While in Xochimilco a few weekends ago, I picked up some fresh huitlacoche from a stand outside the market. Huitlacoche means “corn smut” in English (ha!), and it’s a fungus that grows on corn in blue-black, mushroomy clumps. People like to call huitlacoche “the Mexican truffle,” but I’m not entirely sure how true that is, given that corn smut is pretty cheap and eaten by the mouthful, while truffles are insanely expensive and shaved onto fancy pasta dishes. Anyway.
I’ve had huitlacoche quesadillas at markets in Mexico City, and to be completely honest, I haven’t always liked them. Sometimes they have an intensely earthy taste, like mushrooms on steroids. And they can be very slimy. The good news is that huitlacoche is actually packed with vitamins, according to a recent Associated Press report. It has the same types of soluble fibers as oatmeal, the same ones that have been found to lower cholesterol.
I had never bought fresh huitlacoche, because I wasn’t totally in love with the taste. But they looked so pretty sitting on the Xochimilco tabletop. They had this kind of iridescent bluish color, and they were these round, spongey tufts. I just wanted to touch them. Ruth, ever my culinary door-opener, told me huitlacoche was easy to cook — just mix it with some onion, corn kernels and chicken stock, and simmer for about 20 minutes.
So that’s exactly what I did.
And Ruth was right — it was easy.
By the way, there are lots of debates going on right now about whether “fast and easy” is the death knell of American culinary culture. I tend to believe that fast and easy shouldn’t be the top priority in the kitchen; the most important rule is to cook with fresh ingredients. So yes, this dish was fast, but my first rule was met: I had fresh huitlacoche and fresh corn.
I heated some oil in a skillet, and then added the onion, smut, corn kernels and stock. Simmered everything for about 30 minutes, until the plump bits of huitlacoche had deflated a bit and turned black and slimy. Added more stock whenever the mixture looked too dry.
It looked like of like a pile of shredded, motor-oil soaked rags when it was done. (Oily rags dotted with yellow corn.) But the taste was unlike any other huitlacoche I’ve tried. It was only delicately earthy, not knock-you-over-the-head earthy. Moreover, combined with the cheese, it was almost decadent — a soft, cheesy pile of vegetables, whispering of mushrooms and corn. Gave some to Crayton for lunch two days in a row — a rarity for me, because I like to mix it up — and he loved it.
Huitlacoche is apparently very abundant in Mexico’s rainy season; for more recipe ideas, check out the wonderful Karen Hursh Graber at MexConnect. My simple little recipe is below. This is great as a light dinner, or as an appetizer.
Serves 4 to 6
If you can’t find fresh huitlacoche, canned will do, but I can’t vouch for the taste as I’ve never tried it. Also, you’ll notice I used quite a bit of chicken stock; I’m at a high altitude, so the liquid tends to burn off fairly quickly. You can also use whatever cheese you want — I used Mexican manchego because I like it’s slightly sharp flavor. And it melts very easily.
1/2 kilo (or just over 1 lb.) fresh huitlacoche (should not be slimy, but spongey and plump instead)
1 cup fresh corn kernels, or however much you decide you want
1/2 medium onion, chopped
About three cups chicken stock
2 cups shredded Mexican manchego cheese
A dozen corn tortillas of your desired variety (blue, flour, corn, whatever)
Heat a few glugs of oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet; when shimmering, add the onion and cook over medium heat until translucent. Add the huitlacoche, corn and maybe 3/4 cup of broth. Cover and cook, checking occasionally and adding more broth when it has evaporated. The huitlacoche is done when it becomes black and slimy, and you no longer see big, spongey clumps. When it has been thoroughly cooked, season it with salt to taste, remove it from the heat and set aside.
To prepare the quesadillas, heat a few tortillas at a time on a comal. (Have I told you how much I absolutely love my comal?) When they’re soft and floppy, take them off the heat and spread a few spoonfuls of huitlacoche and some cheese, and fold into a half-moon shape. Return them to the comal and cook until they’re crisp, and dark golden-brown spots start to form on both sides. Serve warm — and with guacamole, if you’re the extra-decadent type.