Corn stars on Mexican menus

For a quick, colorful medley of tastes, you can’t go wrong with this Mexican favorite.

CHICKEN TORTILLA 311 (photo credit: Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/MCT)
(photo credit: Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/MCT)
At a popular Mexican market and cafe in Los Angeles, I like the chicken soup with chunks of corn on the cob. It is served with another corn-based food – tortillas, which are made of dried corn and accompany just about every Mexican meal.
Tamales, or leaf-wrapped steamed dumplings with savory fillings, are also made from a dried-corn dough.
Fresh corn is another Mexican favorite. As street food, the hot, flavorful corn is served on the cob or in a cup. It comes sprinkled with chili powder, salty grated cheese or both, and sometimes it is buttered too.
Corn originated in Mexico and is the main staple of the country’s diet. Corn soups are a classic way to prepare this fresh grain in Mexico. Meat soup might feature corn kernels cooked with zucchini, carrots, tomatoes or other vegetables, and is garnished with avocado slices. When I make tortilla soup, I add corn kernels to the soup’s traditional tomato vegetable base and top it with the customary corn tortilla strips.
For a slightly thickened, subtly sweet soup, the corn might be pureed. Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, author of The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking, makes a rich pureed corn soup with sauteed onion, tomatoes and heavy cream. Other cooks use milk and sour cream to make their corn soups creamy and flavor them with hot green chilies and with green onions.
Stewing is a favored technique for cooking corn kernels among Mexican cooks. The corn might be briefly simmered with butter, milk, green onions and sweet peppers or, for a spicier dish, with garlic, green onions and hot pepper.
Corn is frequently combined with other vegetables. It might be mixed with cream cheese or grated cheese and used to stuff zucchini. For a quick, colorful medley, a Mexican friend of mine heats corn kernels with sauteed onion, sweet red peppers and zucchini. Kathi Long, author of Mexican Light Cooking, starts the day with such simple stews, scrambling corn with eggs and sauteed zucchini and rolling the mixture inside hot tortillas to make breakfast burritos topped with spicy salsa.
Unlike their American neighbors to the north, Mexicans like to pair corn with rice. Long’s corn and rice casserole is accented with sauteed mushrooms and roasted chilies, and then baked with grated cheese.
Chef Rick Bayless’s chili-flavored corn and rice casserole gains additional richness from thick cream and a generous blanket of cheese. For his meaty Mexican corn rice supper, Bayless layers spicy chorizo sausage with corn, zucchini and tomato-chili rice.
CORN WITH SWEET PEPPERS, BEANS AND SALSA A tomato salsa flavored with hot pepper, garlic, fresh coriander and olive oil gives pizzazz to this corn and bean medley. Serve it as a meatless entree, or omit the cheese and serve it as a colorful side dish with roasted or grilled chicken or steak.
Use any kind of canned beans you like. Instead of canned beans, you can cook frozen lima beans with the corn.
1 small garlic clove, peeled 1⁄2 cup fresh coriander sprigs, coarsely chopped 1⁄4 cup diced onion 3 or 4 medium tomatoes, finely diced 1 to 2 tsp. minced fresh hot pepper, or 1⁄4 tsp.
cayenne pepper, or to taste 3 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 1⁄2 cup vegetable broth or water 2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels Two 400-gr. cans beans or chickpeas, drained 1 large red bell pepper, fresh or roasted, diced small salt and freshly ground black pepper 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup grated cheese or crumbled feta cheese (optional) In a food processor or with a knife, chop garlic. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the chopped fresh coriander and add the rest to the garlic; chop together finely.
Add onion and chop together. Transfer to a large bowl and add tomatoes and hot pepper. Stir in 3 tablespoons oil.
In a medium saucepan bring broth to a boil. Add corn, cover and simmer for 2 or 3 minutes or until tender. Add beans and heat through. Drain vegetable mixture if necessary, and add vegetables to bowl of tomato salsa. Add diced red pepper, remaining chopped fresh coriander, salt and pepper. If you like, add remaining olive oil. Serve hot or warm, sprinkled with cheese.
Makes 4 servings.
CORN, GREEN BEAN AND ZUCCHINI SALAD WITH TOMATOES Serve this colorful, healthful salad of tender summer vegetables warm or cold. You can make it ahead but if you do, add the lemon juice at the last minute so it will not discolor the green beans.
450 gr. green beans, halved 2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels 225 gr. zucchini, cut in 2.5-cm. dice 1 to 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, or to taste 2 tsp. chopped fresh oregano or 1⁄2 tsp. dried salt and freshly ground pepper cayenne pepper to taste (optional) 350 gr. ripe tomatoes, diced 1 Tbsp. lemon juice (optional) Add green beans to a saucepan of boiling water. Boil uncovered 5 minutes. Add corn and zucchini and return to a boil over high heat. Cook 3 minutes or until vegetables are crisp-tender. Drain in a colander or strainer.
Transfer cooked vegetables to a bowl. Add olive oil, oregano, salt, pepper and cayenne. Toss to combine.
Add tomatoes and toss again. Add lemon juice. Serve warm, room temperature or cold.
Makes 4 servings.
RICE CASSEROLE WITH GREEN CHILIES, MUSHROOMS AND CORN This recipe is from Kathi Long’s book. Long uses canned diced roasted green chilies; I prefer to roast and peel semi-hot peppers and add them to taste. If you don’t have hot peppers, season the casserole with hot pepper flakes, hot paprika or cayenne pepper to taste. To keep the fat content low, Long recommends reduced fat cheese and uses a total of 1 tablespoon olive oil; for a richer, festive dish, you might like to use 2 or 3 tablespoons of the oil.
1 medium white onion, chopped 1 to 3 Tbsp. olive oil, to taste 1 garlic clove, minced kernels from 3 ears of corn or 1 package (280 gr.) frozen corn, thawed 350 gr. fresh mushrooms, sliced 1 or 2 semi-hot green peppers, roasted or grilled and peeled (see Note), and diced 1⁄2 tsp. salt, or to taste 1⁄4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, or to taste 3 Tbsp. chopped cilantro (fresh coriander) or parsley 3 cups cooked white rice Vegetable cooking spray or additional olive oil, for greasing the pan 1 cup coarsely grated semi-soft grating cheese, such as mozzarella Preheat oven to 165º. In a large nonstick skillet, cook onion in 11⁄2 teaspoons oil over medium-high heat, stirring often, for 3 to 5 minutes or until softened. Add garlic and corn and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often, until corn is just tender. Scrape mixture into a large bowl.
In same skillet cook mushrooms in 11⁄2 teaspoons oil over medium-high heat until golden, about 5 minutes.
Add to corn mixture.
Add chopped hot peppers, salt, pepper, cilantro and cooked rice. Toss to mix thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Coat a 23- x 33-cm. baking dish with vegetable cooking spray. Spoon rice-vegetable mixture into the dish and spread evenly. Sprinkle cheese over the top. Bake about 20 minutes or until cheese is melted and rice is hot.
Makes 6 to 10 servings.
Note: To grill and peel semi-hot or hot peppers – broil or grill peppers whole, turning them often, until their skins blister all over; they need a total 3 or 4 minutes.
Transfer peppers to a bowl and cover tightly, or put peppers in separate plastic bag and close bags. Let stand for 10 minutes. Peel peppers using paring knife, halve and remove seeds.
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.