she sells at the Colorado Farm and Art Market in Colorado Springs. The once-a-month winter market is held at the Cottonwood Center for the Arts, with the next one scheduled for March 19.

Oaxaca is known as the land of the seven sauces, Jakubczak said.

Two variations she often makes the dark brown “Coloradito” mole, which she incorporates into her beef tamales, and the green pipian, comprised of toasted almonds, sesame seeds and pumpkin, which flavors her pork tamales.

Because mole making is time consuming, it is often saved for special occasions like weddings and baptisms, she noted, although she added that cooks sometimes make a big batch and freeze it in small portions.

Moles lend themselves to creativity, with some sporting unusual colors, according to Frank. “Some chefs have a ‘mother mole’ that they just keep adding to over time,” she added.

Oaxacan neighbors treat their recipes as family secrets, guarding them religiously, Jakubczak said.

“It is competitive,” she said. “But the fact is, it’s basically the same recipe with different intensities of the same ingredients.”

The steps she follows to make her own sauces were handed down to her from her mother, whom she visits once or twice a year.

“So, no, I’m not sharing,” she said with a laugh.