Market Mondays – Corn

Poor old much maligned corn. It gets a bit of a bad rap these days, seeing as how it ends up in so many processed foods, and how it’s been genetically modified up the yin yang. And then there’s the whole ethanol issue. It’s too bad, because there’s nothing that says summer more than ears of sweet corn with the silks still wet, shucked, kissed with some boiling water and then slathered in butter. Made better only by the accompaniment of a lobster or two… but I digress.

Maize, as corn is properly known (the term “corn” is an English word for any cereal crop), is native to the Americas where it has been used for some 12,000 years. Maize made its way to the eastern seaboard and Canada somewhere around 1000 AD. Native Americans planted corn alongside beans and squash, a system known as the Three Sisters, as the plants were all complimentary, providing shade, nutrients and support in a system that provided optimum growth potential.

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Where Can I Find – Huitlacoche?

For all of our multi-cultural pride, Toronto has a really small Mexican community, and finding authentic Mexican ingredients, despite improvements over the past couple of years, can still be tough. And while fresh tortillas, or quesa fresca can now be found relatively easily, that Mexican delicacy huitlacoche is still hard to track down.

Huitlacoche (kweet-lah-KOH-chay), the Aztec term for “raven’s excrement” is also known as corn smut or Mexican truffle, and is a black fungus that infects individual kernels of corn. The result is a blackish grey, mushroom-like fungus that is cooked up with the fresh kernels and served as a filling for tortillas, tamales and crepes and as an ingredient in soups.

In Canada and the US, corn smut is considered a disease, and as our culture tends to find foods that have gone bad or become infected to be inedible, farmers work diligently to ensure that their crops do not become infected with this fungus because it makes their product unusable for its intended purpose.

In Mexico, the story is much different and crops there are often intentionally infected specifically to create corn smut for human consumption.

Tracking down the stuff as an ingredient was less of a wild goose chase than I figured it would be, but that’s in part because the options are pretty limited. As both Canada and the US work diligently to keep out products that are tainted and could potentially pass on infection to existing crops, fresh huitlacoche is almost unheard of at any time of the year. Despite many chefs singing its praises as a gourmet ingredient,  to obtain it fresh would normally require smuggling it in illegally – although last summer’s rainy weather caused it to occur on corn crops here in Ontario and a few local chefs managed to get some to work with.

Canned versions can be found at a few Latin American groceries in Toronto, however, and Perola’s Supermarket (247 Augusta Avenue) would be my recommended first stop. If they’re out, check the Latin America Emporium (243 Augusta Avenue) a couple of doors down.

When it comes to restaurants serving huitlacoche, the only place I could confirm was El Trompo (277 Augusta Avenue) where they offer it as a filling for their corn quezadilla, although it’s possible it shows up occasionally at places like Rebezos (126 Rogers Road).

It’s not, to be fair, something that is in great demand, and while hardcore fans of Mexican food seem to love it, the account of the canned product on the popular blog Steve, Don’t Eat It! doesn’t make it seem especially appealing. Mind you, I’ve eaten tripe, headcheese and bull’s testicles, so to each their own.

Photo by Stu Spivack.

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