Elotes—the on-the-cob version of Mexican street corn—is a staple on my balcony grill over the summer. It's about as easy and inexpensive a dish as you can think of, and there is nothing—really, nothing—that'll get snatched up and eaten as fast as a hot plate of 'em.
I'll usually count on making at least an ear and a half per person. To speed things up, I'll keep a big bowl of the sauce mixture—that's garlicky mayonnaise, crumbled cotija cheese (feta or Romano work well), chopped cilantro, lime juice, and a pinch of chili powder—at the ready so that as soon as my corn comes off the grill all nice, hot, and charred-like, it gets a dunk in the sauce, then a pass-off to a waiting mouth. That first bite of hot, charred corn, when the cheesy sauce inevitably gets smeared all over your cheeks just tastes of summer to me. Delicious, fat-smothered summer.
But there are times when a more...demure approach must be taken. When there are prim and proper aunts or brand new ties involved, for instance. For those occasions, I go for esquites, the spoon-ready version of elotes.
Rather then slathering the corn kernels with sauce, you slice them off after cooking and toss them together into a sort of hot salad that's decorous enough to consume with impunity in mixed company.
I personally tend to make esquites when I don't want to bother firing up the grill, because truth be told, it's just as tasty and easy to make indoors as it is out. The key for cooking esquites indoors is to remove the corn kernels from the cob before you cook them. I cook the kernels in a ripping hot wok (you can use a regular skillet, though it's a bit messier), letting them sit in place until the sugars caramelize and you get a deep, dark char before tossing and letting them char again.
When done right, a few kernels should jump and pop just like popcorn. I've had kernels leap clear across the apartment on occasion. A careful eye and a splatter guard will protect you from any corn kernel mortar fire.
Once the corn is charred, I toss it hot with the remaining ingredients. It can be served straight away, or is just as good at room temperature, making this an ideal picnic dish.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.