Posted On: 06/30/2008
You've waited all winter for corn on the cob hot off the grill. Make it really worth your while: Cover it in cheese and chile, Mexican style.
Elotes are one of hundreds of ways that Mexicans do right by corn. An elote is an ear that's been grilled or steamed and slathered with mayonnaise or crema, aka Mexican crème fraîche. It is then covered with a grated hard cheese like queso añejo de Cotija. Sprinkled with chile powder, an elote is messy and delicious.
In Mexico and Mexican neighborhoods in the U.S., elotes are pure street food, sold out of carts by eloteros – sometimes with the husk, sometimes on a stick. Locally, catch the elotero inside El Torito market on Cherokee Street.
But this is St. Louis, and the backyard grill trumps the street corner when it comes to great corn. Grilling gives a flavor superior to boiling or steaming. By soaking the corn first in its husk and then grilling, you get a perfectly tender ear, with the husks trapping the steam. Pull back the husks and briefly grill the ear again to get super-flavorful grill marks.
What truly transforms an ear into an elote are the condiments, in the same way butter and salt dress corn at a cookout. I've seen McCormick brand Mexican-style mayonnaise with lime used a lot, with good results. Tartness is key with mayo, and some eloteros take a bland salad mayo and jazz it up with a few squeezes of fresh lime juice.
For me, though, crema makes for a better elote. It's tangier and not as heavy as mayo. It feels fresh and summery on a hot grilled ear.
You can buy crema at specialty grocery stores, but it's way tastier when you make it yourself. Really, crema tastes better than sour cream in almost any Mexican recipe, so it's worth the extra day it takes to make it. And for a kick to my crema, I add in the smoky, spicy adobo sauce from a can of chipotle peppers.
The classic elote cheese is Cotija, named after a town in the state of Michoacán, in west central Mexico. Unlike Chihuahua or Asadero cheeses, Cotija gets hot but never truly melts. Substituting grated Parmesan is not unheard of and tastes just fine.
Finish your elote with chile powder. Eloteros use all sorts, including seasoning blends of chile, salt and dehydrated lime that can taste kind of artificial. I prefer a spicy guajillo or a smoky powdered ancho.
Don't like the mess of biting corn off the cob? Then try the elote's cousin esquites. Cooked corn is sliced off the cob, mixed with the same condiments as elotes and served in a cup. Extra street cred if the cup is Styrofoam and you chow down with a spork.
Ian Sherer is a chef and Mexiphile who lives in Soulard.
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