With the onset of the long rainy season, Mexican cooks start looking forward to the appearance of the so-called truffle of Mexico. It is smooth and velvety to the touch, soft and spongy, dark to silver grey in colour and creepy beyond description. My spine inevitably tingles whenever I see huitlacoche and although in adulthood I have come to appreciate its gastronomic talents, I still find it very difficult to have any kind of physical contact with it.
In English, huitlacoche is very inelegantly known as corn smut and considered a disease. In Mexico however, it is a true culinary treat and the fungus which erupts from the corn kernels and swells into the sinister lobes is highly prized. The flavour is hopelessly difficult to describe – distinctive, damp and delicate, very woodsy, utterly delicious in an elusive way, and the aroma which wafts from the pan is mysterious and evocative, full of promise, even uplifting - so long as you keep your eyes averted from the thick, shiny black blood which oozes out as it cooks!
Fresh huitlacoche is virtually impossible to find outside Mexico, but the tinned variety is very acceptable and far easier to deal with, despite the murky colour – it works very well in sauces, light stews and scrambled eggs for instance. The subtle taste of the Mexican corn smut is best partnered by the opulence of thick cream or cheese rather than a bold salsa which would overpower it, and when I make the quesadillas below, I use no other accompaniment than a good spoonful of crème fraîche to provide moisture and richness.
Huitlacoche quesadillas – Quesadillas de huitlacoche
15 ml/1 tbsp olive oil
125 g/4 1/2 oz onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely sliced
1 green or red chilli, deseeded and finely sliced
2.5 ml/1/2 tsp dried epazote
1 x 215 g/7 1/2 oz tin/can huitlacoche – San Miguel is a good brand
100 g/4 oz Oaxaca cheese or mozzarella
25 g/1 oz freshly grated Parmesan cheese
4 corn tortillas
Oil for frying
Crème fraîche, to serve (optional)
15 ml/1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander/cilantro
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a large frying pan, add the onions, garlic, chilli, epazote and some seasoning, and cook over medium heat, stirring regularly, until it just starts to colour, about 10 minutes.
Stir in the huitlacoche, turn the heat right down, and simmer until most of the moisture has evaporated, about 15 minutes.
Coarsely grate the Oaxaca or mozzarella cheese and stir it into the huitlacoche along with the Parmesan. Check the seasoning.
Lay the tortillas out on a work surface and divide the huitlacoche mixture between them. Fold each tortilla into a half-moon shape, making sure the filling is totally covered, and press it down gently with a spatula.
Heat some oil in a heavy, preferably non-stick, frying pan over medium heat and place two quesadillas in it, curved edges facing outwards. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until lightly browned, then carefully flip them over and brown the other side. When they are hot and crusty, lift them with a spatula and place on warm plates. Drizzle with crème fraîche if using and sprinkle with coriander.
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