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.


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