- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

October is National Popcorn Month, harvest time and the perfect opportunity to think about popcorn and its place in our lives.

With the fall-winter holidays on the horizon, that place might just be as gifts for friends, family and acquaintances. After all, aside from the decorative tins that hold commercial gift packs, there is nothing tricky about making great flavored popcorn. If we make the blends in our own kitchens, the popcorn will be as fresh as we want it to be.

So roll up your sleeves, pull out that hot-air popper, pan or microwave bag, and get ready. We are here to share recipes that can take us through the holidays as gifts … perhaps along with a cool new DVD or maybe even a popper. Or, barring friends of any kind, we can snack on it ourselves.

Everyone loves popcorn. According to the Popcorn Board, U.S. consumers annually munch more than 17 billion quarts, or 54 quarts per person, with about 30 percent eaten at movie theaters, ball games and amusement parks, and the rest (no surprise here) eaten at home.

Top-selling popcorn brands, such as Jolly Time, Newman’s Own and Orville Redenbacher, are available at supermarkets across the country, while upscale markets and the Internet boast boutique brands from small growers. Arrowhead Mills offers an organic popcorn. Yoder, a family-owned producer in Indiana’s Amish country, has a deserved and loyal following.

There also are plenty of poppers on the market, both stovetop and electric. Some poppers have split lids for easy pouring. Others have built-in steam vents that supposedly prevent soggy popcorn. Then, for the lazy among us, there is microwave popcorn that takes the work out of popping. Caveat here: Don’t place popcorn kernels in a paper bag and try to microwave. That’s an excellent way to start a fire or damage the microwave.

Of course, there are popcorn lovers who still favor the old sturdy cast-iron skillet, while others lean toward electric hot-air poppers that require little or no oil and keep calories trimmed.

At its leanest, popcorn is a dieter’s delight. Full of fiber and low in calories, a cup of hot-air popcorn yields just about 30 calories, or up to 55 or so if oil is used, according to nutritionist Joycelyn Clarke. However, it’s also easy to doll up popcorn into fancy high-cal combinations.

“If I don’t watch myself, I can wipe out a bowl of popcorn in 15 minutes,” says an old pal, Hollie West of Bethesda, who in recent years has tried to cut back his popcorn indulgence to several times a week rather than every day.

I understand his passion. The love of popcorn runs deep and long in the Americas. In 1948, archaeologists exploring a cave in west-central New Mexico found ears of popcorn that turned out to be about 4,000 years old, according to the Popcorn Board. Kernels found in burial grounds in the coastal deserts of northern Chile were so well preserved they still popped even though they were 1,000 years old.

American Indians threw kernels directly into the fire or onto heated sand. Once popped, the corn was sifted and then pounded into a fine, powdery meal and mixed with water. This same cooking technique was passed on to the early American Colonists, who mixed ground popcorn with milk and ate it for breakfast as a kind of cereal.

By the 1840s, corn popping had become a popular recreational activity in the United States, and by the 1870s, popcorn commonly was sold in grocery stores and at concession stands at circuses, carnivals and street fairs.

The first mobile popcorn machine was introduced at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, about the same time the silent-movie era was heating up. By the early 1920s, when Hollywood stars such as Charlie Chaplin, John Barrymore and Greta Garbo were lighting up the screen, bags of popcorn were common at most movie theaters across the country.

Popcorn is grown primarily in the Midwest, but not all of the corn gracing the corn belt is capable of popping. When I was growing up in Alabama, the corn my family grew was boiled, grilled, ground for grits and cornmeal, and fed to the chickens and hogs, but it wouldn’t pop a lick. Now I know why.

At least six types of corn are commonly grown: sweet, flour, dent, waxy, flint and popcorn, but only popcorn pops. Popcorn comes in more than 100 varieties and a range of colors. The kernels run from off-white to yellow to light gold to red to black, and no two strains of popcorn are alike, say the experts at the Popcorn Board.

Popcorn pops because it holds water. Here’s what happens during the popcorn harvest: When the corn moisture content reaches 16 percent to 20 percent, the corn is stripped and placed in a machine that removes the kernels. The kernels are then transported to a storage bin, where they remain until the desired moisture content is reached.

In an alternate method of harvesting, the kernels are left on the cobs. The corn dries on the cob, and the kernels are removed from the ears later, when the moisture content is 14 percent.

The water that gets the popcorn dancing is stored in a small circle of soft starch in each kernel of the popcorn. When the kernels are placed in a popper heated above 400 degrees, the water inside the kernels turns into steam, causing the kernels to explode.

The kernels then miraculously turn inside out and pop into glorious puffs, which the earliest Americans called “hailstones given to the god of water.” Alchemy. Pass the bowl.

Here are a few recipes from the Popcorn Board to get you started.

Tex-Mex popcorn mix

2 teaspoons ground chili powder

2 teaspoons paprika

2 teaspoons ground cumin

8 cups popped popcorn

Butter-flavored cooking spray

In a small bowl, combine chili powder, paprika and cumin. Put popped popcorn in a large bowl and spray lightly with butter-flavored cooking spray. Add spices to popcorn and mix thoroughly until all kernels are coated. Makes 4 to 8 servings.

Hot wasabi popcorn

8 cups popped popcorn, warm

3 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 teaspoons prepared wasabi

teaspoon kosher salt

teaspoon sugar, optional

Place popcorn in a large bowl. Microwave butter or margarine 20 seconds or until melted. Stir in wasabi until well blended. Drizzle wasabi butter over popcorn and stir to distribute. Sprinkle with salt and sugar, if desired, and stir again. Makes 4 to 8 servings.

Sweet garam masala kettle corn

cup popcorn kernels

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 teaspoon garam masala (see note)

1 teaspoon salt

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot with a lid, place popcorn, sugar, oil, garam masala and salt. Cover and place over medium heat until corn begins to pop.

Once corn begins to pop, shake pot constantly over heat. When popping slows, remove pot from heat and transfer popcorn to a bowl to serve. Makes about 10 cups; 6 to 10 servings.

Note: Garam masala is an Indian spice blend available in Indian grocery stores and some supermarkets.

Bombay popcorn

8 cups popped popcorn, warm

3 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 teaspoons curry powder

teaspoon kosher salt

teaspoon sugar

cup toasted coconut, golden raisins or sliced almonds, optional

Place popcorn in a large bowl. Microwave butter or margarine 20 seconds or until melted. Stir in curry powder until well blended. Drizzle seasoned butter over popcorn and stir to distribute. Sprinkle with salt, sugar and coconut, golden raisins or sliced almonds, if desired. Stir gently until blended.

Makes 4 to 8 servings.

Crunchy popcorn trail mix

5 cups popped popcorn

3 cups whole-grain oat cereal

1/3 cup raisins

1/3 cup peanuts or other nuts

1/3 cup sunflower seeds

1/4 cup ( stick) butter or margarine

6 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

Stir together popcorn, cereal, raisins, nuts and sunflower seeds in large microwaveable bowl. Set aside.

Combine butter or margarine, brown sugar and corn syrup in small saucepan. Heat until boiling, turn down heat and cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour over popcorn mixture, stirring to coat evenly.

Microwave 3 to 4 minutes, stirring and scraping bowl after each minute.

Spread onto greased cookie sheet; cool. Break into pieces and store in airtight container.

Makes 4 to 8 servings.

Cheese popcorn

8 cups popped popcorn

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 to 2 teaspoon finely chopped thyme, either fresh or dried

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup grated cheese, such as good quality imported Parmigiano-Reggiano or white or yellow cheddar

teaspoon salt, or to taste

Pour popcorn into a large bowl; set aside and keep warm.

In a small skillet or saucepan, melt butter over medium heat.

Stir in thyme and black pepper, and saute on low heat for 2 or 3 minutes. Remove pan from stove. Sprinkle grated cheese over popcorn and mix well. Then drizzle with herbed butter and sprinkle on salt to taste, mixing well. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 to 8 servings.

Classic caramel popcorn

5 tablespoons melted butter, plus butter for greasing pan

8 cups popped popcorn

1 cup coarsely chopped peanuts, walnuts or pecans

Water

2 cups granulated sugar

6 tablespoons white corn syrup

1 to 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon or ginger or a mix

Generously butter a jelly-roll pan or a cookie sheet. Combine popcorn and nuts and pile into pan. Set aside. Have ready a cup of water and a pastry brush to wipe down the side of the pan while cooking the caramel syrup.

In a heavy saucepan, combine sugar, corn syrup, 4 tablespoons water, and cinnamon or ginger to taste.

Place pan on medium high and cook for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring briskly with a wooden spoon. Dip brush into water and wipe down sides of pan, dissolving the sugar. Do this a couple of times.

Raise heat to high and continue cooking syrup, stirring briskly, until it is about the color of brewed tea, about 5 minutes. Don’t allow it to scorch.

Quickly remove pan from heat and stir in 5 tablespoons melted butter, which will bubble, so handle carefully. Quickly pour or spoon caramel over popped corn and mix well with the wooden spoon, coating evenly with the caramel. Let cool and serve.

Makes 4 to 8 servings.

Chocolate nut popcorn

8 cups popped popcorn

1 cup coarsely chopped walnut, pecans or skinned pistachio nuts, shelled

3 ounces good-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate

1/4 cup heavy cream or undiluted evaporated milk

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon dark rum or brandy, or teaspoon vanilla

Pour popcorn into a large bowl. Stir in chopped nuts; mix well and set aside. Cut or break chocolate into -inch pieces and set aside.

In a heavy stainless-steel saucepan, combine cream or milk, corn syrup, butter and rum, brandy or vanilla. Place over medium heat and cook for about 5 minutes, or until mixture is bubbling but not quite boiling.

Immediately remove pan from heat and stir in chocolate pieces.

Whisk glaze briskly until smooth, then drizzle over popcorn.

Mix well with a large spoon, coating the popcorn evenly. Let cool and serve.

Makes 4 to 8 servings.

Joyce White is author of two cookbooks, “Soul Food: Recipes and Reflections From African-American Churches,” and “Brown Sugar: Soul Food Desserts From Family and Friends” (HarperCollins).


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