Published September 1, 2009.
Mexican street vendors add kick to grilled corn by slathering it with a creamy, spicy sauce. Could we deliver authentic south-of-the-border flavor in our own backyard?
Grilling can be a great alternative to boiling corn, but the juicy kernels are prone to overcooking, and any sauce often has trouble adhering.
We had three goals for this recipe: Achieve maximum charring without drying out the corn, deliver authentic flavor without relying on hard-to-find ingredients, and thicken the sauce just enough to keep it from sliding off.
For this recipe, we ditched the corn husks and grilled the corn directly on the grates, brushing the ears with oil first to prevent sticking. We decided to apply the same principles we use when pan-searing thin cuts of steak: Cook quickly in a blazing-hot pan to achieve good browning without drying out the food. We mounded the coals on one side of the grill and placed the corn on the grate. Thanks to the higher heat of coals piled close to the grate, we had charred, juicy corn in minutes.
Next: the sauce. Since authentic recipes typically call for crema (soured Mexican cream) as the base, we knew we’d need to find a widely available replacement. Our solution was a combination of mayonnaise and sour cream. Mayonnaise provided richness, and sour cream gave the sauce tanginess and a thickness that clung more readily to the corn.
Traditional recipes also include one of two Mexican cheeses: queso fresco (a fresh, mild cheese) and Cotija (a saltier, more pungent aged cheese). We eventually singled out dry, tangy Pecorino Romano as the best substitute. We seasoned our sauce with cilantro, cayenne pepper, lime juice, and garlic, but needed to coax more depth out of the chili powder, another key ingredient. We knew toasting brings out the essential oils and aromas of spices, but who needs to toast if you’re already grilling? We simply added some chili powder to the oil we used to coat the corn before it went on the grates (reserving some for the sauce), and the powder’s flavor bloomed over the hot coals.list of recipes