I would not say that previous to the last year, we were not taco people. I can think of several carnitas that have brought me nearly to tears (and definitely to tears when they stopped delivering) and we’ve been doing an egg-tortilla thing for years. But at some point in the last six months, I got bit with the taco bug bad and now I can hardly think of anything else to eat. Saturday afternoon and the toddler is napping and suddenly we’re hungry? Black bean tacos! Nothing but a couple zucchini in the produce drawer? Roasted zucchini tacos for dinner! I’m about thisclose to becoming the sort of person who puts peanut butter and jelly on a taco. The taco has become the answer to all questions.
It’s this obsession that finally got me to unearth a dish I’ve been meaning to put my spin on for two years. That’s more than a lifetime, if you’re this guy, and even he doesn’t know why it took me so long. The dish is called esquites and from what I understand but have sadly not yet experienced yet in person, it is a street snack in Mexico. Corn is cooked in butter with onions, garlic, chiles, an herb called epazote and salt. It’s then seasoned with lime juice, chile powder and served with mayo in small cups. Oh hi, are you still here? I’m not, because every time I read that description, I run to JFK and book the next flight to Mexico.
Although it’s not a traditional preparation, I was drawn to a chef’s riff on esquites in which he first charred half the corn over a gas flame, and added a crumbly, salty cheese instead of the traditional dollop of mayonnaise. But, I knew if I made it that way, it would be a side dish, an excellent one, but mostly something that required something else to pull it off as dinner. In a taco, however, it needs little else. It’s like I said: the taco answers all questions. I made a zucchini-radish slaw as a crunchy topping, mostly because I must be growing them in my fridge this summer; every time I use some up, more sprout in their place. Summer is like that, in the best way, so I vote for stuffing as much of it in a tortilla as we can before it’s up.
One year ago: Raspberry Brown Sugar Gratin
Two years ago: Peach and Creme Fraiche Pie and Asparagus with Chorizo and Croutons
Three years ago: Sauteed Sugar Snaps with Radishes and Dill
Four years ago: Red Pepper Soup (still one of my favorites!)
Charred Corn Tacos with Zucchini-Radish Slaw
Corn filling adapted from David Schuttenberg
The space between “seasoned vegetable side dish” and “taco dinner” can be filled with whatever delights you. It could be storebought or tomatotillo salsa, hot sauce, cilantro, sour cream or Mexican crema, diced tomatoes, salsa fresca, diced pickled red onions, pickled jalapenos, shredded cabbage or a green onion slaw, avocado wedges, grated cheddar or jack or a crumbly, salty cheese and maybe a bib, especially if you have designs on using these all together. Keeping your favorites on hand means that all you need to cook in a pinch is the filling.
To bulk these up further, you might stir in some cooked and drained black beans. But we found them pretty shockingly filling without the beans.
1/2 pound red radishes (from about 2/3 of a bundle with stems and leaves), trimmed
1 small (4 to 5 ounces) zucchini, long and narrow if you can find it
4 ears corn, husks removed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus additional if blistering tacos in skillet
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chopped epazote (if you can find it), cilantro or pasley (for the cilantro-averse) leaves (optional)
1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces or 70 grams) crumbled cotija cheese (or another salty, crumbly cheese such as ricotta salata or feta)
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
10 to 12 small (6-inch) soft corn tortillas
Cut radishes and zucchini into tiny matchsticks with a mandoline. If you don’t have a mandoline, you can use a peeler to peel thick ribbons down the long side of the zucchini. Stack the ribbons and cut them crosswise into thin matchsticks. Cut the radishes into a similar shape by hand. Toss radishes and zucchini together. Squeeze the juice of half a lime over the radish and season with salt to taste. Add more lime juice if desired. Set aside.
Remove toddlers from the kitchen. Over a hot grill or an open gas-stove flame char two of the ears of corn until well-blackened but not completely burnt. If you’re using the burner method, you’ll probably, quickly, notice that corn likes to pop and snap, occasionally spraying you with splats of corn. It’s a little scary, which is I why I suggest you remove anyone small and easily harmed before you begin. However, I found the charred corn flavor to be completely worth the scare and hope you do too.
Remove cobs from heat, and when cool enough to handle, shave off kernels using a large knife and reserve. Remove kernels from remaining two ears of corn.
Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Melt the butter and oil together and once hot, add the onion. Cook the onion for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the raw corn kernels and sauté until corn is just cooked through, about three to five minutes. Turn heat to high, add the charred kernels of corn to the mixture, and toss to combine until heated through. Squeeze the juice of one lime over the corn mixture, and use the juice to scrape up any stuck bits. Season the corn mixture with salt and chili powder. Stir in chopped herbs, if using.
You can heat your tortillas one of two ways. You can wrap the whole stack in foil and place it in a warm (250 degrees) oven for 15 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients. However, I prefer to get a nice blister on them before filling them. Coat the bottom of a cast-iron skillet with olive oil and wipe it out so on the thinnest slick remains. Heat the skillet on high. Once hot, cook a tortilla for about 30 seconds to 1 minute on each side, until lightly blistered. Repeat with remaining tortillas but if your skillet is well-seasoned, no need to repeat the oiling process.
Fill each taco with a few small spoonfuls of the corn mixture. Top with a spoonful of crumbled cheese and a bit of the radish-zucchini slaw. Serve with an extra lime wedge on the side (you’ll have half a lime left to slice up), and whatever fixings you like (sour cream, avocado wedges, etc. See above).