Sweet corn season is in full swing here in the Midwest: stands filled with green spears of golden kernels dot the roadsides, parking lots of neighborhood watering holes, private drives, and just about anywhere you can fit a corn stand.
Mushroom hunters know that with corn season comes another offering: Aztec black gold. Now is the time to look for corn truffles, a.k.a corn mushrooms, corn smut, or huitlacoche, the latter being my favorite descriptor, as well as the traditional name derived from Nahuatl: the language of the Aztecs, whose cultivation, consumption, and enjoyment of the fungus Utsilago maydis dating back millennia is well known.
As much as I’d like to dive into the history, intricacies of harvesting the mushroom, especially where and when to do so, I have to save all of that for another post to keep this brief. If you have specific questions though, feel free to comment and I’ll answer them the best I can. I have a few years of harvesting it under my belt now and can probably help you find some or help trouble shoot.
What I have for you today, is less a academic, and more heartfelt, smutty love letter to Mexican street food and mushrooms.
A few years ago after harvesting my first huitlacoche with my father who farms corn (and who could barely hide his revulsion at my persistent pestering him to bring me to some of his damaged fields) I played around with my haul and knocked a few things off my wish list I’d been meaning to make. The first thing on the list was huitlacoche elotes.
A famous, traditional Mexican street food, elotes are a grilled ear of sweet corn slathered with a thin layer of mayonnaise finished with a dusting of cheese and hot chili. What’s really genius here is the mayo-it acts like a sort of adhesive allowing you to apply different things to the corn.
The traditional elotes I’ve had were all mayo, cheese, and ground hot chili, and they’re delicious. Brushing an ear of grilled sweet corn with a thick, flavored substance is really the takeaway for me though, and I knew a black puree of huitlacoche would be a fun sub for the mayonnaise. Grilled sweetcorn brushed with tasty black mushroom paste, cheese and hot chili? Please and thank you.
Quick side note, if corn mushrooms aren’t your thing, thick chili sauce, or just some spicy mayo and a lime wedge are just fine as a substitute.
Huitlacoche and shaggy manes
If you’re wondering what corn smut puree tastes like, it’s an interesting flavor, and I have a quick tangent/flavor parallel I made sure to jot down after I tasted a few batches. I wrote previously about a puree of deliquesced shaggy mane mushrooms, and, wouldn’t you know it, huitlacoche puree is similar, and the two purees could be substituted one for the other, although shaggy mane puree is more involved.
There’s a sort of twang to both black mushroom purees that reminds me of the metallic taste of saffron, with a touch of bitterness. It’s a special flavor, especially after it’s been cooked with onions, garlic and a pinch of epazote (the herb with an aroma somewhere between garlic and gasoline). What’s fascinating, to me at least, is that two mushrooms from completely different classes can have such similar flavors. I think there’s more to unpack there re: the taste of mushrooms that turn black, but, I’ll leave that to some curious food scientist.
Part of me just loves the pairing of corn with huitlacoche. Combining the two is a bit like serving squirrels with nuts: what grows together goes together, and all that. Serve them to someone who grows corn (I love you Dad!) for a fun, if slightly blasphemous appetizer.
- 8 oz fresh huitlacoche *(see note) coarsely chopped
- 2 oz yellow onion diced ¼ inch
- 1 small clove garlic minced
- 1 small jalapeno seeded and diced ¼ inch (add some seeds if you want it extra spicy)
- pinch dried epazote, or a couple fresh leaves, chopped optional
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin or to taste
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter cooking oil can be substituted but isn't as nice
- Hot water as needed to make a thick puree, a splash
- 8 Ears of fresh sweet corn
- 5 oz grated cotija cheese
- Fresh chopped cilantro to garnish, optional
- Limes wedges for serving
- Hot chili powder and or hot sauce to garnish, see note
- Sweat (do not brown) the onion, jalapeno and garlic in the butter on medium-high until translucent a few minutes, then add the huitlacoche, epazote and cumin and cook until wilted, about 10 minutes.
- Transfer the mixture to a food processor and puree until as smooth as possible, drizzling in a little water as needed to make a velvety puree (I use a highspeed Vitamix blender here, but I recognize many people don’t have one, if you do, or if you have a similar one like a ninja, do use it for the smoothest, silkiest puree.)
- If you add too much water and the mixture is loose, it’s no big deal, transfer it to a pan and bake at 325 for 30 minutes or so, whisking occasionally to dry it out, then reserve. Keep the puree warm. The most important part is that the puree is smooth enough to slather on an ear of corn.
- Transfer the puree to a bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. The puree should be very rich, possibly slightly bitter, almost too rich to eat by itself—don’t worry, slathered over piping hot sweet corn it will be good.
- Cut the stems off the corn to leave an inch or so to make them easy to tie after roasting.
- Roast (or grill) the corn in it’s green husk at 400 for 15 minutes, or until hot throughout, then remove the husk and tie (this is purely cosmetic, you can just cut it off and put the cobs on a skewer to make them easier to hold if you don’t feel like the presentation).
Assembling and serving
- Using a brush, liberally slather each ear of corn on every side with the huitlacoche puree, then generously sprinkle the cheese over the top, garnish with a dusting of chili powder and fresh cilantro, and serve with the lime wedges on the side.