I, like many of my family and friends, have been having a moment since, well, November 8th of last year. Ever since January 20th, as New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress recently (and aptly) put it, I’ve struggled with the fact that “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.” When the executive order including provisions to “Build the Wall” was signed on January 25th, I was thrown into a decidedly México Moment. Like so many other acts and declarations since, then, this one really stung.
Having lived for the better part of two years in the Pearl of the West, Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco, México, I returned home to the United States, thoroughly enamored with México and Mexican culture. As I struggled with the implications of the anti-Mexican rhetoric splashed across all media, I found solace in my nostalgia for the sights, sounds, tastes and people of my second home south of the border. A dinner party the night after the executive order felt like the apt venue to show solidarity in some small way and honor beloved México in the food I prepared. After all, food is love, and yo amo México.
‘Elote’, a word that has its roots in México’s indigenous past, coming from Nahuatl, the storied language of the Aztecs and most of pre-Colombian México, is a ubiquitous preparation of corn on the cob that can be found in the streets, prepared in restaurants and served in the home throughout the year (a blessing of a nearly seasonless climate) across nearly all of México’s 31 states. Usually served on a stick, Elote is a corn cob, grilled over coals until blistered and then dressed with hot chile paste, salt, cheese (usually queso fresco or cotija), mayonnaise or crema (sour cream), and finished with lime (Side Note: ‘Esquites’ is the same ingredients mixed with the corn shaved off the cob and served in a cup or a bowl, equally as delicious). Elote is distinctly Mexican, colorful and a vibrant mix of sweet, smoky, savory, spicy and sour flavors, in my opinion, one of the best traditional street foods in the world. If you ever find yourself in México, seeking a snack in the heat of the midday sun, look around for the nearest Elote cart, they’re never too far.
For our meal I decided to turn this dish into a main course. I would do this by incorporating the ingredients into a pizza and in doing so, diverge ever so slightly from the traditional preparation. Now I would normally have made own quick pizza dough, but work, followed by therapy, followed by traffic (counter productive I know…) meant I wouldn’t have time to let it rise before our guests arrive, so I cheated and bought my favorite brand, Brooklyn Pizza Dough. It’s sold frozen, but I let it defrost at room temp while I unloaded my crazy on my therapist for an hour, and it was ready to go by the time I got home.
Corn can be hard to come by in January in the mid-Atlantic, good corn that is, but thanks to our southern neighbors I was able to find some in my local grocery store, purchased, thankfully still free of a 20% import tax (cough cough). Knowing my time constraints the night-of, I broiled the corn cobs until blistered the night before we were to host dinner, shaved them and chilled them in the fridge. I picked up some queso fresco, which I knew would crumble very well, and queso Oaxaca from my favorite Mexican grocer on Eastern Avenue, which, while not traditional to Elote, would add the critical melt factor to the pizza topping. One of the critical aspects to good Elote is mayonnaise or crema (sour cream of sorts), which add that enigmatic, umami tang and pulls the whole dish together. Initially, either of these on pizza sound downright revolting (though I have been seen dipping a slice in mayo very late night), so how to achieve that je ne sais quois creamy note so crucial to the Elote preparation, was a momentary conundrum. My workaround was to incorporate mayo into the chili paste. Normally, Elote is dusted with dried chili mix or rubbed with an oily, almost ground, paste which imparts the fiery color and bite to the sweet yellow corn kernels. I combined sea salt, dried morita and chilacate chiles, red pepper flake, and paprika (for color) with mayonnaise and took my immersion blender to it. What resulted was almost paste, kind of sauce, sort of aioli, with the most brilliant blood red color I could have asked for, success!
I brushed the dough with some roasted garlic olive oil to give a nice base flavor. Then spread the corn and evenly dusted with grated, crumbly queso fresco. I cross hatched long pieces of string-cheese like queso Oaxaca for maximum ooze effect then drizzled the umami-chili concoction generously overtop. When I pulled it from the oven, a quick squeeze of lime (not too much or it would have been soggy) and Elote Pizza was born.
Dinner conversation that night was not entirely bereft of the usual dinner party frivolity, but it was marked by political discourse and the associated topics and emotions, ranging from despair and despondence to anger and agitation to action. Dinner did its part as a delicious and reverential nod to a time honored Mexican culinary tradition and a celebration of a cuisine and culture I hold close to my heart. Elote Pizza as solidarity comfort food.
- 1 ball Brooklyn Pizza Dough – rolled to desired size and thickness and dusted with corn meal
- ¼ cup garlic infused olive oil
- 4 ears sweet corn
- ¼ cup mayonnaise
- 1 lime
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 5 dried morita peppers
- 2 dried chilacate peppers
- 1 teaspoon paprika (get a bright red variety)
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flake
- ½ pound queso fresco – grated
- 1 medium ball queso Oaxaca – pulled into long strings
First, blister the corn. This can be done by rubbing the cobs in olive oil then grilling, broiling, or using a brûlée torn until the kernels begin to blacken and pop. Once, blistered, shave off the cob and set in a small bowl (can be done a day ahead and kept refrigerated).
Preheat oven to 400F. Using a blender or a cup with an immersion blender, puree the dried peppers, paprika, salt and mayonnaise into a thick paste-like aioli, it should be pourable but not runny or liquid. Brush dough with garlic olive oil. Spread corn evenly across the top. Repeat with queso fresco. Place strings of queso Oaxaca in a cross hatch pattern as if it were a pie crust. Drizzle chili paste generously across the top. Bake for 10-20 minutes depending on crisp factor but at least until the cheese is melted and the crust golden. Immediately upon removal from the oven, drizzle with the juice of half of a lime (being careful to avoid creating any soggy parts). Serve immediately.