Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Fantastic Fungus

Picture this: a sauce that's as black as black bean soup, with an earthy aroma wafting up from it that's part truffle, part corn. It can be chunky or smooth. And, like mushrooms, it has that quality of umami that brings out the flavors of anything its served with, whether cheese, meat or vegetables.

In Mexican cuisine it's called huitlacoche and is a prized delicacy, especially when fresh.

Here in America, however, it's called corn smut or corn blight and has been targeted by the USDA as a disease of the corn plant that must be eradicated. Thus it is very hard to find in it's fresh state. And you know it's trouble when even an organization as revered as the James Beard Foundation, which hosted an all-huitlacoche dinner in 1989, couldn't raise the fungus's status. Sigh.

I'd had chunks of it in empanadas and as a smooth black sauce on steak when we were in Mazatlan a few years ago, but hadn't run across any since. So when I heard that my friend Kathryn LaSusa Yeomans of The Farmer's Feast had managed to cadge some from a local farmer who was wise enough not to plow under his field when he discovered it, I had to have some.

At the Portland Farmers' Market in Pioneer Courthouse Square on Monday she was spooning it into a steaming bowl of mushroom corn chowder. She had me taste the chowder alone, a lovely, rich broth with fresh corn and sliced mushrooms, perfectly fine by itself. But with just a small spoonful of the huitlacoche it was transformed into a blast of flavors, each one bigger and richer than it was by itself. Wow!

We can only hope that some enterprising farmer will take the smut challenge and realize that a field of huitlacoche will bring chefs and their customers flocking and throwing cash in his or her direction. Anyone willing to take this one on?

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