Popcorn is one of America’s great snack foods.
Delicious, aromatic and noisy, it is the perfect nosh for popping into the mouth, mindlessly, while watching Hollywood fluff, sporting events and circus clowns.
“Popcorn,” writes food historian Betty Fussell in her book “The Story of Corn,” “is a truly indigenous fast finger-food that links all ages, places, races, classes and kinds in the continuing circus of American life.” Moreover, Fussell says, popcorn is the “oldest known corn in the world.” When heated, the moisture inside the tightfisted little grains expands, turning the kernel inside out — and into something, light, white, fluffy and magical.
If you only pop corn in the microwave, you are missing out on a one-of-a-kind sensory experience — pure, elemental, fun. You need nothing more than a few tablespoons of oil, a half cup or so of popping corn and a heavy-bottomed pot with a lid.
First the oil sizzles. Then there’s the surprise of the first few kernels exploding. Then the sound of the full-out pop-POP!-popping.
Then the muffled thud as the corn virtually inches its way up the side of the vessel.
Tell me you don’t pop a few pieces of the fluffed maize into your mouth before you can reach for the salt shaker, and I’ll say there’s not a kernel of truth in your mouth! Of course, like so many homespun treats, from boiled peanuts to deviled eggs, popcorn in recent years has gotten all gourmet.
Truffle oil and rosemary. White cheddar and Parmesan. Chili and lime.
While you can munch on vinegar and salt popcorn at the Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points district, the latest popcorn trend calls for sweetening it with syrup and mixing it with — wait for it — bacon.
In Atlanta, Holeman & Finch puts out bacon-caramel popcorn, and Watershed executive chef Joe Truex does H & F one better, shaping popcorn into softball-size orbs like he remembers from his Louisiana childhood.
Truex favors dark-brown cane syrup — Steen’s 100 percent Pure Cane Syrup, if you can find it — but you can make your popcorn balls with maple or corn syrup. For a total Cracker Jack experience, add peanuts. (Cashews and pecans are good, too.)
While experimenting with corny snacks, I heard The Branded Butcher in Athens, Ga., is serving fried hominy with salt and vinegar.
Though it’s not technically popcorn, I’d say these corn nuts are a kissing cousin of popcorn. The kernels don’t turn inside out, but they do puff up when fried. Plus, they are crunchy and wicked good.
Fishing around on the Internet, I found a New York Times recipe for Fried Hominy that suggests sprinkling the corn with a chili-spice mixture and serving with lime wedges.
This fried hominy is really good with kosher salt and malt vinegar, too. (And beer.) However you decide to dress your popcorn, I suggest you forget the microwave and try it the old-fashioned way. If you can find an iron skillet with a lid, that’s perfect.
I use a heavy-bottom stockpot, shaking it around and holding it just above the flame to keep the popcorn from charring.
And when I do, it reminds me of the days before the microwave and before those ’70s popcorn poppers with the little heating coil in the base, when my mother used to frenetically shake up a bowl of popcorn on top of the stove.
Sprinkled with salt and tossed with butter, there’s nothing like it in the world.
Pop along now.
Try the accompanying recipes for Nutty-Cheese Corn (with pistachios, cashews, Parmesan and lemon zest), Gladys’ Popcorn Balls and Fried Hominy.
Hands on: 10 minutes.
Total time: 10 minutes.
Serves 6 to 8.
With chopped pistachios, cashews, Parmesan, chives and lemon zest, this olive-oil-popped corn has a slightly Mediterranean zing. If you run the cheese and nuts through the food processor until coarse, you get just the right mixture for clinging to the popcorn. If making ahead, get everything ready and toss just before serving.
1⁄2 cup popping corn
3 tablespoons olive oil (may use any kind of oil)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 ounces good-quality Parmesan cheese, grated
1 cup roasted, salted pistachios, finely chopped
1 cup roasted, salted cashews, finely chopped
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
3 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped
Zest of one lemon
Place popping corn and olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan or skillet with a lid, and cover. Heat over high heat. As soon as the corn begins to pop, reduce the heat to medium, and continue to pop until all the corn is popped, about 5 minutes, shaking regularly and lifting the pot an inch above the flame to keep the popcorn from burning. (Once you can no longer hear any pops, the corn is ready.) Dump into a large bowl, and toss with butter. Add Parmesan, pistachios and cashews, and mix well. Toss in salt; taste and adjust seasonings. Stir in chives and lemon zest. Serve immediately.
GLADYS’S POPCORN BALLS
Hands on: 20 min.
Total time: 20 min.
Makes: 8 to 10 balls.
Atlanta’s Watershed restaurant executive chef Joe Truex, a native of Mansura, La., credits this recipe to the woman who took care of him and his sisters while his parents worked. If this sounds like a lot of bacon grease, well, it is. But the fat really flavors the popcorn and gives it shelf life. You may cut back to as little as 1 tablespoon if desired. Feel free to mix in peanuts, cashews or pecans, too.
1 cup sugar
11⁄3 cups cane syrup, preferably Steen’s
2⁄3 cup water
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
4 quarts popped corn, preferably not microwave popcorn, lightly salted
12 ounces bacon, fried and chopped into crumbles (should have about 1 cup), fat reserved
2 tablespoons butter, plus more for coating hands while shaping balls
1⁄4 teaspoon baking soda
In a saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer, melt sugar, syrup, 2⁄3 cup water, vinegar and salt over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture reaches 250 degrees, 5 to 10 minutes. Watch carefully so mixture does not boil over.
In a very large bowl, toss popcorn and bacon. Cover a work surface or large baking tray with waxed paper. When syrup mixture is ready, turn off heat and stir in butter, reserved bacon fat and baking soda; it will foam up. Mix well.
Pour about 2⁄3 of the syrup over popcorn and bacon. Working very quickly, mix well with a wooden spoon.
Grease your hands with butter. Being very careful not to burn your hands, shape the popcorn mixture into softball-size balls and place them on prepared surface to cool; this is best done by more than one person, so syrup does not have time to harden. As the mixture begins to dry, stir in the remaining syrup.
Cool and serve. Or wrap individually in waxed paper and store in an airtight container.
Hands on: 20 minutes.
Total time: 21⁄2 hours (plus overnight soak time).
Serves 8 to 10.
This recipe calls for soaking and boiling the hominy as you would with dried legumes. It’s time consuming but well worth it. Just make sure the kernels are as dry as possible before frying, and have a lid handy to cover the pot and avoid splatters. Dried hominy can be found at Latin food markets; I like the large Peruvian variety labeled as “peeled mote corn.” The next time I do this, I am going to add a hint of cinnamon to the spice mix.
1 pound dried hominy (pozole), soaked overnight
1 large white onion, cut in half
1 head garlic, cut in half
1 carrot, cut in half
2 bay leaves
1⁄2 teaspoon dried thyme (or about 15 sprigs fresh thyme)
1 tablespoon salt, divided
1⁄4 cup paprika
1⁄2 teaspoon mustard powder
1⁄2 teaspoon ginger powder
1⁄2 teaspoon garlic powder
1⁄2 teaspoon onion powder
1⁄2 teaspoon chipotle or other chili powder
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cumin
1⁄2 teaspoon ground coriander
1⁄2 tablespoon sugar
Cooking oil for frying (canola, corn grape-seed or any flavorless oil)
Drain hominy and combine in a stockpot with onion, garlic, carrot, bay leaves, thyme and water to cover. Cook 1 to 11⁄2 hours, until kernels are tender and just beginning to split. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt (plus more to taste). Let sit for 1⁄2 hour, then strain and remove vegetables. Continue to strain as kernels cool; hominy can be refrigerated at this point for up to two days.
Mix paprika, mustard powder, ginger powder, garlic powder, onion powder, chipotle or chili powder, cumin, coriander, sugar and remaining 2 teaspoons salt. Taste to adjust seasonings. Set aside.
Make sure kernels are as dry as possible. (You may want to dab or roll them in paper towels or a dish towel). Pour about 2 inches of oil in a deep pot, and heat to 375 degrees. Pour hominy into pot, in batches if necessary. If oil spatters, partially cover pot. Fry, stirring occasionally, until kernels begin to brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Toss with salt and spice mix. Serve with lime wedges.
Variation: Use sweet smoked paprika (pimenton) mixed with a little ancho chili powder and salt. Or sprinkle with salt and your favorite vinegar.
Adapted from a recipe in The New York Times.