August 14, 2013

For lover of Maine popcorn, it's crunch time

Fueled by an addiction to Little Lad's herbal popcorn, a home cook experiments in the kitchen to create his own version of the snack.

By JOE YONAN The Washington Post

For a household accustomed to growing and making most everything edible, our addiction to one particular store-bought food -- a snack food, at that -- was intense. Pretty much any time my sister, brother-in-law or I went to a grocery store near their homestead in southern Maine while I was living there last year, we were expected to pick up some Little Lad's herbal popcorn.

POPCORN
click image to enlarge

Herbed popcorn

The Washington Post photo by Deb Lindsey

POPCORN
click image to enlarge

For the popcorn-addicted, garlic ghee and dark chocolate-drizzled versions.

The Washington Post photo by Deb Lindsey

We tried a couple of the other flavors but always came back to the herbal. And we started small. But too often those little bags would barely make it to the car, let alone home, before the contents were consumed in a fit of hand-to-mouth shoveling. And we gradually upgraded and started buying bags that hold about a gallon of the stuff. They're so tall that they stick out of whatever you put them in, broadcasting to anyone who sees you that, yes, you have a problem. If they've tasted it, they probably do, too.

It's made by a group of vegan Seventh-Day Adventists based in Corinth, Maine, and sold around New England, and all it took was a little Googling to realize we were not the only ones with an addiction to it.

"What makes this popcorn so amazing?" asks a blogger in Massachusetts.

"One taste and you'll be hooked 4-eva," writes another one in Portland, where Little Lad's operates a cafe.

What's in this stuff? The company has guarded the recipe, but we perused the label often, checking and rechecking as if the simple list might possibly seem less cryptic the more times we read it: "Non-GMO popcorn, herbs and spices, soybean oil and sea salt."

Then we slowed down and concentrated as we tasted, thinking instead of shoveling. Okay, dill is definitely among the herbs. And the nutty, kinda cheesy flavor had to be that staple of vegans everywhere: nutritional yeast. A closer look at the contents of the transparent bag and the telltale golden flakes inside confirmed it. But is that really all that goes into it?

I started experimenting in the kitchen. I tried a recipe on a now-defunct blog called Cornucopasetic that got me in the ballpark, using just those two ingredients plus vegetable oil and salt. But it didn't seem quite there. So I played around with the flavor mixture, adding oregano and thyme, which rounded out the herbiness; garlic, which overpowered the other flavors so much I made the rare decision to ditch it; and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, which amped up the addictiveness even further. (Interestingly, I tried using Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, which nutritional yeast so often subs for, and didn't like it as much as with the "nooch.")

The real trick, it turns out, is in getting the coating to stick to the popcorn. The method I settled on involves infusing oil with the pepper and herbs, tossing it with popcorn in a paper bag and drizzling on a little more oil before coating (or trying to coat) with the nutritional yeast. Still, some of the coating sinks to the bottom of the bag. But you know what? That happens with the Little Lad's popcorn, too, so maybe it's meant to be.

Once we started making our own version (in gallon-size batches, of course), our purchases of the Little Lad's brand slowed down a bit. But then we had another problem: We couldn't seem to buy enough popcorn kernels to keep up.

Eventually, we had no choice. We planted 100 feet of popcorn, between the soybeans and the wheat.

But that might not be the end of it. One day, I fear, my sister will tell me they're making their own nutritional yeast, a process I believe to be entirely industrial. At that point, an addiction to popcorn may be the least of their worries.

 

HERBED POPCORN

Makes: About 1 gallon (8 servings)

This recipe was inspired by the popcorn made by Little Lad's, a group of Seventh-Day Adventists based in Corinth, Maine, and sold at stores around the region and online at www.littlelads.com.

Nutritional yeast, also known as nooch, is used to enhance the flavor and boost the nutrition in vegetarian and vegan dishes. It tastes a little cheesy and is available at health food stores and at Whole Foods Markets. From Washington Post Food editor Joe Yonan, author of the upcoming "Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook" (Ten Speed Press, August 2013).

2 tablespoons safflower or other neutral vegetable oil

1 tablespoon dried oregano

2 teaspoons dried dill

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 cup popcorn kernels

1/4 cup nutritional yeast (may substitute finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Fine sea salt (optional)

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Once it starts to shimmer, sprinkle in the oregano, dill, thyme and crushed red pepper flakes, then turn off the heat so the herbs and pepper can infuse the oil for at least 15 minutes.

Pop the popcorn in an air popper or using your favorite method. Transfer it to a large paper bag. While it is still warm, drizzle the oil mixture over it, close the bag and shake to coat the popcorn. Drizzle on the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil, sprinkle on the nutritional yeast, close the bag and shake to combine. Taste, and add salt if needed.

 

GARLIC GHEE POPCORN

Makes: 10 to 16 cups (5 to 8 servings)

Kristina Kern of Stella's PopKern, a popcorn catering business and food truck in Washington, recommends using a mix of kernels -- varying in texture, size, density and sweetness -- for this recipe. Look for colored kernels (red, black, white) as well as mushroom and snowflake kernels. The variable mix accounts for the wider-than-usual range of yield.

Feel free to add flavorings you like, such as freshly ground black pepper, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, smoked paprika or finely chopped fresh herbs.

Make ahead: Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days. For re-crisping, see note below. From Kristina Kern, of Stella's PopKern (www.stellaspopkern.com) in Washington.

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter (may substitute store-bought ghee)

4 large cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup canola oil, white coconut oil, olive oil, peanut oil or grapeseed oil

1/2 cup mixed popcorn kernels

Fine sea salt, for sprinkling

Melt the butter, without stirring, in a small saucepan over low heat. Skim off and discard any white solids on the surface. Slowly pour the yellow melted butter into a heatproof bowl, stopping once you reach any remaining white solids that have sunk to the bottom.

Wipe out the saucepan thoroughly, then pour the melted butter through a fine-mesh strainer back into the saucepan, discarding any solids.

Stir half of the garlic into the butter, then place over medium-low heat; cook for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, discarding the solids. Cover loosely to keep warm.

Combine the remaining garlic and the oil in your popcorn popper or in a deep pot placed over high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the popcorn kernels; begin stirring or shaking the pot right away to make sure each kernel is coated and to keep the garlic from burning. Cover, and cook until the popping sounds slow down, with long pauses in between.

Immediately transfer the popcorn to a large serving bowl. Drizzle the garlicky ghee over the top, then immediately sprinkle with salt to taste.

Note: To re-crisp this popcorn, spread it on a baking sheet in a single layer and place in the oven. Preheat to 350 degrees; once the temperature is reached, turn off the oven. Let the popcorn remain in the oven for 5 to 8 minutes (but no longer), depending on the desired level of crispness.

 

DARK CHOCOLATE DRIZZLED POPCORN

Makes: About 12 cups (6 servings)

Mushroom popcorn kernels are recommended for this recipe because they pop up pretty and fluffy, yet are sturdy enough not to collapse under the heat of a warm chocolate drizzle. Ask your favorite gourmet retailer, or buy the mushroom kernels online.

Kristina Kern of Stella's PopKern also likes to use virgin coconut oil here, because it is flavorless and tolerates fairly high heat.

If desired, add crushed peppermint candy, orange zest, crystallized ginger or crushed vanilla snaps to the just-drizzled popcorn (before the chocolate has set).

Make ahead: The popcorn can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days. It's best not to re-crisp this kind in the oven.

From Kristina Kern, of Stella's PopKern (www.stellaspopkern.com) in Washington.

1/2 cup good-quality chopped dark chocolate (about 2 ounces)

3 tablespoons plus 11/2 teaspoons virgin coconut oil

1/2 cup mushroom popcorn kernels

Fine sea salt, for sprinkling

Fill a small saucepan with a few inches of water; bring to just below a boil over medium heat.

Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl, then place the bowl over the saucepan. Once the chocolate has melted and you've stirred it smooth, remove the pan from the heat.

Line one or two baking sheets with waxed paper.

Heat the oil in your popcorn popper or in a deep pot placed over high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the popcorn kernels; begin stirring or shaking the pot right away to make sure each kernel is coated. Cover the pot and cook until the popping sounds slow down, with long pauses in between.

Transfer the melted chocolate to a zip-top bag, squeezing the chocolate down to one of the bottom corners.

Immediately transfer the popcorn to the baking sheet(s), spreading it in an even layer. Turn the short end of the baking sheet(s) to face you. Use scissors to snip off a small bit of the bottom corner so you can drizzle the chocolate over the popcorn; hold the bag at a slight angle and start drizzling from the side closest to you up to the top, trying to hit about 75 percent of the popcorn.

Sprinkle lightly with salt. Let the chocolate set before serving or storing.

 

CHEESY POPCORN BREAD

Makes: One 8-inch square pan

(9 pieces)

Besides boosting the whole-grain power of this versatile side dish, the ground popcorn used here adds texture and interest and helps to create a light and airy corn bread.

Make ahead: The bread can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. Adapted from a recipe at www.popcorn.org.

4 cups popped corn

1 cup coarsely ground whole-grain cornmeal

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 large egg

1 cup low-fat milk

¼ cup vegetable oil

1 cup shredded Monterey Jack or pepper Jack cheese

4 ounces canned mild diced green chilies, drained (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square baking dish with cooking oil spray.

Process the popcorn in a blender or food processor until finely ground; this could take as long as 5 minutes. Transfer to a mixing bowl and add the cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt, whisking until well blended.

Whisk together the egg, milk and oil in a liquid measuring cup, then add to the mixing bowl, stirring to form a light batter. Scatter the cheese and chilies, if using, over the surface and stir just until evenly distributed.

Pour the batter into the baking dish and spread it evenly into the corners; bake for 25 minutes or until lightly browned at the edges and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

Cut into squares to serve.

 

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