Mexican corn cups (a.k.a. esquites) are so easy to make! This healthy snack is loaded with flavour from grilled corn, lime, mayo, cheese and more.
Sweet grilled summer corn is one of my
guilty pleasures in life. While I enjoy corn in general, there’s something about the sweet/charred flavour combo that just makes grilled corn so much more enjoyable to eat.
My family made a lot of boiled corn when I was growing up, and it’s really not my favourite thing. I mean it’s fine… but it kind of feels like a missed opportunity to me.
When I went to Mexico a couple of years ago, I tried a Mexican corn dish called esquites ,which was basically boiled corn placed in cups with mayonnaise, Cotija cheese and chili powder.
It sounded good, but what arrived to my table was basically soggy corn kernels topped with a mountain of mayo and cheese (see above). I figured it was bad because it was food from the resort, not proper Mexican street food.
Earlier this year I decided to try esquites again, this time from a popular Mexican restaurant called El Mariachi Tacos. They call theirs a Mexican Street Corn Cup. This version was infinitely better than what I had at the resort in Mexico, but I wanted to try making my own version with grilled corn.
After doing some research, I found that sometimes Mexican corn stands will make esquites with grilled corn, and either top them with mayonnaise or a creamy product called crema.
I did find crema at my local Mexican grocery, but it can be tough to find so I decided to make my Mexican corn cups with mayonnaise as the base.
What is Cotija Cheese?
For the cheese, I used Cotija cheese which is a crumbly Mexican cheese made from cow’s milk. It’s similar to Feta cheese, but it’s far less salty and has a milder flavour overall.
I bought my Cotija cheese from a family-owned Mexican grocery store, but I’ve been told that Whole Foods and Sobey’s may have it as well. If you can’t find it, you can use Feta instead, but be sure to add less salt to the recipe (you might not need any).
Tips for Buying Corn on the Cob
When it comes to buying corn, your best bet will always corn from a farm stand. The sugars in corn begin to convert into starches from the moment it’s harvested, so the fresher the corn, the sweeter the flavour.
In Canada, the only corn we have available for most of the year is packages of partly-husked ears (shown above). These are never as nice as the whole ears of husk-on corn that show up in huge boxes at the grocery in the middle of summer, but you can make them work.
Tips for Cooking Corn on the Cob
If you’re boiling corn that isn’t very fresh, you can add a bit of sugar to the water to boost the sweetness of the corn. About 2 tablespoons of sugar in 4 quarts of water should work if you don’t want it to be overly sweet. Fresh corn will take about 3 minutes to cook, older corn takes twice as long.
For roasting, you can remove the silk and wrap them in tin foil for tender corn, or remove the husks and silk completely and grill them directly for chewier charred kernels. Grilling fresh husked corn takes about 10 minutes, but corn wrapped in foil or left in the husk will take almost twice as long.
How to Make Mexican Corn Cups
This recipe is actually really simple when you break it down. You’re basically going to husk your corn, grill it, create the sauce, mix it together with the corn and serve it. Simple!
The hardest part is finding the ingredients, but if you don’t mind substitutions you should be able to get everything at your local supermarket.
Options for Roasting the Corn
For this recipe, I prefer the chewy texture of corn that is cooked directly on the grill. Without that chewy bite, the dish is too soggy for me. The charred flavour is a bonus that works really well against the creaminess of this dish too.
If you’re worried about overcooking your corn, you can cook it in tin foil or in the husk first (which will take about 16-20 minutes), and then unwrap the cobs, turn your heat up on the grill, and char them briefly to give them some colour.
TIME SAVING TIP:
If you’re really strapped for time, you can even make this recipe with frozen corn! Just thaw the kernels a bit in the microwave to remove the ice, and then cook the corn in a dry skillet to toast the corn. From there, you can make the mayonnaise mixture and you’re good to go!
How to Cut Corn Kernels off the Cob
I like to hold my corn vertically when I cut off the kernels, but if you find this tricky you can lay the corn down on the board instead. Just cut off a strip of kernels to create a “flat” side, then lay the flat side down on the board and continue cutting off the kernels in strips all the way around each cob.
There’s no wrong or right way, just do what’s easiest for you (and keep your fingers out of the way!).
How to Assemble the Mexican Corn Cups
Once you’ve finished grilling the corn and cutting off the kernels, it’s all downhill from there.
You’re just going to mix your mayonnaise, lime juice and chili powder together, add the corn, and then get ready to assemble the cups. If you want do, you can add a bit of sour cream for tanginess or throw in some cayenne pepper if you like things spicy. The recipe is pretty flexible that way.
If you don’t want to serve the corn in cups, you can use small bowls instead. The idea is just to layer the corn mixture with the cheese so you can get a bit of everything in each bite. If you want to be fancy, you can decorate the tops of your Mexican corn cups with extra chili and a little cilantro but the dish is just as tasty without all of the garnishes.
I do like to serve this with lime wedges though, because it makes the dish more interactive to eat, and the acidity helps to cut through the richness of the mayo and cheese.
Make Ahead: If you want to make this dish ahead of time for a party, you can grill the corn, cut off the kernels and store them in the fridge for later. You can make the mayonnaise mixture ahead of time too, but leave everything unassembled until the last minute.
If you end up making this dish, I’d love to see your version! You can tag your social media posts with #InSearchOfYummyness, and tag me with @InSearchOfYummness on Facebook and Instagram, or @InSearchOfYummy on Twitter.
Mexican Corn Cups (Esquites)
- 1 tsp vegetable oil , for brushing the grill
- 4 ears corn , husked (or 3 cups of frozen corn)
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 2 tsp lime juice , plus extra lime wedges for serving if desired
- 1 tsp chili powder , plus extra for sprinkling (ancho, chipotle, your favourite mix)
- salt , to taste (omit if using Feta cheese)
- 1/2 cup Cotija cheese , crumbled (Substitute: Feta)
- 1 tbsp cilantro , finely chopped (for garnish, if desired)
- Preheat your grill to medium-high heat.
- Brush grill grates with oil using a heat-proof barbecue brush or a crumpled piece of tin foil and tongs.
- Grill corn, turning every few minutes, until the ears are cooked through and are slightly charred. Remove cooked corn from grill and set aside to cool.
- Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the mayonnaise, lime juice and chili powder. Set aside.
- Stand an ear of corn up lengthwise on a cutting board (flat end down), and hold it from the top with your non-dominant hand. Carefully, use a large kitchen knife to cut the kernels of corn off of the cob, and place into a large mixing bowl. Repeat with all ears of corn.
- Combine the corn with the mayonnaise mixture, and season with salt as desired.
- Spoon a layer of the corn mayo mixture into small cups. Sprinkle a layer of cheese, cilantro (optional), and more chili powder (if desired), then add another layer of corn and continue layering ingredients until the cups are full.
- Serve immediately with lime wedges, and refrigerate unused portions promptly. Leftovers will last about 1-2 days in the fridge.
Tips for Grilling Corn:
- For chewy, charred corn remove the husk (and silk) from the cobs and place directly on the grill.
- For juicy, tender corn either leave the husks on or wrap the ears in tin foil. To grill corn with the husks on, soak the ears in water for about 15 minutes, then gently peel back the husks (don't remove them!) then remove and discard the silk. Pull the husks back up and place on the grill.