In season: huitlacoche

“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” This line from Jonathan Swift could be applied to a range of things we now find delicious, including huitlacoche, a fungus that feeds on fresh corn in the field. Huitlacoche, also called “corn smut,” infects corn kernels producing a large puffy white thing that looks like a marshmallow, according to Liz Porter of Buckeye Creek Farm in Woodstock.

Porter and her husband Randall grow heirloom corn, a variety that’s been grown for many years in the Ellijay area. They grind that corn for grits and cornmeal they sells to restaurants and at the Thursday afternoon Sweet Apple Farmers Market in Roswell.

One year, Porter and her farm manager Nelson Astuidillo were walking through the corn fields when they ran across an infected ear. “I had no idea what it was. Nelson had heard of it but had never tasted it. We tried it right there and we both spit it out,” she recalls.

It was several years later before Eddie Hernandez, of Taqueria del Sol fame, found out she had it in her fields and convinced her it was a delicacy. “Richard Blais was my first customer when I took some over to Mark Nanna at Flip Burger on Howell Mill. But it wasn’t something they could use after all.” But Hernandez soon became a regular customer for huitlacoche and Hector Santiago followed not long after.

“We don’t have much so it’s really not something we can take to a farmers market. It’s very perishable and when we have it, we know we have chefs that want it. And it can look pretty odd to most customers.”

Odd indeed. “The growth starts off a sort of bluish green and then turns white with black spores inside. As it ripens it begins to liquefy and then gets sort of slimy looking. Finally it dries and becomes powdery,” she says.

Huitlacoche grows on both sweet corn and field corn but needs moisture to thrive. To find it, the farmer has to walk the fields looking at each cob.

Porter laughs when she says, “If you want huitlacoche, look for a corn maze. You have to get lost in the corn to find it.”

Kevin Maxey’s Huitlacoche, Poblano Chile and Oaxaca Cheese Quesadillas

Chef Kevin Maxey of Superica at the Krog Street Market is a native East Texan, comfortable from birth in the cuisine of Mexico. Still, it was 1997 before he first ate huitlacoche at Union Pacific in New York City when Rocco DiSpirto was the chef. “Huitlacoche has an elegant silky texture and mild corn flavor. It goes great with garlic, corn and epazote, which would be a nice addition to the filling of this quesadilla.”

Maxey’s recipe is for fresh masa quesadillas. Fresh masa is available at the Chicago Supermarket on Buford Highway. Maxey suggests you tell them it’s for tortillas and ask them to grind it twice for the right texture. “You can also substitute two cups instant corn masa flour, such as Maseca, mixed with 1 3/4 cups water.” Maseca is widely available at most grocery stores. The filling can be used with fresh corn tortillas as well.

Oaxaca cheese is a Mexican cheese that pulls into strings. It’s also widely available at grocery stores but Maxey says mozzarella would be an acceptable substitute.

No huitlacoche on hand? This filling is also delicious when made with fresh corn kernels.

2 large poblanos

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup finely chopped white onion

1 teaspoon minced garlic

2 cups fresh huitlacoche cut from the cob, rinsed, dried and chopped

Sea salt

8 ounces Oaxaca cheese, shredded

1 pound fresh masa, room temperature

Canola oil for frying

Salsa or Avocado Salsa Verde (see recipe)

Place poblanos on the open flame of a gas oven or under a broiler. Turn them every two or three minutes and continue cooking until the peppers are charred and blistered all over. Transfer them to a plastic bag, close it tightly and let them sweat for 10 to 20 minutes. Working under a thin stream of cold water, peel off each pepper’s skin, make a slit down each side to remove and discard the seeds and veins, and remove and discard the stem. Cut the peppers into 1/2-inch-wide strips or squares. Set aside.

In a medium skillet, heat butter over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until softened and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the prepared poblanos, the huitlacoche and salt to taste. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until the mixture begins to dry out. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

If using the fresh masa, knead to soften. (If using the dry masa, mix the Maseca with the water and knead for a couple minutes until soft.) Make 1-inch balls and flatten between plastic rounds on a tortilla press or using a rolling pin. Place 1 tablespoon of the cheese and 2 tablespoons of the filling at the center of the dough disk and, leaving it in the plastic, fold it over in half and press the edges to seal. Repeat to form the rest of the quesadillas, using all the dough and filling.

In a deep, large skillet, add enough oil to have 1-inch depth and heat over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add a few quesadillas at a time to the hot oil, making sure to not crowd the skillet. Cook for 2 to 4 minutes per side or until golden brown and crisp. Transfer with a slotted spoon to the paper-towel-lined platter to drain.

If you prefer to pan fry the quesadillas, place stuffed masa on an already hot comal, griddle or skillet, and cook until the cheese has melted and the tortilla has begun to lightly crisp, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Serve hot, with the salsa of your choice, or Avocado Salsa Verde. Makes: 16

Per quesadilla: 230 calories (percent of calories from fat, 43), 7 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 11 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 16 milligrams cholesterol, 79 milligrams sodium.

Avocado Salsa Verde

10 tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and quartered

2 jalapeno peppers, stemmed and roughly chopped

1/4 small white onion, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic

1 avocado, halved, pitted, and peeled

1/2 cup cilantro leaves

Juice of 1 lime

Kosher salt

In the jar of a blender, combine tomatillos, jalapenos, onion and garlic. Pulse until vegetables break down and mixture is still slightly chunky. Add avocado, cilantro, lime and salt and continue to pulse until salsa is blended and creamy but still has some texture. Taste for seasoning. Pour into a serving bowl, and refrigerate until ready to use. Makes: 2 cups

Per 2-tablespoon serving: 34 calories (percent of calories from fat, 53), 1 gram protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 2 grams fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 11 milligrams sodium.

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