Friday, July 22, 2011

Try the smut soup



Huitlacoche soup will be a hit at your next dinner party as long as you stick to its original name derived from Nahuatl, a Mexican indigenous language. American corn growers call huitlacoche, a fungus that develops in some ears of corn, "corn smut" and treat it as a pest. Other folk call it "corn fungus", which hardly makes it any more appetizing. Some geek at Wikipedia felt compelled to trace the Nahuatl etymology of huitlacoche and made things much, much worse: Apparently it means something like "hibernating excrement."

Whatever. Huitlacoche is considered a delicacy by some gastronomes, and has been rechristened  "Mexican truffles." It bursts out of the tip of some ears of corn and at close inspection looks like overgrown or mutant kernels which when crushed are jet black. Like so many delicacies, you wonder what possessed someone to try it for the first time.

[Somewhere in Central Mexico, ca. 1510:

"Gee, María, why don't we try the unappetizing growth on this here ear of corn."


"Great idea, José, I'll mix in some chiles and stuff tacos with it. You go first, though, and if you croak I'll feed it to some goddamn Spaniard."]

Maybe the Nahuatl people were very hungry or adventurous. Maybe many of them died from eating all sorts of weird things before discovering huitlacoche. Then again truffles also look pretty disgusting-- and you need a French pig to find some varieties--yet are considered the ultimate in culinary sophistication.

Despite its status as a Mexican delicacy, we've never seen it on the menus of San Miguel restaurants except for Don Félix Tacos which in our opinion is the best and most authentic Mexican joint here. It's located in a residential area at the edge of town, opens only on weekends and is staffed with uncles, aunts, cousins and even a 10-year-old nephew of Don Félix.

The latter is the most recent addition to the crew. Emilio has his own starched white waiter's jacket with his name embroidered on it, and his brown eyes are almost as big as his smile. Probably half the gringo customers offer to adopt Emilio but he doesn't have any time for cutesy-poo stunts. He is all business as he brings the appetizers on a tray that next to him looks as large as a flying saucer, and later tries to haul away some of the dirty dishes one at a time. The last time we ate at Don Félix, Emilio was battling to uncork a wine bottle; an uncle had to finish the job. When Emilio gets tired or bored he  discreetly retires to the kitchen and sits on a ledge under the sink.

For me their best dish is an assortment of seven different tacos, stuffed among other things with chicken; a spicy Spanish sausage called chistorra; a couple of types of meat and usually at one end of the plate, a taco filled with huitlacoche. I've had the huitlacoche a few times and found it tasty, though hardly something that would make you lean back and pat your stomach in delight.

In our garden this year we planted two types of corn. One was supposedly a Mexican sweet corn that turned out to be gooey, not too sweet and inedible. Our gardener Félix took a couple of ears to his family and they agreed it was awful.

The second type of corn seeds came from an American friend and it turned out quite good, except half the ears so far have been filled with huitlacoche.

Last time we visited Don Félix we brought a plastic bag with huitlacoche to ask how to cook it, something the owner was delighted to explain--and then some--though all his recipes were of the on-the-fly variety, as in a handful of this, a chunk of that plus chiles and onions. A woman in the kitchen separated and washed the large, mushy huitlacoche kernels for us.

So on to Google to find a recipe with more precise measurements and instructions than Don Félix' family concoction. Stew tried it and the result was a deep-black, thick and delicious soup. Though the recipe said to use fresh or frozen huitlacoche, we've never seen the latter.

So tell your guests it's Mexican truffle and corn soup and they'll be impressed. If someone asks where it comes from, play dumb and by all means don't get it into the fungus or excrement part of this story.

HUITLACOCHE is pronounced something like "weet-tla-coach-aye." And while you're at it, remember that the singular of "tamales" is "tamal," not "tamalee"; and that the "h" in "habanero" is silent, so it sounds like "ah-bah-nay-roh" not HAH-banero. Your guests will be either impressed or annoyed by your culinary and linguistic pedantry.


                                                                     *****


RECIPE for Tomato and Huitlacoche Soup. ("The Mushroom Lover's Cookbook and Primer" by Amy Farges)

1/2 cup dried black beans soaked or 1 1/2 cups of drained canned black beans
6 cups of light chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup shredded cooked chicken meat
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1/2 cup fresh or canned tomato puree
4 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced, green and white parts kept separate
1 large Anaheim chile, with or without seeds, or other chile, stemmed and thinly sliced. Stew used           poblano chiles, which are smoky-tasting and not too hot
1/2 cup (2 oz) of huitlacoche
1 tbsp of olive oil
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
Kosher or sea salt, freshly ground black pepper

1. Place beans in small saucepan of simmering water. Cook uncovered until tender, about 45 minutes. Add hot water to keep the beans submerged. Drain.
2. Combine the chicken stock, meat, corn, tomato puree, whites of scallion, chiles and beans in a medium-size saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.
3. Stir in the huitlacoche. Add the cilantro, lime juice and scallion greens, and simmer for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve hot with some tortilla strips over the soup.


9 comments:

  1. Canned huitlacoche is also widely available. If you're using that, rinsing it off before using removes that canned flavor. A can of huitlacoche can make the perfect hostess gift or souvenir for someone headed to a place like New Hampshire where weird stuff can perk up ordinary lives.

    In addition to using huitlacoche as a taco filling, it's also great as a crepe filling or over pasta. Or as a filling for chicken breast, creating pollo Azteca. There is a restaurant in Morelia which features filet served with huitlacoche sauced, which has been blended to a smooth, black, ‘shroomy consistency.

    My basic method for preparing huitlacoche is to roughly chop it into fingertip-sized pieces. Sauté a little onion in oil (preferably olive, but even that doesn't matter). Decide if you need to stretch the quantity by adding chiles, tomato, or cooked chicken. Toss in the huitlacoche, cooking until done and then adding whatever other seasonings, including the cilantro, that inspire you.

    Because fresh huitlacoche is not inexpensive, treat it like okra or eggplant, reserving it for worthy people who really like it.

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  2. One of absolutely favorite dishes used to be served by LaCapilla restaurant when it was open. It was huitlacoche crepes. Yummy.

    In fact when I brought a culinary group down on a tour, there first meal was pre-planned and the crepes were the appetizer. I didn't tell them what it was until they raved about it. Then I did........mixed attitudes after that.

    I had not thought of making soup from the huitlacoche.

    Thanks for posting the photos. I had never seen it still in the husks.

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  3. hi al,

    i just discovered your blog and really enjoyed reading your post. i guess steve must have recently added it to his blogroll since you recently met.

    i`m a cuban/american living in nagoya, japan as of last night. when steve mentioned you in his blog after you all ate at billie`s, i asked him if you were born in cuba but he didn`t know. my family immigrated to the states in sept. of 62, right before my 8th birthday and the cuban missile crisis. we were very lucky to get out when we did.

    i look forward to reading your blog. when i have time i`ll read some of your previous posts.

    cuidate,

    teresa

    ReplyDelete
  4. Teresa: I also came from Cuba in 1962 (February) though I came alone and was a little older (14). I'll contact you as soon as I get your e-mail from Steve (or you if you read this before).

    Conservate,

    alfredo

    ReplyDelete
  5. hi al,

    nice hearing back from you. did you go to the states on one of the daily pan am flights? those things sure were loud. funny, i had a friend in college who is also from cuba. we never discussed how we got to the states. we saw each other a few years ago for the first time since graudating in 77. we got to talking about how we came to the states and lo and behold, we realized we came on the same flight.

    did your family get you out early so you wouldn`t have to join castro`s army? that`s what my brother did. he left a year before us-he was 16.

    my e-mail address is: tafreeburn@netscape.com

    i would enjoy hearing from you. i`m a little slow at answering e-mails these days since i have so many from friends back home, but i will get back to you.

    looking forward to hearing from you.

    take care,

    teresa

    ReplyDelete
  6. p.s. you are on steve`s blog roll after all. i couldn`t find it because you hadn`t posted in a few days and it doesn`t help that i was looking for alcuban :~)

    teresa

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hola Al,

    I just discovered your blog from Steve's. Quite interesting. I've enjoyed both your posts on the small churches and now on huitlacoche. I've always enjoyed the latter when in Mexico, but knew little more than that it was a corn fungus. I had never had it in the USA, only learning of it on my travels in Mexico. But I've since discovered a very authentic Mexican restaurant near here which serves it when they can get it. They also serve nopal and other authentic goodies that are hard to find here NOB.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where people are always surprised to hear that in Mexico, chicken soup is on nearly every menu.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I wasn't too pleased with the huitlacoche soup I made a few years ago. It tasted kind of like dirt.

    A few days later, I reheated the non soup leftovers, but added more chiles, garlic, onion and tomato and it wasn't bad.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

    ReplyDelete