10.21.14 Invasion of the Kernel Snatchers

Huitlacoche 790 xxx
photos by gluttonforlife
This is an overdue post I had promised to write sometime in August, I think, back when our local farmer friend found this rare treat/calamitous pest in his cornfield. I know this corn fungus as huitlacoche, the name (Nahuatl in origin) it goes by in Mexico, where it's considered a delicacy. In the States, it's called "corn smut," and destroyed for being a pathogenic blight on the harvest. Although Ustilago maydis can infect any part of the plant, it tends to enter the ovaries. It then replaces the normal kernels with large, distorted tumors or "galls." Doesn't sound very appetizing, right? But, like many fungi (think truffles), huitlacoche has a savory, sweet, earthy flavor that defies description. In Mexico, it's often eaten in cheesy quesadillas, with creamy scrambled eggs or in a kind of succotash with onions and spicy serrano peppers. I've come up with my own take on it that's delicious whether or not you can get your hands on any huitlacoche. It's available canned but I'm sure so much is lost in the processing. Go fresh or go home.
Kernel 790 xxx
dark soul
The fungal tumors are actually comprised of the super-enlarged cells of the infected plant, fungal threads and blue-black spores. When you break open the bruised-looking grey kernels, you expose the dark, moist innards. As the huitlacoche ages, it dries out. The shell becomes desiccated and the spores inside turn powdery.
Plate 790 xxx
fungal infection
When cooked, the kernels go from pale grey to black and much of the starch of the host-corn dissipates.
Huitlacoche mix 790 xxx
vegetable potpourri
I mixed the fungus with zucchini, fresh corn, onion and jalapeño for a bright, earthy mix of late-summer vegetables. This would be delicious on its own, perhaps eaten with some rice or quinoa, or with a hunk of cornbread. It would also be a great filling for making stuffed roasted tomatoes, or even stuffed baked zucchini.
Tomatillos 790 xxx
little gems
But my vision for it was as a filling for enchiladas, sauced not with a typical red chile sauce, but with a lighter, more piquant tomatillo sauce.
Tomatillo sauce 790 xxx
feeling saucy
You can find my recipe for this quick and versatile sauce here.
Tortillas 790 xxx
tortilla flats
You will not find a flour tortilla in my house. In addition to the gluten issue, they belong in the "library paste" category of foods. (Remember my nutritionist Sally Kravich saying that instead of eating a bagel you might as well shove library paste up your butt?) But it can be really hard to find a high quality corn tortilla in New York City. So many of them are packed with preservatives. The good news is that they freeze well, so whenever I come across some made only with (non-GMO) corn—like the ones from Hot Bread Kitchen—I pop a few dozen in the freezer.
Enchiladas 790 xxx
entomatadas, actually

Enchiladas means "rolled in chile sauce." Entomatadas means "rolled in tomato sauce." So I guess these are the latter, but I didn't want to scare you off with a strange, foreign name. They are just corn tortillas enveloping that huitlacoche mix, napped with tomatillo sauce and baked in the oven with a topping of grated cheese. When you're buying corn at the farmers market next summer, strike up a conversation. Maybe you can sweet-talk your friendly local farmer into saving you a little of his smut. Stranger things have happened.


Vegetable Enchiladas with Tomatillo Sauce

serves 6
  • — 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • — 1 large red onion, peeled and minced
  • — 2 jalapeños, stemmed, seeded and minced
  • — 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • — 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • — 3 medium zucchini, diced (1/2")
  • — 2 cups diced huitlacoche (1/2"), or substitue equal amount of fresh mushrooms
  • — 2 cups fresh corn kernels
  • — 1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • — 6 cups tomatillo sauce (separate recipe in archive)
  • — 18 corn tortillas, plus a few more more practice
  • — 2 cups grated Monterey jack cheese

Preheat the oven to 350º.

In a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat, warm olive oil. Add onion, jalapeño and spices, and cook, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent, about 10 minutes. Add zucchini, huitlacoche or mushrooms and corn, and sauté until vegetables have given up their water and begun to caramelize, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and stir in fresh cilantro. Scrape vegetables into a bowl and set aside.

In a deep medium skillet (with a circumference large enough to accommodate a tortilla), heat the tomatillo sauce over a medium-low flame. When sauce begins to bubble, turn heat down to its lowest setting.

Meanwhile, set up your enchilada assembly line next to the stove. Place a large ovenproof pan, approximately 9x12, at the far end and spread about a cup of warm sauce on the bottom.

Here's what's going to happen next: Using tongs, you're going to dip a tortilla in the warm sauce, flipping it once and removing it quickly. (This takes a little skill, so practice on a couple of tortillas first to get comfortable.) Then you'll lay the sauce-covered tortilla flat on a plate, place about a quarter cup of filling towards one edge and roll it up like a cigar (but not that tightly). Place this enchilada, seam side down, in the prepared ovenproof pan. So your assembly line should go: sauce, plate, vegetables, pan.

Once your set-up is ready, proceed according to the instructions above. Nestle the enchiladas closely together in the pan; tightly packed is fine. Once they're all rolled, pour about 2 cups of the remaining tomatillo sauce over the top. Sprinkle the cheese on top of that and bake in the oven until cheese is melted and everything is bubbling, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve warm, with additional warmed sauce on the side.

These make amazing leftovers and they also freeze well, wrapped tightly. To reheat, place them, covered, in a 325º oven, for about 20 minutes for refrigerated, longer for frozen; remove the cover for the last 15 minutes and sprinkle with a bit more cheese, if desired.

Download recipe  Download Recipe


Beautiful photos...but then again you have an incredible selection of wholesome goodness...viva la wholesome food, especially those tomatillos...my little loves! Happy Nesting.
thefolia on October 21, 2014 at 5:29 pm —
I love Huitlacoche. I had this fantasy of growing corn and innoculating it with spores, but we live within a 5 mile radius of the last existing large farms in Rockland County and my husband thought a law-suit would pend. :)
Tamika on October 21, 2014 at 5:58 pm —
Never had it. But I have always been smut-curious! It looks soooo good.
Julia on October 21, 2014 at 6:51 pm —
The end result looks delightful, but I find the "fungus tumours" some what confronting! Just one of those strange leftover prejudices from growing up in a white bread world! Perhaps one day I will be able to try it and let my tastebuds judge for themselves!
Jo / The Desert Echo on November 5, 2014 at 3:40 am —
I know what you mean, Jo, it really does have an unusual look, but the taste dispels all doubt!
laura on November 5, 2014 at 6:38 am —