Friday, October 12, 2007

Really, It's Gourmet - Huitlacoche?

When you think of Mexican cuisine, what image comes to mind? If you are like most people it's gonna be burritos, tacos, enchiladas and a myriad of other Americanized dishes that have been adjusted to please our pallets. Today however we are looking into a food that never really quite caught on around these part, until now?

American farmers call it "smut" and "devil's corn" and consider it a disease to be eradicated. The people of Mexico as well as the American Hopi Indians consider the fungus a delightful delicacy.

Considered a pest in most of the United States, smut feeds off the corn plant and decreases the yield. Usually smut-infected crops are destroyed. However, in Mexico corn smut is called huitlacoche, (sometimes spelled cuitlacoche) It is pronounced (kweet-lah-KOH-chay) an Aztec word reportedly meaning raven's excrement. Gee, I wonder why they would have called this ever so attractive food by that name. It is considered a treat, even being preserved and sold for a higher price than corn. So to recap; infected corn is more expensive than healthy corn.

For culinary use, the infected kernels are harvested while still immature — fully mature corn infection is dry and almost entirely spore-filled. The immature infected kernels, gathered two to three weeks after an ear of corn is infected, still retain moisture and, when cooked, have a flavor described as mushroom-like, sweet, savory, woody, and earthy. Or as I would describe it a delicate blend of smoker’s lung, sweet corn and sweat socks. The Aztec's fashioned the fungus into dishes of crepes, soups, and tamales.

This fungal infection has had difficulty entering into the American and European diets as most farmers see it as blight, despite attempts by government and high profile chefs. In the mid-1990s and due to demand created by high-end restaurants, Pennsylvania and Florida farms were allowed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to intentionally infect corn with huitlacoche.

In 1989 the James Beard Foundation held a high-profile huitlacoche dinner. This dinner was intended to get Americans to eat more of it by renaming it the Mexican truffle. The menu was created by Josefina Howard of Rosa Mexicano restaurant and included huitlacoche appetizers, soup, crepes, tortilla torte, and even a huitlacoche ice cream. I’m pretty sure that this foods public relations nightmare has little to do with the name.

Huitlacoche can be bought as a canned good in some markets in the US and over the internet. Some farmers markets and organic growers are endeavoring to bring fresh huitlacoche to their customers and local food service trade. How does that old saying go, “when life gives you lemons…?” If you do manage to find fresh huitlacoche, immediately locate the field and burn it to the ground then turn the soil. If you insist on eating it here is a recipe:

Arroz con Huitlacoche (Rice with Huitlacoche)

1 cup rice, soaked 15 minutes in hot water, rinsed and allowed to dry
1/2 medium white onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
1/2 can huitlacoche, or chopped, fresh-cut huitlacoche from two ears of corn
2 cups hot chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup fresh corn kernels (optional)
salt to taste


Sauté the rice, onion and garlic in the hot oil until the rice is golden. Add the huitlacoche and cook until the juices that run out evaporate. Stir in the hot broth and the corn, if using, plus salt to taste, lower heat and cook, covered, until the liquid is absorbed.

Good Luck!

Huitlacoche on Foodista

No comments: