The Core of the Corn

By Micah Fredman

By

Micah Fredman
Vallejo slices the huitlacoche on the ICC Main Stage
Vallejo slices the huitlacoche on the ICC Main Stage

Refinement is a difficult task. The paring away of all the unnecessary, the whittling down to the core, is a struggle for all artists, chefs included. Nature struggles less with this endeavor. Each season, the entirety of the code is consolidated into seed. 

That is why Jorge Vallejo’s seemingly simple dish of huitlacoche and snapper, which subtly encapsulates thousands of years of Mexican culinary innovation, is truly a work of genius. 

The creation of the dish begins with a fish fumet. Vallejo roasts the fish bones, then adds sautéed aromatic vegetables, corn husks, huitlacoche-infected corn cobs, herbs, and water, leaving them in a 65ºC oven for 7 hours. He freezes the stock and defrosts it over cheese cloth, thereby clarifying it. He thickens the delicate with freshly ground corn masa, creating a modern version of a traditional Mexican atole, which is flavorful broth used to poach the fish. 

But as Vallejo explains, in a Dan Barber-esque attempt to shift his plate’s focus from protein to vegetable: “Instead of having a fish dish, we are having a huitlacoche dish with a little bit of fish.”

True to his word, Vallejo ensures that huitlacoche is very much the star of the plate. He nixtamalizes an entire huitlacoche-infected corn cob in a 1 percent calcium chloride solution, bringing the water to 90°C, then shutting off the heat and leaving the corn submerged until the water becomes cold again. The cob becomes very tender and is edible all the way to the center.

Vallejo slices the cob lengthwise and into three-centimeter segments, then bastes and browns the pieces in butter. He cuts two thin slices of the rare poached fish, and adorns the plate with a huitlacoche purée, zucchini ribbons, squash blossoms, and cilantro flowers. The garnishes that Vallejo selects are all references to the Milpa farming system indigenous to the land of Mexico. Alongside the finished plate, he offers a small glass of the pristine aromatic fish broth.

A reverent nod to tradition, with a focused eye toward the demands of the future, Vallejo’s ode to huitlacoche is a masterpiece that humbly captures so much of the Mexican spirit. “In Mexico, we want to feed our family, work the food with our hands, cook it, and serve our people,” he says. “This is our mission for the next generation. We lost it a bit in the last generation, and we must return to it now.”

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