Esquites, in Oaxaca and Oak Park

Corn, cheese, mayo, lime and chile: spectacular

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By David Hammond

Last week at the Oak Park Farmers' Market, the corn was coming out in force – not as forcefully as it will in a few weeks, but enough so that people could start going home with decent ears and cooking them up for breakfast or lunch, immediately, which is certainly the best way to eat fresh corn.

I've heard farmers say that you want to have the water boiling before you pick your corn, and indeed most corn (excepting some super sweet varieties) does seem to lose flavor and texture if not eaten shortly after picking.

In a small town outside Huatulco, Oaxaca, one afternoon last month, I spotted a little woman serving passersby Styrofoam cups full of something. My chow-dar lit up: this is exactly the sort of thing I like to see when I travel: local food, that I can't immediately identify, prepared on the street for the locals.

Turns out, the lady was making esquites, which is corn cut off the cob, mixed with a kind of parmesan cheese and a kind of mayonnaise, spritzed with lime and sprinkled with chile.

We loved the combination of flavors: the carbo-blandness of the corn (much less sweet and much chewier than our Midwestern varieties), the richness of the cheese and mayo, the tongue-perking sourness of the lime and the heat of the chiles, all combined to make a spectacularly simple combination of flavors, all in a cup.

When I got back to the States, I used corn from the Oak Park Farmers' Market to make my own esquites. I used good quality Parmesan Reggiano, Hellman's "light" mayo (all we had, sadly), small Yucatecan-type limes, and some pepper flakes (I had roasted two chiles arboles and ground them up).

The ingredients I used were "better" (real parm and real mayo, rather than shelf-stable varieties) than the materials the lady used in Oaxaca, but I felt the balance of ingredients used was maybe, somehow, not right. I liked my Oak Park version of esquites well enough – it was the best I could do – but they couldn't compare with what that street vendor lady was making. Perhaps I had no right to expect they would be.


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