Cookbook Profile

(Huitlacoche or Corn Smut)

Ustilago maydis or U. maydis



We've all smacked up against that edgy place that is our first experience of things unknown to us—sex, the first raw oyster, great bourbon, a foreign land—and so the flavors of the world widen. This experience isn't always pretty, however. In Mexico, I remember spotting the hideous pile of cuitlacoche ("wheat-la-coach-eh") just as I was taking the first bite of a quesadilla with telltale blackness oozing from its edges. My "Que horror" was fast followed by an American "Wow." That same great quesadilla is reborn here.

Who knew that yucky com smut had such a sublime flavor? The Aztecs, Tlaxcalans, and several other New World peoples did. Culinary thrill seekers may be disappointed to find that the taste under the nasty appearance is the comforting flavor you might expect from a nice Indian grandma's kitchen. Those to whom I've fed cuitlacoche describe it as warm, musky, earthy, base note of corn, creamy, deep, and unctuous. It has an indefinably familiar flavor. Its high protein and umami content seem to enhance all it touches. Poor cuitlacoche suffers not only from a ghastly physique but also from unrealistic and unfair expectations created by those who compare it to a truffle. Cuitlacoche is a subtle flavor experience hidden behind the face of a culinary gargoyle.

If you wonder what's wild about cuitlacoche other than its appearance, remember that it's still a wild fungus, even though the host it invades is the ever-so-tamed corn plant. The same corn smut (cuitlacoche) that is viewed as a disastrous blight in the United States is embraced in much of Mexico as a delicious blessing that dramatically increases the value of the crop. There's something powerful about a people who welcome this wild fungus predator even as it strikes the most essential, indeed sacred, of their foods—corn. Cuitlacoche's best translation from the Aztec Nahuatl is "excrement of the lords (gods)."

Foraging for cuitlacoche in our world is a strange scavenger hunt. Ask corn growers at your farmers' market if they've seen any in their fields. Some farmers may be embarrassed to admit that this "scourge" has made an appearance in their crop. Some might sell you some or possibly ask you to help "weed" it out of their fields. Drought conditions or excess moisture on corn untouched by fungicides creates the ideal conditions for cuitlacoche. Even then you must forage through the corn rows before you spot the odd ear with galls erupting from the husks. A few clever U.S. farmers are inoculating their corn with com smut, but at this point they find that peddling the delicious smut often meets with perplexed consumers. Perhaps it's the perfect spooky Halloween ingredient. Squash-"oranged" masa tamales stuffed with black cuitlacoche, anyone?


Kitchen Notes

Cleaning and Preparation: Peel the husks off, then untangle and remove the silk from the cuitlacoche. Slice down the cob to remove the cuitlacoche galls. It's OK if a few corn kernels end up in your pile of cuitlacoche. Washing the cob is your call, but if you choose to do it, do so before slicing the cob.

Cooking Methods: In Mexico the usual first step is to saute onions, then add the cuitlacoche. As it cooks, it turns a glorious black. From there, cuitlacoche can take traditional paths into tamales and gorditas, for example, or blaze inky new trails into ravioli, lasagna, or other, yet unexplored, territories.

Storage: Cuitlacoche left on the cob will keep in the refrigerator for one week. Once cut off, it lasts about twenty-four hours. It freezes nicely off the cob in a plastic bag. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before using.

Ideal Cuitlacoche: Boy, oh boy, there's no beauty prize awarded here, but it is best kept on the cob until the day of use. The fully ripe galls should be silver gray, firm as a grape, and never dry inside. Cuitlacoche's flavor is best when the tasty blobs have matured at two to three weeks of age. Don't worry if the odd gall has split-this reflects its ripeness. Frozen cuitlacoche is very good, and canned, available in many Mexican grocery stores, is actually not bad. (See Guidebooks and Sources, page 336 of the book.)

Pesticides are not a serious issue. Cuitlacoche tends to grow in poorly kept farms; it won't grow if fungicides are used.

Recipe: Cuitlacoche and Squash Blossom Quesadilla


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This page created November 2010