Wander any festival or fair or market in Mexico and you’ll likely cross paths with elotes, mayo-smeared, chili-sprinkled, cheese-covered corn on the cob. Sometimes, the husks are pulled backward, like a handle, but often it’s speared on a stick, like a corn dog or frozen banana. You’re ambling around this happy place, while eating, which makes it all the happier.
I wouldn’t recommend that here.
Don’t get me wrong: It will still be happy and mayo-y and chili-y and cheesy. But a bowl of pasta begs for a fork, a chair, a table where there is, hopefully, a bottle of wine or two. I have this working theory—tested often just to make sure—that if you have a vegetable and some pasta, you have dinner.
Such was my muse here. While elotes are traditionally a snack or, in Stateside Mexican restaurants, an appetizer or side, I kept wondering: How could I turn this into a whole meal? If you’ve ever had elotes, you get why. The combination of charred corn, spicy mayo, salty cheese, fresh cilantro, and juicy lime is sublime. (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)
So why not put it on pasta? There is already precedent for taking the recipe off the cob: esquites, which some translate as elotes in a cup, but there’s more nuance. With esquites, the kernels are cooked in a salty epazote broth (pronounced eh-pah-ZOH-teh, a popular, ultra-aromatic herb). From there, the toppings are identical.
This pasta-fied version borrows inspiration from both.
More Cheese, Right This Way
First, strip the corn kernels. Then, instead of boiling, char them in a squealing-hot cast-iron skillet. The trick is: Pat down, then don’t touch. Like a piece of fish or steak, which needs to form a crust before being flipped, the longer the kernels stay put, the deeper their color and flavor. Once they’re super toasty, call in some jalapeño (remove the pith and seeds or skip altogether if you aren’t into spice), garlic, and chili powder. Toss this with mayo, lime juice, chives, cilantro, and cotija, a hard, crumbly cow’s milk cheese. If you can’t find cotija, parmesan works, too.
All of this gets tossed with hot pasta. I opted for rigatoni, whose big tubes offer sanctuary for the corn kernels. But any short shape, from penne to fusilli, will do. Just make sure it’s hot! This way the noodles and sauce fall hopelessly in love with each other.
If there are any leftovers, they make the very best pasta salad for tomorrow’s lunch.
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 4 ears corn, shucked, and kernels cut off (about 3 cups)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1 jalapeño, minced (remove pith and seeds for less spice)
- 3 garlic cloves, minced or Microplaned
- 1 1/4 teaspoons chili powder, plus more to taste
- 1/2 pound rigatoni (or other short pasta shape)
- 5 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 3 tablespoons just-squeezed lime juice
- 1/4 cup finely chopped chives, plus more for topping
- 1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro, plus more for topping
- 1/4 cup grated or crumbled cotija, plus more for topping
What’s your favorite veggie pasta of the moment? Tell us about it in the comments!