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.