Taste of Tucson: Try Esquites, Mexican Corn Salad | Entertainment

Robin Mather special for the Arizona Daily Star

It used to be said that to cook perfect sweet corn, you had to boil the water before picking the corn, then peel those cobs as you race home.

This is because the sweet corn kernels of years past had sugars that quickly turned into starch, resulting in heavy and gooey corn rather than sweet and crispy.

However, few of us today have the pleasure of living next to a field of sweet corn. Luckily for us, corn breeders have developed sweet corn varieties that retain their sugars for a long time. Some of the ears you see at the market were picked weeks ago and shipped miles and miles to reach your grocery store.

If you’re a gardener, you’ll know these new varieties by name — they carry descriptors like “enhanced sweet (SE)” or “super sweet.”

Of course, if you buy sweet corn at the farmer’s market, those cobs were probably picked in a day or two. But the work of corn breeders means you have a window of time to preserve that corn before you cook it without loss of texture or flavor.

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In Tucson, we love elotes, Mexican-style grilled corn on the cob. It’s not hard to do if you have the grill on for something else, but your homemade corn will probably never scratch that itch. This is because Mexican corn is not as sweet as ours and is more starchy to start with. It can withstand long cooking to char the sugars, while our sweet corn will suffer. Very high sugar varieties will quickly go from arctic char to charring, but the corn will not be fully cooked.

If you take the kernels from the ears and toast them in a pan, you’ll get a dish that very closely mimics the flavor profile of elotes.

The salad version is called esquites, and it’s a godsend for summer barbecues and potlucks.

A few essentials for this recipe:

Use a large skillet for this – I reach my 12 inches when making popsicles – because you want as much corn as possible in contact with the pan. This is for maximum shading and more thorough cooking.

Heat this large skillet until nice and hot – not smoking, but fiery. Add the oil to the skillet when hot, let the oil start to shimmer, then add the corn. Your instinct may be to stir the corn often to keep it from burning, but in this case we actually want some kernels to char. So leave him alone as much as your conscience can tolerate.

You shouldn’t have trouble finding Cotija cheese here in town, but I’ve had some really good versions using feta or parmesan-reggiano as a substitute in a pinch. Cream should also be easy to find, but if you don’t feel like rushing to the store for just one ingredient, mix some yogurt or sour cream with mayonnaise, squeeze in a generous amount of lime juice and continue from there.

Tucson locals know the delight of elotes, Mexican grilled corn on the cob covered in cream and mayonnaise, then sprinkled with chili powder and Cotija cheese. A baptism of lemon juice just before eating is a must. This salad mimics those flavors in a slightly easier-to-eat form. Use a large skillet to ensure maximum corn-to-heat ratio.

6 cups fresh corn kernels (6 to 7 cobs of fresh corn)

Kosher salt and black pepper

1 cup Mexican cream or sour cream

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, plus more for garnish

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

4 ounces Cotija cheese, about 1 cup

Chipotle pepper powder, hot pepper powder or cayenne pepper, for sprinkling

4 limes, cut into wedges, for serving

In a large cast iron or heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add corn, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring once or twice, until corn is charred and softened, 8 to 10 minutes. You can hear some kernels popping. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let sit for two to five minutes. This helps the corn pick up more char and smoky flavor, and steaming at the end ensures the corn is cooked through.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the mayonnaise, cream, cilantro and lime juice; Season with salt and pepper. Reserve 1/4 cup sauce.

Add the seared corn to the large bowl, season with salt and pepper and toss to coat well. Transfer to a large serving platter, spreading the corn mixture into an even layer. Drizzle with reserved sauce and sprinkle with Cotija and chili powder. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve with lime wedges.

About Marco C. Nichols

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