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Don’t Prejudge Huitlacoche. Corncobs Bring Mexican Treat.

The raw materials for quesadillas de huitlacoche. Credit: Sue Style

The raw materials for quesadillas de huitlacoche. Credit: Sue Style

At this time of year, when the corn stands high, I start to develop an almost uncontrollable urge for a bit of smut. We’re talking corn smut, of course, the unique edible fungus that colonizes corncobs and bursts into a mass of silvery-gray lobes.

Smut is to be found all over the world wherever corn (maize) is grown. For most farmers in Europe or in the U.S., it has always been regarded as a weird, undesirable parasite, to be eliminated at the earliest opportunity.

Mexicans, who call it huitlacoche (or cuitlacoche), know better. They treasure it as a delicacy, a taste cultivated by their ancient Mesoamerican peoples. Occasionally you’ll see it referred to as the Mexican truffle, even — improbably — as Aztec caviar. Not only is it delicious, it is a crop with added value — the fungus-infested cobs fetch a far better price than regular corn in Mexico’s markets.

Huitlacoche can be found in central Mexico throughout the country’s rainy season (summer and early autumn in the northern hemisphere). It is sold still attached to the cobs that play host to it, alongside piles of corn and sprays of gaudy yellow zucchini blossoms. Back in the kitchen, the fungus is shaved off the cobs, chopped up, briskly fried with onion, garlic and green chiles, and seasoned with Mexican wormseed (epazote), the indispensable bitter herb that perfectly complements its curious, inky-earthy flavor.

The fungus is reduced by cooking to a rich, black, jammy consistency and used to fill tortillas, crêpes or tamales or packed inside roasted and peeled chiles poblanos. Sometimes it’s served as a dramatic counterpoint to fish or chicken. Margarita, a celebrated cook working in Cuernavaca, reminded me recently via Skype of one of her original creations in which she spikes the black fungus with strips of dark green chile poblano and layers it with fettucine and cream.

Huitlacoche in Switzerland? A dream come true

When I moved to Switzerland after seven years of living (and cooking) in Mexico, I resigned myself to the fact that certain familiar treats would no longer feature in our lives, like piñatas at birthday parties, mariachis at dawn — and huitlacoche in the rainy season. When I spotted some growing on the corn at our local pick-your-own farm, I could scarcely believe my eyes.

I plucked some off the plants and bore them triumphantly back to the farm shop. This, I explained in my patchy and somewhat over-excited Swiss-German, is a highly prized Mexican delicacy: You cook it and eat it and it tastes wunderbar! The farmer cast a wary eye over the sinister-looking excrescences attached to his precious corn, then studied me with deep suspicion. Finally he shrugged his shoulders as if to abdicate all responsibility, refused to take any payment and sent me off with my basket.

Back home, I carefully trimmed my prized crop, removed any stray silk threads and chopped up the fungus with a few of its corn kernels. Next I tossed some chopped onion and garlic into hot oil, added the chopped huitlacoche and stewed it till the black juices seethed. A splash of crème fraîche came next, to smooth and enrich the filling. Separately, I warmed up a few tortillas, then spooned in the huitlacoche. I sat back, took a bite and closed my eyes. Bliss. One taste of that elusive, inky, earthy flavor and slightly crunchy, slippery texture and I was transported right back to Mexico.

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Huitlacoche growing on corn. Credit: Sue Style

Finding huitlacoche on restaurant menus in Mexico has never been a problem. I can still taste the tamales served at Izote, Patricia Quintana’s Polanco eatery in Mexico City. They came, four of them lined up like sentries on a rectangular white plate. One was filled with inky-black huitlacoche, the second with a compote of sunset-colored zucchini blossoms. Another bulged with gently melting Oaxaca stretched-curd cheese and epazote leaves, and the fourth with shredded chicken and fresh tomatoes.

What’s new is that corn smut is now gaining acceptance beyond Mexico’s borders. Toloache, the Mexican bistro in New York’s theater district, gilds the lily in spectacular fashion, combining the famous fungus with black truffles and Manchego cheese. One of the most celebrated dishes at Zarela, now, sadly, closed, was crepas de huitlacoche, corn fungus crêpes, while La Casita Mexicana in Los Angeles does fish bathed in a sauce of the black fungus. In London’s Covent Garden, Thomasina Miers’ Wahaca occasionally offers quesadillas de huitlacoche. Chicago chef Rick Bayless makes fried eggplant with huitlacoche, black bean sauce salsa negra, oyster mushrooms, and queso añejo.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, presumably alerted to the commercial potential of this delicacy, has introduced a pilot program to allow farmers in selected states to inoculate corn with huitlacoche spores and cultivate the fungus, rather than spraying it out of existence.

If your taste buds have not yet met huitlacoche, it’s time to give them a treat. You can buy it in cans at Mexican specialty shops or search for it online, but fresh is undoubtedly best. Stage a raid on your nearest corn field and cook up your own. You’ll get some old-fashioned looks (or maybe worse) from the farmer. But you’ll have a feast to remember.

Quesadillas de Huitlacoche

Ingredients

5 to 6 huitlacoches (about 2 pounds, or 1 kilo)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, mashed

2 fresh green chiles (jalapeños or similar), stalks and seeds removed, finely chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

4 tablespoons crème fraîche

Optional: several sprigs of epazote (Mexican wormseed), chopped

12 corn tortillas

Directions

1. Using a sharp knife, slice the huitlacoche lobes off the corncobs, discarding any parts that are no longer firm or which look a bit black and sooty. Include any stray corn kernels, which will add texture.

2. Chop the huitlacoche roughly.

3. Heat the oil in a large frying pan.

4. Add the onion, garlic and chiles to the frying pan and soften without allowing them to brown.

5. Add the huitlacoche, season to taste with salt and pepper and fry for 5 to 6 minutes or until the juices run.

6. Raise the heat and cook hard to drive off excess moisture and concentrate the juices.

7. Stir in the crème fraîche and chopped epazote and check the seasoning.

8. Warm the tortillas on a griddle or in the microwave, fill with the huitlacoche mixture, fold over or roll up and serve.

Top photo: The raw materials for quesadillas de huitlacoche. Credit: Sue Style



Zester Daily contributor Sue Style lives in Alsace, France, close to the German and Swiss borders. She's the author of nine books on subjects ranging from Mexican food to the food and wines of Alsace and Switzerland. Her most recent, published in October 2011, is "Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture." Her website is suestyle.com.

3 COMMENTS
  • Elisabeth Luard 10·1·13

    Fabulous piece, Sue! Many thanks…excellent pic, too.

  • Carol Penn-Romine 10·1·13

    While it’s never going to win any beauty pageants, huitlacoche is tasty stuff. I’m so sorry my Tennessee farmer dad never knew that. He despaired every time he walked out into his corn fields and discovered any of it growing on his crops. If only he’d known how highly some folks prize it and how good it is. Okay, so I know what I want for dinner tonight…

    Cheers!

    Carol

  • Sue Style 10·2·13

    Too right, Carol: it sure wouldn’t win any prizes for looks, but the flavour (and texture), wow! Love to imagine your dad walking through the corn fields muttering his discontent at what this weird fungus was doing to his corn – little did he know what he was missing. Hope you manage to track some down where you are… Sue

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