Huitlacoche quesadillas

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
  1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat.
  2. Sautee onion and garlic until tender but not brown.
  3. Add huitlacoche, poblano strips, and epazote and cook about 10 minutes. Salt to taste.
  4. Heat an oiled griddle over medium heat.
  5. Place tortillas on griddle and divide huitlacoche mixture evenly among them, placing on one side of tortilla.
  6. Place cheese on huitlacoche. Fold tortilla in half.
  7. 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.

Description unavailable
Image by CIMMYT via Flickr

More on huitlacoche:

In Mexico, Tar-Like Fungus Considered Delicacy (NPR)

Corn Smut (Wikipedia)

Huitlacoche (Gourmet Sleuth)

Huitlacoche: Cornell Mushroom Blog (Cornell University)

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Frijoles negros — black beans with epazote, whole and refried

A Classic Mexican Recipe
Easy Recipe for Frijoles Refritos Negros — Refried Black Beans
Seasoned with Epazote

For such a basic, simple food, a bowl of black beans, known to some as turtle beans, can be so satisfying, warming the tummy and the soul. A simmering pot of beans means home and hearth to me. Left-over beans can later reappear as refried beans, refritos. Mexicans love beans with every meal, from breakfast to dinner. FrijolesRefritos are often served with a plate of Huevos Rancheros or Huevos Mexicanos. For dinner, beans are a course unto themselves, served in small earthenware dishes in their broth before dessert makes its appearance. 

The variety of beans available here is awesome. Peruano, flor de may, bayo, negro. Flor de junio, ayacote y pinto. The litany is starting to sound like a line from a song. It could be set to music, no pun intended. The weather has been cloudy and cool lately, really wonderful. The unexpected coolness helps us temporarily forget the sear of summer. Northerners would laugh to hear me call today’s weather cool at all, but everything is relative, right? A pot of beans bubbling on the stove helps me hold to the illusion that this is really winter.

Simple Black Beans

  • 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) black beans
  • 2 quarts  (2 liters) hot water
  • 1/4  onion, sliced or chopped
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 2 sprigs of fresh epazote, if available
  • Prepare the beans by first picking through them to remove any bits of dirt, plant matter or little stones. Using a colander, rinse under running water.
  • When clean and rinsed, put the beans in a large pan or dish to soak in very warm water for 18 hours. This removes much of the phytic acid* which interferes with the absorption of calcium and other minerals.
  • Cook the beans until almost tender, about two hours or so.
  • Just before the beans are done, add about two teaspoons of salt or to taste, and fresh epazote if you are fortunate enough to find this herb. Continue cooking until beans are tender. Eat as is with the bean broth, or mash into refritos.

Epazote, also known in English as wormseed or Mexican tea, is mostly found in central and southern Mexico, and is used to season beans, quesadillas and soups. It can also be found in the eastern U.S., where it is considered a bothersome weed. I have read that it grows in Central Park in New York City.

Years ago, while traveling across Mexico, we stopped at a large camp along a river to park our travel trailer for a week’s stay. Also staying there were a couple of manual laborers who worked for the park’s owner.  Every morning, they would cook a pot of beans. When the beans were tender, they would continue to cook them until the beans were almost completely dry. In this form, they stayed fresh until the workers returned in the afternoon. They would then add water to rehydrate the beans for their meal. Such is the ingenuity of  people who live without refrigeration.

Refritos or Refried Beans

  • 4 cups cooked black beans, including broth
  • 4-6 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped onion
  • dry, crumbly cheese, such as cotija seco or ranchero seco
  1. Heat oil in a skillet and cook onion until starting to turn golden brown.
  2. Add cooked beans and mash beans with a potato masher while cooking over medium heat. Leave some pieces of bean for texture.
  3. When the beans begin to dry out along the edges and are heated thoroughly, turn out onto a plate and garnish with a dry, salty cheese, such as queso añejo or queso seco.

Frijoles refritos can be used as a filling for quesadillas or as a topping for tostadas. Refrito means “very well fried”, not fried again.


To soak the beans for 18 hours, I put them in a stainless steel bowl of hot water, covered it with a plate, wrapped the bowl in a towel, and set it in a cardboard box covered with another towel. This maintained the water temperature, with my rewarming the  bowl of beans and water one time, before I went to bed.

I use a rustic, low-fired earthenware bean pot, but you can use any heavy pot or a pressure cooker.  Mexican cooks claim the beans taste much better when cooked in earthenware. I like to think that by using one, I add my name to a long roster of traditional cooks, plus, doesn’t this pot look elegant?

Fresh lard, prized by Mexican cooks for the flavor it imparts, is the fat of choice for making refritos. While we may blanch at this, being thoroughly indoctrinated against all things with animal fat, lard does add an incomparable taste.  As I do not eat pork, I used olive oil for my refritos, and they were very good.

*To learn more about removing phytic acid from beans and grains, read how to soak beans.


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