For years, I thought I hated turkey, scarred by the overcooked turkeys served at childhood Thanksgivings. Who needs turkey when you can have duck or goose – or even roast chicken, half the stress and probably even more delicious?
But a few years ago, I decided to give turkey another chance. Rather than roasting a whole bird, I prepared its best bits separately: breast cooked in the sous vide until silkily soft, legs confited in the oven until mid-collapse. Turkey really could be good, I discovered then – you just had to take care with it.
This year, a friend mentioned he was going to braise his Thanksgiving turkey in mole rojo, or red mole, and I knew I had to try it. If you’ve never had mole, know that it is a symphonic sauce. Thought to originate with the Aztecs, it’s famed for its complexity, both in flavour and preparation. This particular mole is made from a base of dried guajillo and ancho chillis (which lend it a brick-red hue and earthy flavour, but only the gentlest heat), as well as charred tomatoes, toasted almonds and a wealth of spices.
As for the turkey, I opt to use just the legs here, which are richer in flavour and in fat. (Source the best-quality turkey legs you can – I order from Fosse Meadows Farm, which raises delicious, slow-reared, heritage birds.) They’re braised in stock (which itself becomes another key component of the mole), a convenient way of cooking them that also frees up the oven for other festive fare.
The resulting dish is one of the most delicious turkey preparations I’ve ever had (note too that it produces extra mole sauce and stock, which you can save for a wide range of other uses). Serve it with roasted sweet potatoes and braised cavolo nero, or the more traditional accompaniments.
And don’t forget the wine. I’ve found that lighter reds generally work best at Christmas, and Strekov 1075’s Bob 2022 is a certified crowd-pleaser. This 100% Portugieser wine hails from Slovakia and is bright with red fruit and berry notes (while some underlying earthy, stemmy qualities add just enough seriousness). It works brilliantly with the turkey and isn’t fazed by the complexity of that mole, even seeming to impart an additional sweetness to the sauce.
I admit that a Mexican take on turkey and a Slovakian red are about as far from Christmas cliché as you can get – but they prove that veering from tradition can sometimes be the most festive thing of all.
Braised Turkey Legs with Mole Rojo
For the stock:
Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon
2 large turkey legs (~1.5 kg total)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 ¼ litres chicken stock or water
1 onion, roughly chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bunch coriander
1 bunch thyme leaves, tied together in a bouquet garni
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
For the mole rojo:
1kg plum tomatoes
10 dried guajillo chillis, stems and seeds removed
4 dried ancho chillis, stems and seeds removed
¼ cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons oregano
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon clove
Juice of 2 limes
Fine sea salt, to taste
Sesame seeds, to garnish
Fresh coriander, to garnish
1. Half an hour before you plan to cook, remove your turkey legs from the fridge and season on both sides with flaky sea salt. Leave to warm slightly.
2. Place a Dutch oven (or other large, lidded stockpot) over high heat and add the vegetable oil. Once hot, add your first turkey leg, skin-side down. Sear for 4-5 minutes, or until the skin is golden-brown. Flip and sear on the reverse for 2-3 minutes more. Remove from the pan and transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining turkey leg.
3. Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the onion and garlic. Cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently, or until they’ve lost their raw smell.
4. Return your turkey legs to the pan, alongside the stock or water. Add the remaining aromatics to the stock. Turn the heat up to high and bring to a boil; once boiling, turn the heat down to the lowest simmer. Partially cover the pot and cook for approx. 2–2 ½ hours, or until the legs are completely cooked through and close to falling apart (but still just held together).
5. Meanwhile, while you cook the turkey and make the stock, prepare the other mole ingredients. Turn your oven’s grill to the highest setting and line a baking sheet with foil. Arrange the plum tomatoes in a single layer and place under the grill. Grill for 10-12 minutes, or until they’re softened and lightly charred. Flip and cook for 10 or so minutes more, or until lightly charred on the reverse. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
6. Next, place a frying pan over medium-low heat and add the almonds. Toast, tossing frequently, for roughly 5-7 minutes, or until evenly golden brown. Remove from the heat and transfer to a bowl. Add the guajillo and ancho chillis to the hot pan (in batches if there’s not enough room to arrange them in a single layer). Toast the chillis for 30 seconds on each side, or until fragrant but not burned. Transfer to a bowl and ladle just enough stock from the cooking turkey to cover the chillis. Leave to soak for 20 minutes, or until softened and rehydrated.
7. Once the turkey legs are cooked, gently remove from the stock and set aside. Remove and discard the thyme bouquet garni and bay leaves.
8. To a blender, add your charred tomatoes and any juices. Using a slotted spoon, remove the rest of the aromatics from the stock and add to the blender, then add a ladleful of stock for good measure. Blend on high until completely uniform. Transfer to a bowl.
9. Next, blend the second half of the mole ingredients. Add the chillis and the stock they’ve been sitting in to the blender, as well as the toasted almonds. Blend until uniform (take care when blending hot liquids; you may need to slowly add the stock to prevent overflowing the blender).
10. Transfer the remaining stock to a small saucepan, and place over low heat to keep warm. In the now-emptied Dutch oven, combine the blended tomatoes and blended chillis, and place on low heat. Add the brown sugar, remaining herbs and spices, and lime juice to the mole; season with salt to taste. Once you’re happy with the flavour of the sauce, return the turkey legs to the pan. The mole should be a thick and glossy sauce, roughly the consistency of yoghurt; add any additional stock to thin it out if needed.
11. Cook the turkey legs in the mole for 20 minutes more, until they’re about to collapse. Transfer to a serving platter, dollop over a little extra mole sauce and top with the sesame seeds and coriander. Spoon any leftover mole sauce into a serving bowl, which is also delicious over potatoes and other roast veg (or keep it for another use – enchiladas are always recommended).
Claire M Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beer hound and all-around lover of tasty things. You can follow her at @clairembullen. For more recipes like this, sign up to our HB&B All Killer No Filler beer subscription - you'll receive Claire's recipe and food pairings, plus expert tasting notes, with 10 world-class beers like this one every month.