On May 23, Chad and I celebrated our 11th year together as a couple. The first years, we had celebratory dinners at the Gay 90’s, Club Metro, or Trattoria Di Vinci, as well as in our home. This year, we were on Isla Mujeres, Mexico, hosting our Yucatan/Mayan culinary vacation called Caribe Gathering.
The traditional gift theme for an 11th anniversary is steel, but Chad already has a piercing. The flower associated with an 11th anniversary is the Morning Glory, but we already have them growing in our backyard at home in St. Paul. Finally, the gemstones associated with an 11th year anniversary are Hematite and Turquoise. Chad doesn’t care for jewelry. The last time we were in Las Vegas, when I wore my turquoise rings, he rolled his eyes, and moved to another slot machine.
So, what to do? What to do?
Isla Mujeres has some marvelous restaurants. Our friend, Steven Broin, owner of Casa Sirena Hotel Boutique, told us to try Zazil Ha (Mayan for “clear water”), a wonderful restaurant in the Na Balam Hotel (Mayan for “house of the jaguar”). The establishment offers Mayan, vegetarian, and fusion cuisine.
Our table was on a landing over the Caribbean waters. The night was beautiful. After ordering drinks, we scanned the menu. I ordered a sumptuous grilled seafood platter. Chad selected one of the specials, chicken breast stuffed with a mixture of greens and corn mushrooms—or huitlacoche (whee-tla-KO-cheh)—cooked slow in a soup, and served with rice.
Fascinated to learn about corn mushrooms (or corn fungus), I asked our server to tell us more about this strange food. He told us that huitlacoche is used in tamales, soups, quesadillas, appetizers, and ice cream. We probably never will see fresh huitlacoche sold outside of Mexico, but we may find cans of it in Mexican markets in the United States.
Huitlacoche, distant relatives of Boletus (puff balls) and Agaricus (button mushrooms), is called a smut (Ustilaginales), because it forms black dusty spore masses that look like soot or smut. I commented that they resemble dark gray drawer lint.
Corn smut is a corn disease caused by the pathogenic plant fungus Ustilago maydis. It can infect any part of the corn plant, but usually enters the ovaries, and replaces the normal kernels of the cobs with large distorted tumors similar to mushrooms. These tumors are made up of enlarged cells of the infected plant, fungal threads, and blue-black spores. Mature spores, released from the tumors, spread by rain and wind to other corn plants.
Considered a nuisance in most of the United States, smut feeds off the corn plant, decreasing the yield. Usually, smut-infected crops are destroyed. However, in Mexico, corn smut is called “huitlacoche,” a word in Nahuatl (a group of related languages and dialects of the Aztecs) supposedly meaning “raven’s excrement”—a less than appetizing idea.
A delicacy in Mexico, huitlacoche is preserved, and sold for an even higher price than corn. For culinary use, it is harvested while still immature—fully mature smut is dry and almost entirely spore-filled. The immature smut, gathered two to three weeks after an ear of corn is infected, still retains moisture. When cooked, huitlacoche has a flavor described as mushroom-like, sweet, savory, woody, and earthy. Not very attractive, but I was curious. We both tried some of Chad’s special dish. The earthy, woody flavor wasn’t an unpleasant taste.
I read an interesting tidbit about how chefs have tried to introduce the fungus into American and European kitchens. In 1989, the James Beard Foundation held a very high-profile dinner featuring huitlacoche, famously attempting to attract American consumers by renaming it “Mexican Truffle.”
While researching information for this column, I discovered a farm near the Twin Cities that sells fresh corn fungus. Troy Community Farm of Madison, Wisconsin, started a project in 2003 to grow corn, and make huitlacoche make available in the Madison area. It now sells directly to the public from the farm stand once a week.
Before our last excursion to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, I never had heard of huitlacoche, seen corn mushrooms on a menu, or spoken about smut—well, certainly not the eating type.
Our anniversary dinner was a triumph, and Chad enjoyed his meal very much. In the past, I have surprised him with a trip to Las Vegas, theater tickets, and many wonderful gifts. But our 11th year together always will be marked as the year I gave the gift of corn fungus.
STUFFED CHICKEN BREAST WITH HUITLACOCHE
8 Chicken breasts
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 chicken thigh and legs
Large bunch of epazote (herb), divided
3 large eggs
2 pounds huitlacoche (corn mushrooms),
4 cups chicken soup made with bones or
ready-made chicken stock
2 garlic cloves
2 large white onions
1 cup of cream
Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Prepare the stuffing by grinding together the raw chicken thigh and legs with epazote leaves, eggs, and 1 pound of fine sliced huitlacoche in a food processor or old-fashioned grinder. Lay a piece of tin foil, enough to wrap one chicken breast, on the preparation area. On top of the tin foil, place one epazote leaf. Place a chicken breast on top of the leaf, and cover it with the stuffing mixture. Wrap each chicken breast in tin foil, and cook them for 25 minutes in chicken soup made with the chicken bones from the thigh and legs (you may use ready-made chicken stock also). While the chicken breasts are cooking, prepare the sauce. In the large bowl of a food processor, add the remaining huitlacoche, garlic, and onions. Process until a paste forms. Add two cups of the chicken soup, and process until well blended. Pour the mixture from the processor bowl into a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, and bring to a rolling boil. Add cream, stirring constantly until slightly thickened. Serve stuffed chicken breasts on a plate with the sauce. Serves eight.
John Michael Lerma is a local chef, author, and Food Network personality. His company Garden County Cooking offers cookbooks, cooking classes, consulting, private events, and culinary vacations to Italy and the Caribbean. Visit www.GardenCounty.info. Check out his “Word of Mouth” Blog under Extras at LavenderMagazine.com.