November 21, 2012

Catching up with a pop culture phenomenon

It's one of the great American snack foods, and with very little fuss, you can make your own gourmet popcorn.

By Wendell Brock / McClatchy Newspapers

Popcorn is one of America's great snack foods.

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Popcorn is a centuries-old simple food that has gone gourmet. Nutty-cheese popcorn features Parmesan, pistachios and cashews.

McClatchy Newspapers photos

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Gladys’s Popcorn Balls are studded with bacon.

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 some watering holes, the latest popcorn trend calls for sweetening it with syrup and mixing it with – wait for it – bacon.

Talk about a-maize balls.

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 of one place that 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.



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