The first time I saw Mexican street corn was just after I had moved to Chicago. I was meandering down Wells Street, which was closed for a summer art fair. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a guy with a tower of grilled corn. I walked over to get a better look and watched as he took a piece of the corn off the grill, rolled back the husk and quickly tied it off, forming a handle from the husks.
His movements were fluid as he next dipped the exposed corn into butter, then slathered it with mayo, rolled it in cheese, sprinkled it with ground chilies and squirted it with lime juice. I was mesmerized. I couldn't wait to take that first bite. It ended up being a pivotal food experience for me. I've been making it at home ever since.
When corn is fresh from the field, I soak it and grill it right in the husk. The delicate sweet corn takes only a few minutes to cook and I love the slight earthiness that the corn silk and husk infuse into the kernels. When the corn isn't as fresh and is a little starchier, I like to brush it with olive oil and place the corn with the exposed kernels directly on the cooking grates to char and blister.
This summer, I reached a new level with my Mexican street corn experiments. And like many great breakthroughs, I created the recipe out of necessity.
I wanted to serve the corn for a tasting and competition event, but I was serving 800 people and realized there was no way to grill and serve that many people quickly and deliciously! So I decided to turn the street corn into a salad. That way, I could still serve the flavors of my favorite summer corn, but I could make the dish in advance.
Because I was going to be serving it cool, I decided to amp up the flavors in my normal recipe with a little cilantro and garlic to add brightness, and rich smoky bacon to complement the charred corn.
For the event, I mixed all the ingredients together and served it as a side dish to my smoked and grilled beef tenderloin. It actually worked out even better than if I had made the original corn on the cob — it's certainly easier to eat! And, as good as my beef was, I know that it was the grilled Mexican street corn salad that scored me the top prize that night.
In this recipe, I grill the corn both in the husk and out of the husk, then slice the kernels off the cobs and make them into a decadently delicious salad. You can serve the salad with grilled beef tenderloin as I did, but it's versatile enough to go with your favorite grilled protein — salmon, beer-can chicken, chicken thighs or backyard ribs.
GRILLED MEXICAN STREET CORN SALAD
Start to finish: 45 minutes
6 large ears of corn (3 with husks and silks removed, all 6 soaked in water for 10 minutes)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tablespoons sweet butter, melted
1/2 cup (slightly heaped) Hellmann's mayonnaise
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus sprigs to serve
Zest and juice of 1 lime
2 cloves garlic, finely grated
1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
Maldon or other flaked sea salt
1/2 cup queso anejo
1/2 cup grated Asiago cheese (or a grated Italian cheese blend), plus extra to garnish
6 slices apple wood smoked bacon, cooked and crumbled
Ground black pepper
Heat the grill for medium-high direct heat cooking.
Remove the corn from the water and pat dry. Brush the 3 ears of husked corn on all sides with the olive oil. Leave the other ears of corn in their husks.
Place all of the corn on the cooking grate. Grill, turning occasionally, until the husked corn is well-browned and charred in places, about 10 minutes. The other ears of corn will steam in their husks, but the husks themselves will be dried out and charred in places.
Remove all of the corn from the grill and set aside until cool and easily handled, about 5 minutes. Once cool enough to handle, remove the husks and silk from the 3 ears that were grilled with them on.
One at a time, stand each ear on its wide end and use a serrated knife to saw down the length of the cob to remove the kernels. Discard the cobs, then transfer the kernels to a large bowl. Mix in the melted butter, then set aside.
In a medium bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, cilantro, lime zest and juice, garlic, chili powder and a pinch of salt. Stir in both cheeses and most of the bacon, reserving a little for garnish. Add the dressing to the buttered corn kernels and mix well. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Garnish with grated cheese, cilantro and the reserved bacon. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Nutrition information per serving: 680 calories; 490 calories from fat (72 percent of total calories); 55 g fat (20 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 95 mg cholesterol; 39 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 11 g sugar; 17 g protein; 920 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."