Why It Works
- A combination of garlic, mayonnaise, cheese, lime, and chili in the sauce ensures the salad comes out incredibly flavorful.
- Cutting the kernels off the cob first, then cooking them over high heat, allows you to get a nice char on the corn without having to use the grill.
Smoky, sweet, spicy, and tangy, esquites are the off-the-cob version of elotes—grilled on-the-cob Mexican street corn slathered with creamy, cheesy, lime-scented, chili-flecked sauce.
Elotes are 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 also works well), chopped cilantro, lime juice, and a pinch of chili powder—at the ready. 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. On those occasions, I go for esquites, the spoon-ready version of elotes.
Rather then slathering the corn kernels with sauce, you slice the kernels off after cooking and toss them with the sauce, in a sort of hot salad that's decorous enough to consume with impunity in mixed company.
Personally, I 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 to 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 a deep, dark char develops, before tossing and letting them char again.
When this is 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 with the remaining ingredients while it's still hot. The salad can be served straight away, but it's just as good at room temperature, making this an ideal picnic dish.
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) vegetable oil
- 4 ears fresh corn, shucked, kernels removed (about 3 cups fresh corn kernels)
- Kosher salt
- 2 ounces (60g) feta or Cotija cheese, finely crumbled
- 1/2 cup finely sliced scallions, green parts only
- 1/2 cup (1/2 ounce) fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
- 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and stemmed, finely chopped
- 1 to 2 medium cloves garlic, pressed or minced on a Microplane grater (about 1 to 2 teaspoons)
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) fresh juice from 1 lime
- Chili powder or hot chili flakes, to taste
Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet or wok over high heat until shimmering. Add corn kernels, season to taste with salt, toss once or twice, and cook without moving until charred on one side, about 2 minutes. Toss corn, stir, and repeat until charred on second side, about 2 minutes longer. Continue tossing and charring until corn is well charred all over, about 10 minutes total. Transfer to a large bowl.
Add cheese, scallions, cilantro, jalapeño, garlic, mayonnaise, lime juice, and chili powder and toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and more chili powder to taste. Serve immediately.