Huitlacoche, the wonderful corn fungus of Mexico, has made its appearance in the supermercados. At 166 pesos a kilo, it isn’t cheap, but it is worth every peso, and compared to the price of truffles, it has to be a bargain. With a taste all its own, it is hard to describe, but comparing it to a rich mushroom-corn flavor would be the closest. If you like mushrooms, you will love huitlacoche. The only problem is that if you aren’t in Mexico in August and September, you will have to add the price of airfare to the cost. Sometimes Mexican grocery stores in the U.S. carry canned Herdez huitlacoche, which I’ve read is a good substitute for the real thing, but I’ve never tried it.
Fresh huitlacoche is silver-gray, turning inky black when cooked. See those large pieces in the photo? Those are individual corn kernels, enlarged and deformed by the fungi.
Corn farmers in Iowa and Nebraska know this strain of fungus (Ustilago maydis) well and must lose thousands of dollars destroying smut infested corn, while Mexicans are happily eating the same fungus and consider it a delicacy.
Many of the foods we eat in Mexico today that have been eaten since pre-Columbian times still bear their ancient names. Such is huitlacoche (also spelled cuitlacoche). Derived from the Nahuatil language, one explanation is that it is named after their word for “raven’s excrement”, no doubt because of its appearance and color. Would you like a couple of raven’s excrement quesadillas? They are delicious.
Huitlacoche Quesadillas makes 4
- 2 tablespoons mild vegetable oil, plus oil for griddle
- 1/2 lb. (227 grams) fresh huitlacoche, cut off the cobs and coarsely chopped
- 1/2 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 poblano chile, roasted, peeled and cut into strips
- 2 sprigs epazote, thinly sliced (sorry, there is no substitute for this unique herb)
- salt to taste
- 4 corn or flour tortillas
- 3/4 cup thinly sliced cheese, such as queso Oaxaca or fresco or Monterrey Jack
- Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat.
- Sautee onion and garlic until tender but not brown.
- Add huitlacoche, poblano strips, and epazote and cook about 10 minutes. Salt to taste.
- Heat an oiled griddle over medium heat.
- Place tortillas on griddle and divide huitlacoche mixture evenly among them, placing on one side of tortilla.
- Place cheese on huitlacoche. Fold tortilla in half.
- Cook for about 2-3 minutes per side, or until cheese is melted and tortilla is starting to brown.
If you can’t find huitlacoche where you live mushrooms are a good substitute, especially portobello mushrooms with their stronger flavor.
Epazote is a wonderful herb that belies description. With its stinky aroma and bitter taste, it adds a certain flavor to a pot of beans and to quesadillas that is distinctly Mexican. There is no other herb to use in its place, another reason to buy a plane ticket for Mexico.
Cold, left-over quesadillas make great snacks. Make extra.
More on huitlacoche:
Corn Smut (Wikipedia)
Huitlacoche (Gourmet Sleuth)
Huitlacoche: Cornell Mushroom Blog (Cornell University)