August can make me grouchy. Doubtless it’s because I’m jealous that I’m stuck in hot, humid New York City when half the world seems to be relaxing on the beach or lounging under shade trees in the country. And I’m not alone in my testiness, it feels like everyone in the city—save for the happy-go-lucky visitors—are all walking around with scowls on their faces, pushing and shoving and looking plain miserable.
But underneath all the oppressive heat and haze is a ray of joy: the farmers’ market. The growing season is at its peak right now and I am in awe of the glorious explosion of fruits, herbs and vegetables. There is so much bounty I have a hard time deciding what to buy as I want it all!
I like to shop for food so I end up at the greenmarket at least twice a week. And yet with my frequent visits, I’d somehow managed not to buy corn this year. Perhaps it’s because corn gets such a bad rap these days, or perhaps it’s because there’s such an abundance it didn’t feel precious to me. But like all fruits and vegetables, its season is finite and while its presence is inescapable in a myriad of processed products, I try to avoid those so I probably don’t have too much corn flowing through my system. (By the way, if you have access to Whole Foods, its house brands of ketchup, mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce are all made without high-fructose corn syrup and they taste good, too!) Plus, there’s nothing like eating fresh corn on the cob. After all, I come from a family of corn growers and I have fond memories of running through fields filled with tall, waving stalks; shucking bucket after bucket while sitting on the front porch; sinking my teeth into the colorful varieties my family had harvested; or sharing with college friends my grandfather’s popcorn on the cob.
So the last time I was at the market, I grabbed a few ears of bi-color corn, which is one of my favorite types. These little kernels are like quick hits of sweet sunshine, so tender and juicy you can eat it raw. But I also enjoy my corn cooked, so I decided to make Mexican corn on the cob—also known as elote.
I didn’t eat this growing up and the first time I ever had it was actually here in New York City at one of the more authentic hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants. It’s a common street food in Mexico and its popularity is spreading here as well, as you can find it at the Red Hook Ball Fields on weekends, on the streets of Jackson Heights and at the 14th Street Mexican food stands on Sundays. And while I didn’t eat it when I lived in Texas, my last trip home I discovered that outside of every Fiesta there was usually a cart selling this sweet and spicy treat, which was a great appetizer before roaming through Fiesta’s abundant aisles of Mexican groceries.
Like almost all dishes, there are endless variations on elote, but most commonly it’s a cob of corn slathered in mayonnaise, cotija cheese (a semi-hard, crumbly cheese that resembles grated Parmesan), powdered chile peppers and lime juice. Sometimes, you can find it without mayonnaise and instead drenched in butter, margarine or crema. The corn can be prepared many ways, such as steamed, roasted or grilled. And while it’s often served with the cob stuck on a stick, I’ve also had it with the corn scraped off into a cup with the condiments on top ready for mixing.
No matter how you eat it, however, the end result is always the same: a sweet, crunchy, fiery, juicy (and often) messy taste of summer. I don’t have a grill, so I roasted my corn in the oven and then blackened it on my stove-top gas burner. You can also blacken it under the broiler, though mine is one of those sliding-drawer contraptions and as it’s so shallow I was afraid the husk might catch on fire. It’s best to spread the condiments on the corn while it’s still hot as this insures the fats will melt in between the kernels, providing even more succulent eating. The ground chiles (I like to use cayenne for its heat and brightness) and lime juice are essential for mitigating some of the sweetness of the corn and mayonnaise, and the cotija adds a pleasant salty, soft texture that goes well with the corn kernels’ juicy snap.
I don’t think my corn-growing great-grandparents (or even my grandparents for that matter) ever ate corn on the cob this way, but that’s a shame because it’s a reasonably healthy (if you don’t use too much mayo) summertime snack. And while I can’t wait for August to end, at least I have elote to enjoy while I wait for autumn to arrive.
4 cobs of corn
2 tablespoons of butter
4 tablespoons of mayonnaise
4 lime wedges
1/2 cup of cotija cheese, crumbled
Cayenne to taste
In an oven heated at 350 F, cook corn in husk for 25 minutes.
After taking corn out of oven, let it cool for 5 minutes, and then pull husk layers down, leaving them attached to the base of the cob, which can act as a handle.
If you want to blacken you corn, you can either put it under the broiler for five minutes on each side or hold it over your stove’s gas burner. Be careful to keep the husk away from the flames!
While warm, spread over each cob, 1/2 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise .
Take 1/8 cup of cheese, and sprinkle it on cob, then sprinkle on some cayenne pepper and squirt the lime over the cob. Eat warm.
Yield: 4 servings.
Note: You can grill the corn or steam the corn; this is just how I make it. Also, instead of using the husks as a handle, you can stick a sharpened popsicle stick into the base or scrape the corn off the cob and serve this in a bowl or cup. If you don’t have access to cotija cheese, you can use Parmesan instead.