Growing and cooking popcorn

Growing and cooking popcorn

The tide is turning in America. I'm not talking about politics--it's the state of popcorn eating in this country that has my biscuits a-burning. You see, we're becoming a nation of microwavers, and that's a shame. There are children out there that don't know you can buy the actual kernels and pop them, in a pan, on the stove.

Those bags are convenient, and tasty, too--I eat them all the time--but how can you really appreciate the miracle of the whole thing if you don't see the "before" version?

You have to admit those little kernels are just an amazing little package. They're instant bread: just add heat. When you do, the moisture in the kernel converts to steam and expands, creating pressure that pushes against the hull. At the moment the pressure becomes greater than the strength of the wall, the hull gives, and the starchy endosperm (the white part) explodes out in the sudden release of pressure. It's like blowing up a balloon: You blow and blow and blow, and the balloon expands and expands until finally, the pressure of the air inside it is greater than the strength of the rubber, and kablooey.

Now, if the kernel gets too dry, the steam pressure can't build up enough to pop the hull and you end up with a bowl full of duds. That's why it's important to preserve the moisture level by storing popcorn kernels in a glass jar or other airtight container. Before you toss dried-up popcorn out for the squirrels, try replacing the moisture by soaking the kernels in water for five minutes, draining them well, then shaking them in a towel to remove surface moisture. This usually does the trick.

Growing your own popcorn is a special treat for gardeners and their families. Plus, it's one of the few snack foods that is actually good for you, that is, until you slather on the butter or butter-flavored oil in the case of theater and microwave popcorn. You can reduce the fat, calories, and, some would say, the flavor by foregoing the butter, but the salt won't cling to the popcorn as well. Remedy this and make your own special popcorn salt by grinding regular salt into a fine powder with your blender. For a special treat, add dried herbs to the salt (about a teaspoon for every tablespoon of salt). The powdered salt covers more territory so you need less, which makes it great for people trying to cut back on sodium.

If you must have butter on your popcorn, you might as well go all out with one of these three tasty variations on the traditional salt and butter combination. Each makes enough topping to coat 10-16 cups of popcorn, depending on how buttery you like it.

Parmesan Pizza Popcorn
Pizzatively addictive
1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons dried oregano

Chilified Popcorn
Make it as spicy as you like
1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

Cinnamon-Sugar Popcorn
No really, it's good
1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons sugar

Stir the rest of the ingredients into the melted butter and pour over the popped corn--that's all there is to it.

For all you microwave-popcorn-only weenies it's time to relive the magic that only stove-popping can show, and here's a refresher course in popping corn the old-fashioned way.

You can use an air popper, an electric popper, or one of those fancy self-stirring doohickeys, but all you really need to make good popcorn is a large, lidded skillet, pan or wok. For eight or so cups of popped corn you'll need 1/2 cup of kernels and two tablespoons of oil (one if using a non-stick pan).

Heat the oil and three kernels of corn on medium high. When you hear the corn pop (and wait for all three kernels to pop so a late bloomer doesn't put your eye out) add the rest of the corn, shaking the pan to coat the kernels with oil, and replace the lid. Keep the lid slightly ajar to allow the steam to escape--otherwise, the popcorn will be tough.

When it starts popping, shake the pan gently to help the as-yet-unpopped kernels settle back down to the hot bottom of the pan. When you can count "one hippopotamus" between pops, remove it from the heat, pour into a large bowl and top it however you like.

You can restore some crunch to next-day popcorn by heating it in the oven at 250 degrees for ten minutes. Use any leftovers to top salads or add life to soups.

Don't expect homegrown popcorn to pop up the same as the storebought stuff. The satisfaction level is very high, though. By the way, in my informal tests the premium brands of popcorn (like Orville Redenbacher's and Newman's Own) outpopped the generic types almost two to one, so this is one instance where you're not really saving money by buying the cheap stuff. Plus, all the post-tax profits from Newman's Own go to charitable causes. So do a good deed: pop some corn. You'll be glad you did

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