I’m about to confront my darkest demon, and it looks just like a plate of delicious corn risotto.
On the surface, there wouldn’t seem to be a problem. I love corn. I love rice. I love cheese.
But also on the surface, quite literally, are little gray dots. The server explains that they’re made from a “truffle” that grows on an ear of corn — so they totally make sense in this dish. It’s a fungus, like a mushroom. I love mushrooms, so why do those little dots fill me with palpable fear?
Because that mushroom is huitlacoche. Huitlacoche and I have history.
Like all good horror stories, this one starts with a kid doing something he wasn’t supposed to. My mom’s summer garden included several well-tended rows of corn. It wasn’t vast enough to evoke a Stephen King movie, but there was enough to run around in.
We weren’t supposed to. But of course we did.
One day, when I was about 7, I took a wrong turn and plowed into a stalk — the reason we weren’t supposed to be running in the first place, I’m sure. No real damage was done, but I found myself bonked in the head with a growing ear. But this ear was different. There was a hideous gray blob growing on it. I was sure it was alive. I was convinced that it was a monster. Or an alien. Or both. It seemed to move. I think I saw it breathing. Or whatever the aspiration equivalent is for corn-eating monster-aliens.
I was scared. And I never went back in the corn rows.
Fast forward 20 years, and I was watching a cooking show. Chef Zarela Martinez was talking about an interesting ingredient she was working with called huitlacoche. Or, as I heard it, wheat-la-ko-chay. I had no idea how to spell it. I was really interested as she talked about this mushroom that grows on corn. Then she said it was also called “corn smut.” Yum.
Then she showed some on an ear. I turned off the television. It was the monster. I hadn’t thought about it in decades, but my stomach turned. I took a break from cooking shows, just in case there was a repeat.
The first time I saw it on a menu was a few years later at Frontera Grill in Chicago. It was listed as an ingredient in a stew, and I eliminated that dish from consideration immediately.
My wife ordered it, of course. She asked if I wanted to try it.
I rarely turn down a taste of something new. I looked the dish over and didn’t see any evidence of evil incarnate in the form of a heaving gray mass. But I knew it was in there. So it was a hard no. (If this all sounds overwrought, I’ve heard people swear off — and swear at — raisins because they associate them with bugs, and I have known people who draw some seriously unsavory analogies to mayo. I’m not apologizing. )
Now when I see it on a menu, I just tamp down a revulsion reflex and move along. But when I heard about a dish at chef Victor Albisu’s new restaurant, Poca Madre, that is a risotto in the style of esquites — one of my favorite Mexican dishes; corn with chile, cheese and citrus — I have to try it. I briefly consider asking for it without the huitlacoche, but that seems like cheating. I need to face the monster.
Albisu says he incorporated the ingredient because it’s indigenous to Mexican culture and cuisine, relevant since the time of the Aztecs, and he wanted to honor it in a meaningful way. So he features it in a dish that’s all about corn.
He says huitlacoche pairs well with rich foods, and the risotto’s butter and cheese help tone down the “profoundness” of the flavor, as he calls it.
He offers to show me raw huitlacoche. I hesitate. There may have been some minor trembling. He assures me that they keep it in the freezer, which seems smart to me. I decide it’s probably safe.
It’s on a plate, and it looks like little river rocks. Here, in this context, it’s kind of beautiful. Hardly monstrous at all. I work up the courage to touch one of the lobes, and it feels hard as a rock, which surprises me. I expected it to be spongy.
“Well, it’s frozen,” Albisu gently reminds me. When it’s not, it’s spongy.
Got it. I’m a little frazzled.
Since huitlacoche is often compared to mushrooms and truffles, I’ve always assumed that, like them, it just occurred at the whim of nature, that it was harvested when it was found and that its availability was probably limited. I figured that some ancient, enterprising cook had found a way to use it to cut down on food waste. Or punish their enemies, not sure which. It turns out Albisu gets his fresh from a farmer in Florida who grows huitlacoche . . . on purpose.
So now I’m staring down the risotto at Poca Madre. I mean, I guess it takes two to have a stare down, and it isn’t technically staring back, because it doesn’t have eyes — right? Part of me doesn’t want to try it, realizing that when I do, I blow a lifetime melodrama 40-some years in the making. But there’s also a sense of impending medieval liberation attached to eating the monster that torments me.
I look hard. I dip a tine of my fork into one of the gray blobs of huitlacoche. Rationally, I know that I’m making a bigger deal of this than it is, but no one said this is rational. I still don’t really want to taste it. So I sniff.
Doesn’t really smell like anything. Guess I’m going to have to taste it.
I slowly bring the fork to my tongue. I’m 7 again, facing an unearthly beast. I seem to have the upper hand this time, but I don’t know what it’s capable of.
Contact. If I’ve been sucked into the gates of hell, it isn’t immediately obvious.
It tastes vaguely earthy, which is standard chef/food-writer code for general mushroominess. There’s a slight saltiness, which makes sense because you use salt to kill demons. Look it up.
Frankly, the dish is amazing, with its creamy corn and rice, and cotija cheese tossed with chile-lime seasoning. I finish it without further concern.
If this were a movie, the final scene would have me contemplating how I’ve changed in some deep, hyperbolic, fantastically ridiculous way. I’d walk off into the sunset, with my dog. Ominous clouds would roll over the cornfield, and a breeze would rustle the tassels, signaling a potential sequel.
Of course, none of that happened.
But I have, in no uncertain terms, consumed the fear that once consumed me. And I’d do it again.