It’s hard to think of a more-perfect combination of summer flavors: Crisp, charred sweet corn. Creamy mayonnaise. Salty cheese. Spicy chilies. Acidic lime juice.
It’s a flavor combination well-loved in Mexico and in big cities in the United States, where it’s known as Mexican street corn, aka elotes.
“Anybody who’s ever had American-style creamed corn or corn chowder knows why the combination of cream and corn is so good,” says Rick Bayless, chef and co-owner of several Chicago Mexican restaurants, including Frontera Grill and Cruz Blanca. “Add the umami punch of salty, aged cheese and chili with a little salt, and you have everything – tangy, salty, sweet and umami. If you’re grilling the corn, you'll get some char, and then you'll have bitter too. So, you'll have all of the classic flavor profiles.”
At modern Mexican restaurant Cantina 1910 in Chicago, executive chef Scott Shulman offers up a classic riff on elotes known as esquites, which is essentially Mexican sweet corn but in salad form.
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“It’s a classic flavor,” Shulman says. “In America, we’re very used to it. It translates to our flavor memory.”
Shulman likes to use the freshest-possible corn and homemade mayonnaise in his salad. The restaurant uses a brown butter-mayonnaise, along with corn broth, hominy, dehydrated lime, Morita peppers, cilantro and epazote. Later this summer, Shulman plans to lighten the dish a bit using queso fresco and a bruleed corn meringue.
The wonderful thing about this flavor combination is that it’s so versatile. It can be played up in salads, corn puddings, macaroni and cheese – even in frozen pops.
“It definitely says summer,” Shulman says.
It’s easy to create a nondairy, vegan version as well. Wes Allison, Austin, Texas-based co-author of the tongue-in-cheek “The Taco Cleanse: The Tortilla-Based Diet Proven To Change Your Life,” created an elotes taco filling for the book that uses no animal products.
Allison makes his own vegan mayonnaise but says there are many good options on store shelves. He uses nutritional yeast for the savory, cheesy flavor. And he likes to wrap the corn filling in a corn tortilla, but says it also works well in a pasta salad or simply on its own as esquites.
“It’s a great summertime side dish to go with grilling and barbecuing,” Allison says.
Tania Merlos-Ruiz, owner and chef at Tomate Fresh Kitchen in Evanston, Ill., grew up eating lots of corn in Guatemala but hadn’t tried Mexican street corn until she moved to Chicago. At her restaurant, she likes to add a spicy, creamy corn filling to her empanadas, tamales and chicken tacos with grilled onions.
“It adds sweetness,” Merlos-Ruiz says.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 12-15 minutes
Makes filling for 16 tacos
This recipe from “The Taco Cleanse,” by Wes Allison, Stephanie Bogdanich, Molly R. Frisinger and Jessica Morris, can be used in tacos, salads, pasta salads and a variety of other dishes, or eaten as is. For the mayonnaise, you can sub a store-bought vegan (or nonvegan) version.
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 / 2 cup unsweetened soy milk
1 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon agave nectar
1/4 teaspoon each: black pepper, salt
8 ears of corn, husks and silk removed
Canola oil cooking spray
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon chili powder
Lime wedges, optional
For the mayonnaise, use a 1-quart, wide-mouth canning jar and an immersion blender. (Alternatively, a food processor or blender will work.) Add lime juice and soy milk to the jar. Insert the immersion blender into the jar. With the immersion blender running at its fastest speed, pour the oil in a constant, slow, thin steam into the jar. It will take a couple of minutes, but the liquid will thicken into mayonnaise consistency. Add the agave nectar, pepper and salt; blend for a few seconds to combine.
For the corn, set the oven to broil. Lightly mist the ears of corn with cooking spray; arrange on a baking sheet. Roast on the center rack, rotating every 3 to 5 minutes, 12 to 15 minutes total.
Allow the corn to cool until cool enough to handle. Cut the stem off the cob, hold the corn vertically, cut side down, in a shallow bowl. With a sharp knife, remove the kernels from the cob using a downward sawing motion. Repeat with all ears. Stir in 1 cup of the mayonnaise; garnish with nutritional yeast and chili powder. Use filling for tacos or eat as is; give it a squeeze of lime before serving.
Per serving: 135 calories, 10 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 10 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 2 g protein, 33 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Serves 4 as a side dish or enough filling for 32 empanadas
From Tania Merlos, owner of Tomate Fresh Kitchen in Evanston. This makes a great salad or side dish as well as empanada filling.
1 tablespoon butter
1 leek, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
4 ears of corn, grilled, kernels cut from the cobs
1 zucchini, sliced into thin rounds
1 red bell pepper, seeded, cut in small dice
1 poblano pepper, seeded, cut in small dice
1 serrano pepper, seeded, cut in small dice
1 teaspoon cumin
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup vegetable stock
2 poblano peppers, seeded, chopped
1 serrano pepper, seeded, chopped
Salt and pepper
Heat the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat until melted; add the leek and garlic. Cook until translucent. Add the corn, zucchini, peppers, cumin, and salt and pepper to taste. Saute until fragrant.
For the sauce, in a separate pan, over medium heat, add the cream, stock, peppers, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until cream reduces by one-quarter. Stir well. Add to corn mixture. Cook until heated through; serve as is, or cool and use as an empanada filling.
Per serving: 125 calories, 8 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 21 mg cholesterol, 13 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 3 g protein, 17 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
Prep time: 20 minutes, plus 30 minutes rest time
Cook time: 15-20 minutes
Makes enough for 16 empanadas
Adapted from chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless’ empanadas de picadillo recipe.
3 cups flour, plus extra for rolling
1/3 cup lard or 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 teaspoon salt
About 3/4 cup very warm tap water
Pour the flour into a large bowl. Work in the fat with your fingers until homogenous. Dissolve the salt in the hot water; work it into the flour mixture, creating a medium-stiff dough. Knead just enough to bring the dough together.
Divide the dough into 16 portions, roll each into a ball, set on a plate, cover with plastic wrap and let rest at least 30 minutes.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out a ball of dough into a 5-inch diameter circle. Lightly brush the perimeter with water. Add about 3 tablespoons of filling on one side. Fold the uncovered side over the filling, expelling as much air as possible; press the two edges together. Place the empanada on a baking sheet. Seal the edges together with the tines of a fork. Repeat with remaining dough.
Bake in a 400-degree oven, 15-20 minutes. Or, fry in 350-degree oil until deep golden, about 4 to 5 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels before serving.
Per serving (for the dough only): 115 calories, 4 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 4 mg cholesterol, 16 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 2 g protein, 110 mg sodium, 1 g fiber