Last year, I had the good fortune to attend a cooking class at the French Culinary Institute by none other than Aarón Sanchez (Paladar, Mixx). It was one of those transcendent culinary experiences where I pushed my boundaries of what's "good to eat" way back. Chef Sanchez served up two things that I otherwise might be afraid to try: corn smut and worms. True, he did give everyone a shot of artisanal mescal, but I was awestruck by the dishes he made. They were a combination of French technique, Mexican flair, and truly fantastic flavor combinations. After a year and a half, the thing I remember most vividly about that class -- besides being outrageously thirsty by the end of the four and a half hour demonstration -- was his huitlacoche soup.
Huitlacoche is rendered into english rather ingloriously as corn smut. It's the result of Ustilago maydis, which is present wherever corn is grown. The end result, the part that cooks are interested in, is greatly enlarged kernels. The taste is an amalgamation of mushroom and corn.
Why are you looking at me like that? Yes, it's safe to eat. The Aztecs ate it, and Mexicans have been eating it continuously ever since. Huitlacoche has always been sold at a higher price than sweet corn, being considered a delicacy. Nowadays, many growers infect maize intentionally which has helped to keep the price under control as demand has steadily increased in the United States. Which is an interesting turn of events in itself, since the USDA has spent considerable time and money trying to eradicate corn smut. With the attention of Gourmet magazine, the Slow Food movement, and the James Beard Society, huitlacoche has made some cursory inroads over the last twenty years.
Speaking of the James Beard Society, you might also have heard the term "Mexican truffle" used to denote huitlacoche. This term was coined by the Beard Society in 1989 when they hosted a high profile huitlacoche dinner. The use of this phrase should be avoided, in my opinion since huitlacoche is completely different than a truffle. Truffles are foraged; huitlacoche has been grown since ancient times. Truffles are tubers; huitlacoche grows above ground. A single truffle in a room and can fill it with a pleasant scent; huitlacoche has no scent at all (this is how you can tell if it is huitlacoche and not something that might be poisonous). Truffles grow in the wild; huitlacoche grows among a staple crop (maize is the new world equivalent of wheat in the old world). Truffles are said to invoke passion; huitlacoche doesn't. Because of the almost comical lack of similarities between the two foods, it makes little sense to confuse things by associating one with the other.
Back to my story. I had been so eager to make chef Sanchez's soup that I was prepared to use canned huitlacoche until I read that Rick Bayless compares them to canned asparagus. As luck would have it, the Troy Community Garden in Madison had a farm festival last weekend. The highlight of the festival was, for me, the huitlacoche cooking demonstrations and the sale of fresh huitlacoche for the bargain price of $2 per ear. The huitlacoche was harvested earlier than would have been ideal, but I wasn't about to complain.
That night, I made a batch of sopa de huitlacoche, which is one of the simplest soups to make.
Simply heat some vegetable oil (or home-rendered lard, if you want to be authentic) in a skillet until very hot. Sauté one onion cut into half moons and two cloves of minced garlic until the onion is translucent. Add two roasted Anaheim chiles and one roasted poblano chile, all of which have been peeled and seeded. Cook for three minutes while stirring. Then add the huitlacoche of at least three ears of corn along with fresh epazote or cilantro. Reduce heat to medium and allow to simmer for five minutes.
Blend with a little chicken stock (about three cups) to create a smooth puree that has a thin consistency. Stir in half a cup of heavy cream, and bring to a boil. Simmer for five minutes before serving hot.
What stuck chef Sanchez's huitlacoche soup in my mind was the unique flavor experience of it all. Initially, you tasted an earthy-mushroom-corn flavor from the huitlacoche before being hit with a gentle dose of heat. I've never had a soup that had multiple ingredients mixed together that you still experience distinctly. If that's what I was trying to accomplish, I unfortunately fell short.
My version, while good as its own product, didn't have the interesting parade of flavors that I experienced last year in New York. The result was that of a simple corn-mushroom soup, which was still tasty. The huitlacoche was immature, and I used cilantro instead of epazote (the fresh epazote at the store didn't look terribly fresh).
In the end, I think this exact situation is what makes cooking so interesting. An expert can write down exact step-by-step instructions on how to make a dish, but an amateur can still only approximate the results of the expert. It makes every dinner a discovery.
Fortunately, this one turned out to be delicious.
The onion I used was from Tipi Produce (Evansville, WI) and the heavy cream was from the Blue Marble Family Farm (Barneveld, WI).