Recipes

When life gives you corn smut, make huitlacoche soup

When life gives you corn smut, make huitlacoche soup thumbnail

Consumer psychology is a fascinating area. Something as simple as a name can make or break our perception of a food item or consumer product.

For example, take the Patagonian toothfish. Nobody in the US would ever want to eat a “toothfish.” Never mind that the meat of the fish is sweet, white and quite delicious.  The name toothfish evokes an image of a scary dinosaur-like monster swimming menacingly in the shadowy depths of the ocean, waiting to grab our legs and pull us down to our doom. This is not something most folks would want to put on their dinner plates.

Tonight's special is toothfish. Would you care for some?

Tonight’s special is toothfish. Would you care for some?

What do you do if your an American toothfish salesman? In 1977, fish wholesaler Lee Lantz came up with a great idea to increase consumer demand for the unpopular fish. He renamed the toothfish “Chilean Sea Bass.” After rebranding (without the fish’s consent, mind you), consumer demand took off. In fact, from the 1990s until relatively recently, the combination of global demand, illegal fishing, and poor conservation management, decimated populations of the now-popular gourmet fish. Thankfully, that’s started to change, but would overfishing have been a problem in the first place if the name toothfish had never been changed? Probably not.

On the Menu: Toothfish and Corn Smut

Similar phenomena happen elsewhere in the culinary world as well. Corn/maize which is native to North and Central America is commonly infected by a fungal pathogen (Ustilago maydis) that Americans call “corn smut.” American farmers hate it, and use various methods to prevent it in their fields, ranging from fungicides to planting resistant corn varieties. After all, when you’re trying to sell corn to a commodities broker or even direct-to-consumer at the local farmers market, corn that looks like it was attacked by an alien zombie isn’t going to be too popular.

However, ever since native populations domesticated maize thousands of years ago, corn smut was a welcome sight to those indigenous groups, who–from the Aztecs to the Hopi–considered it a delicacy. Corn smut is still a welcome sight in Mexico, where it’s called huitlacoche (pronounced wee-tala-coach-a) and sold at market for far more than a normal ear of corn would fetch.

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We accidentally grew Mexican truffles in our garden! Doesn't that sound better than

We accidentally grew Mexican truffles in our garden! Doesn’t that sound better than “corn smut”?

What should huitlacoche be called in the US to generate consumer interest amongst English speakers? Maybe “Mexican truffles,” as some are trying to rebrand it. Sure, these mushrooms are not actually truffles, but Chilean sea bass is not an actual bass. Since when has honesty been requisite in our food labeling? Sheesh.

You can find huitlacoche/Mexican truffles in most Mexican/Latino grocers, but it’s also starting to become a big trend amongst fancy American chefs and their patrons. Apparently, we have Josefina Howard, famed chef and owner of Rosa Mexicano in New York, to thank for sparking this trend. She served a meal at the James Beard House featuring dishes made from huitlacoche that became legendary.

How to Accidentally Grow Mexican Truffles or Huitlacoche or Corn Smut

Whatever you want to call it, corn smut is actually pretty easy to grow. Since it’s technically a pathogen, you can’t order spores to inoculate your corn with. Corn farmers living near you wouldn’t be happy.

However, since maize/corn and teosinte (corn’s wild ancestor) have been growing throughout the Americas virtually forever, the fungus is quite abundant in our soils and spores are likely always flying about on wet summer days looking for a host.

Once it finds a host, it infects all parts of the corn plant. We’ve not only seen smut growing on the corn ears and kernels, but also on the tassels and tassel internode from whence the tassels emerge.

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This week, while preparing our gardens for the arrival of the remnants of Hurricane Irma, the Tyrant squealed with delight, “We’ve got corn smut!”

For whatever reason, only one ear in a patch of perhaps 20 plants visibly displayed corn smut. We harvested the immature corn ear and brought it inside to prepare for an appetizer.

How to Prepare Corn Smut

Unlike other wild mushrooms that we eat, corn smut is eaten even when it’s quite mature and sporing out. Parts of it may still be solid and other parts might be emitting black spores.

Carefully remove the husk and silk from the ear/s, and then cut the kernels and smut off of the ear with a sharp knife. Many of the larger, more infected kernels pulled right off by hand, so I removed those before removing all the other goodies from the cob with a knife.

Some of the primary garden-fresh ingredients for huitlacoche soup, clockwise: pipicha (herb), squash flowers, onions, chile pepper, hardneck garlic.

Some of the primary garden-fresh ingredients for huitlacoche soup, clockwise: pipicha (herb), squash flowers, onions, chile pepper, hardneck garlic.

Once removed, dice the smut to ready it for cooking.

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Most recipes call for quite a bit of smut (ok, call it Mexican truffles if you’re getting tired of the word “smut”), at least one pound. With only a single ear of corn smut (about 3/4 cup prepared), what the heck could we do?

What does huitlacoche taste like? It’s flavor is accurately described as all of the following: earthy, woody, smoky, sweet, pungent, savory, and like sweet corn mixed with really good mushrooms. Typically, smut is made into sauces or added as a flavoring to quesadillas, but we already had other things planned for dinner. .

Hmm, what could we make that would give us and our familial hurricane refugees staying with us an adequate taste of this delicacy? Given the ingredients in the kitchen and garden, we decided to put together a new recipe: Huitlacoche soup.

Recipe: Huitlacoche Soup 

huitlacoche soup recipe, corn smut, mexican truffles

Huitlacoche Soup
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Serves: 4 small appetizer-sized cups of soup
Ingredients
  • ¾ cup huitlacoche and corn
  • 4 cups milk
  • ½ cup diced onion
  • 1 cup diced pumpkin/squash flower
  • 4 diced garlic cloves
  • 1 diced chile pepper
  • ¼ cup colby-jack cheese
  • 2 tablespoons diced *pipicha + fresh sprigs to garnish soup (*cilantro or papalo can be used as substitute)
  • 2 teaspoons pink Himalayan sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter or bacon grease
Instructions
  1. Add butter to saucepan on medium heat. Once melted, add onions and one teaspoon salt. Stir onions until they become translucent, then add diced garlic, diced chile pepper, and corn/huitlacoche mix. Stir until garlic begins to brown.
  2. Add milk and pumpkin/squash flower. Bring to a simmer. Add diced pipicha and blend until smooth with an immersion blender. Continue to simmer for 2-3 minutes, adding up to another teaspoon of salt to taste. If you don't have an immersion blender (see link below recipe for the immersion blender we recommend), you'll want to finish cooking the soup, then blend it in a food processor before serving.
  3. Ladle/pour soup into bowls or cups. Garnish with shredded colby-jack cheese and pipicha sprigs (use cilantro as a substitute). Serve warm and enjoy the rich, earthy flavor!
Savory, earthy, delicious: a warm bowl of huitlacoche soup.

Savory, earthy, delicious: a warm bowl of huitlacoche soup.

If you’re ever lucky enough to have life give you corn smut in your corn patch, make huitlacoche soup (or call it Mexican truffle soup if you want to be extra fancy)!

Recommended Items From This Article

  • Huitlacoche – Can’t get your hands on any huitlacoche but itching to give it a try? You can have a can or jar delivered to your door.
  • Pipicha seeds – If you like cilantro (people either love it or hate it) you’ll probably love pipicha even more. It’s like a more intense cilantro with notes of citrus included. You can buy pipicha seeds here.
  • Immersion blender – Immersion blenders make recipes like this SOOO much easier than using a food processor. We highly recommend this one.
  • The ultimate Mexican cookbook – Remember the lady we told you made huitlacoche popular in the US (Josefina Howard, chef and owner of Rosa Mexicano in NYC)? Well, she’s got an authentic Mexican cookbook that you need to get.

KIGI,



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