Corn Smut

A Letter of Recommendation

By Abigael Birrell

 

Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows inside kernels of corn and has been a treasured delicacy in Mexico since pre-Columbian times. Photo by Miekevl/123RF.com

Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows inside kernels of corn and has been a treasured delicacy in Mexico since pre-Columbian times. Photo by Miekevl/123RF.com

Funky, rich and captivating. As a professional chef, it’s not every day that a flavor catches me so off-guard. From my first taste of the ignominiously named corn smut, I was smitten. Like many Americans, my first exposure to this fascinating fungus was on a trip to southern Mexico. Standing on a street corner in Oaxaca at a crowded stall selling quesadillas, I was handed a warm tortilla, thick with gooey cheese, tender squash blossoms and a black smear of profoundly flavorful, mushroom-like paste. I returned to the United States, eager to experiment with my new favorite vegetable, but I quickly learned that finding fresh corn smut was going to be a challenge.

When I moved from the Pacific Northwest to Nebraska, a state synonymous with corn, I thought my mostly unrequited love affair with this mysterious ingredient was finally going somewhere. Surely, Nebraska with its abundant fields of corn would have the strange, gray, truffle-like fungus that proved so elusive to me elsewhere. But as I scoured the markets and called farmer after farmer to no avail, I realized that the object of my affection had a bad reputation. My inquiries were met with politely worded disbelief. “That’s not something I’d ever considered eating…” became a common refrain.

So what follows is a public service announcement. It’s time to put a good word in for a much-misunderstood vegetable known in the United States as corn smut but celebrated in Mexico under the name huitlacoche (pronounced weet-lah-COH-chay).

Huitlacoche (also spelled cuitlacoche) is a fungus that grows inside kernels of corn and has been a treasured delicacy in Mexico since pre-Columbian times. The name “huitlacoche” comes from the Nahuatl language and, depending on who is interpreting, translates roughly into raven’s excrement or sleeping excrescences. Those descriptions refer, respectively, to huitlacoche’s inky black color and the way it lies dormant in between corn kernels, waiting to swell. In spite of its unfortunate name and truly startling appearance, Mexican cooks prize it for its unique flavor, which combines the delicate earthiness of mushrooms and the sweetness of corn.

To scientists and agronomists, huitlacoche is known by the Latin name Ustilago maydis and here in the United States it is considered a blight. Corn kernels that are infected with Ustilago maydis form large, silvery, stone-shape galls. Each kernel is engorged to several times its normal size, giving the cobs a grotesque appearance. With that description, it is easy to understand the prevailing opinion that it is not something one would consider eating.

That is precisely why food writers euphemistically try to call it names like “Mexican corn truffle” or “Aztec caviar.” Huitlacoche needs to be tasted to be believed. Much like a true truffle, huitlacoche is packed with powerful flavor compounds. Sotolon, which is the aroma compound responsible for the familiar smells of curry, maple syrup and fenugreek, is found abundantly in huitlacoche. Also occurring is fragrant vanillin, which gives huitlacoche its underlying woodiness. Additionally, like a truffle, huitlacoche pairs wonderfully with eggs, cream and fatty foods. In Mexico, it’s traditionally sautéed with onion and garlic and folded into quesadillas or tamales. When cooked, it undergoes a transformation from soft-blue-gray kernels to a rich, black umami-laden jam.

nfected corn kernels form large, silvery, stone-shape galls, and each kernel is engorged to several times its normal size, giving the ears a grotesque appearance. Photo by Huandi/123RF.com

Infected corn kernels form large, silvery, stone-shape galls, and each kernel is engorged to several times its normal size, giving the ears a grotesque appearance. Photo by Huandi/123RF.com

Beyond being merely delicious, studies have shown that huitlacoche is actually more nutritious than corn that is not infected with Ustilago maydis. The journal Food Chemistry reported that the fungus synthesizes the essential amino acid lysine, which builds muscle and healthy skin, and the soluble fiber called beta glucens, a cancer-fighting antioxidant also found in oatmeal.

Like many fungi, it is capricious and unpredictable. It’s usually associated with heavy rains but strangely enough can also hit hard during droughts. In Mexico, an outbreak is a cause for celebration on a farm, where huitlacoche commands four times the price of unaffected corn. For most farmers in the United States, it’s a headache that renders corn unsellable and gums up machinery.

With a sizable Latino population in many parts of the country, some U.S. farmers are beginning to connect with customers hungry for huitlacoche. Many are even successfully inoculating corn with the spores to encourage a healthy crop of smut. Some organic farmers in the Northeast are finding that huitlacoche can provide a healthy new revenue stream and are selling as much as they can produce to adventurous foodies and chefs who will pay a premium. Despite this, fresh huitlacoche is still a rarity in the United States. The most commonly available option is canned huitlacoche, which can often be found in Mexican grocery stores. The flavor is a bit muddy and it lacks the meaty bite of fresh huitlacoche, but I still snap it up whenever I can find it. I add it to sauces or dishes where texture is not an issue.

For home gardeners who have the good fortune to be visited with an outbreak of corn smut, here are some guidelines for harvesting. Huitlacoche is ready to eat when the galls are light gray and have a slight give to them, like a ripe pear. A delay in harvesting will yield galls too dry and full of powdery spores to be of use. Ripe galls can either be cooked right away or cut off of the cob and frozen for future use. Think of huitlacoche as a wild mushroom and use it accordingly. Puree it in soup, blend it with crème fraîche and drizzle it over enchiladas, toss it with fresh pasta, add it to a deluxe grilled cheese sandwich or soft scrambled eggs, sauté it with greens and fresh goat cheese for a savory crepe filling.

So this summer, as we find ourselves surrounded by the glorious abundance of Nebraska corn, keep an eye out for the misshapen gray stalk standing out amidst the golden ears. Approached with an open mind and a hungry belly, this culinary oddity will prove an unforgettable treat. In time, corn smut may even go from blight to boon for farmers as more Nebraskans get a taste of this remarkable local food.

 

Abigael Birrell is a farm-focused chef and all around bon vivant who has recently relocated to Lincoln, Nebraska, from the Pacific Northwest. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her passion for huitlacoche with the Edible community here in Nebraska. Look for her behind the stove at Lincoln’s newest farm-to-table restaurant, Hub Cafe, coming later this summer.

 


 

In spite of its startling appearance, huitlacoche is prized by Mexican cooks for its unique flavor, which combines the delicate earthiness of mushrooms and the sweetness of corn. Photo by 123RF.com

In spite of its startling appearance, huitlacoche is prized by Mexican cooks for its unique flavor, which combines the delicate earthiness of mushrooms and the sweetness of corn. Photo by 123RF.com

 

Squash Blossom and Huitlacoche Quesadillas

Yield: 4 servings

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup finely chopped white or yellow onion

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 pound fresh or frozen huitlacoche, roughly chopped (a 7-ounce can of prepared huitlacoche may also be substituted)

2 fresh green chiles, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

4 to 6 corn tortillas, preferably blue corn

6 ounces Queso Oaxaca, sliced (available at Mexican grocery stores, but any good, white melting cheese may be substituted)

4 to 6 large squash blossoms

In a large sauté pan on medium-high heat, sweat the onions and garlic in olive oil until slightly softened but not brown.

Add the chopped huitlacoche and fresh chiles, season with salt and pepper and cook 5 to 6 minutes, adding a splash of water if the pan seems dry. If using fresh huitlacoche, the color will change from gray-blue to black as it cooks and becomes soft and collapsed. If using canned, it is black and will start out quite wet and then bubble and thicken as it heats.

After huitlacoche is cooked, set it aside.

To assemble the quesadillas, heat a corn tortilla in a heavy skillet or griddle. Spread a couple of slices of cheese on one half of the tortilla, add a spoonful of the huitlacoche mixture over the top and one squash blossom, torn in large pieces. When the cheese is melted, fold the tortilla in half, flip it over to lightly brown the other side and then set aside on a covered plate while the remaining quesadillas are assembled.

Serve immediately with your favorite salsa.

—Recipe by Abigael Birrell

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