I’ve had a long love affair with Elote—the charred Mexican street corn that’s coated in a glorious heart attack mixture of sour cream, Cotija cheese and mayonnaise. Since I enjoy any excuse to use the latter (mayo is my happy place of condiments) I thought I’d get really crazy and create a slightly lighter, deconstructed version to stuff inside a corn tortilla. And in the process of creating this “elote-style” easy chicken quesadilla recipe, I got to break out my grill pan for the first time in my new apartment, and discover if it was somehow immune to the inevitable cyclone of smoke that usually envelops all my belongings.
The answer? No, sir. It was not.
There are certain foods that make it impossible to not have my sheets, curtains and couch reek at the end of the workday. (I’m looking at you, salmon). But I used to think this was just a consequence of living in a studio apartment, where I could simultaneously have one foot in the kitchen and the other in the living room—and where my bedroom was a sleeping loft that inevitably trapped any kitchen scents as they rose.
My last living situation, where Charlie and I cohabitated for a small stretch last fall, did not leave much wiggle room for either of us to be acceptable roommates. That we managed not to kill each other, is truly a testament to my patient other half, and the fact that he travels for work half the month. Nonetheless, I’m sure Charlie could fill a full legal pad with grievances. But more so than the dirty tissues I left around the apartment, or the clothes chair that housed wayward dresses from several seasons, it was the smells I inflicted on all areas of the apartment that he most had to muscle through in our first shared space.
When we moved into our new loft, with its high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows and bedroom with a door, I assumed that going to sleep with the unwelcome perfume of masala or fish tacos on our pillows would be one of those annoyances that could be crossed off the list. But it turns out hell hath no fury like my cast iron grill pan.
Two corn cobs and one chicken thigh into my first grilling expedition and the floor-to-ceiling windows were already fogged with thick, charcoal air. Fortunately, the draft made it’s way outside before it could suffocate my sheets in the other room. And more thankfully, the happiness these elote corn and grilled chicken quesadillas brought my stomach were well worth what my lungs suffered through in the process.
If you have an outdoor grill, you’ll find that this recipe is even easier and requires almost no cleanup. I’m always hesitant to bring corn that needs shucking into my home, no matter how many rooms or doors. So if you have a deck, where my mother and I usually relegate my father for shucking duty during summers away, all the better. After the corn and chicken thighs each get their own turn charring over the flame, they get tossed with a lightened up elote sauce. Yes, there’s still lots of mayo involved. But I nixed the sour cream and add a modest amount of cheese.
If you wanted to get rid of the dairy altogether, the corn-chicken filling, thanks to my best friend (mayo!), might be enough to glue the tortillas together and prevent them from opening up on the grill. But in my eyes, a quesadilla isn’t really complete without a little cheddar, and since this recipe falls further on the hedonism side of the healthy-hedonist spectrum, I decided to go for it. Cotija isn’t a great melting cheese, so it’s more there for flavor and as an homage to the inspiration (elote). If you don’t want to buy two types of cheese, you can always omit it.
As I was waiting for the quesadillas to crisp up on the grill, and helping myself to the filling, I realized how good the charred corn-chicken mixture was on its own. So if an elote chicken salad is more your jam, you can omit the cheese and eat it paleo-style scooped on top of a bed of romaine, or healthy hedonist-style on toasted gluten-free sandwich bread.
Even if you don’t own an outdoor grill, and live in a small doorless apartment, this easy chicken quesadilla recipe with Mexican street corn is so good, it won’t matter that you’ll be smelling it for days. Because you will be thinking about it anyway.
Corn season is almost upon us friends, so happy cooking!
Elote Corn and Chicken Quesadillas with Cotija Cheese
- 3 ears corn shucked
- 2 boneless skinless chicken thighs
- Olive oil
- Sea salt
- Ancho chili powder or regular chili powder
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon lime juice from about 1/2 a lime
- 1 clove garlic minced
- 1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro leaves
- 1/2 cup finely crumbled cotija cheese
- 1 cup finely shredded cheddar or jack cheese
- 12 corn tortillas
Heat a charcoal grill or grill pan over medium-high heat. When the grill is hot, cook the corn, rotating occasionally, until cooked through and charred in spots on all sides, about 8 minutes total. Set aside.
Place the chicken on a work surface. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and chili powder. Grill over medium-high heat, for 5 minutes on each side, rotating 90 degrees halfway through cooking to get a nice crosshatch. Allow the chicken to rest for 5 minutes.
While the corn and chicken are resting, make the sauce: in a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, garlic, 1 tablespoon lime juice, cilantro, 1/4 cup cotija cheese, and 1/2 teaspoon chili powder. Reserve half of the sauce in a small serving bowl.
Cut the corn off the cob and add to the bowl with the remaining sauce. Finely dice the chicken and add to the corn. Toss until well-combined.
To assemble the quesadillas, arrange the tortillas on a clean work surface. (To make them more pliable, you may want to wrap them in a dish towel and microwave for 20 seconds, or wrap them in foil and heat on the grill while you’re prepping the cooked corn and chicken). Arrange a thin layer of the chicken mixture on one half of the tortillas. Resist the urge to overstuff! You don’t want them to break. Top with a tablespoon of cheddar cheese and fold the tortillas in half.
Grill the tortillas until crispy and charred, about 2 minutes per side, rotating 90 degrees halfway through to get a nice crosshatch. Cut in half and serve alongside the remaining sauce, and cotija cheese.
If you're using an outdoor grill and find that those pesky corn kernels and chicken chunks keep falling out through the grates, try wrapping each individual quesadilla in foil and grilling them in its packaging. Using an indoor grill pan it's easier to nudge the filling back into its shell without losing the whole thing.