Thursday, September 15, 2011

How Popcorn Came to Matter

Heather loves popcorn. We go through phases where she needs popcorn every evening, so I make a lot of popcorn. When I was a kid, my mom made popcorn with olive oil and butter as the frying medium. Timing was critical, because if the fire was too hot or the popcorn didn't come off the fire precisely when it was done popping, the butter solids burned and it came out horrible, but when it everything worked, it was delicious. I have tried making popcorn this way, but in the interest of a higher success ratio I have modified the mom technique.

I use canola oil for the cooking medium. It has no flavor, but can handle high temperatures easily, and a high temperature means fewer un-popped "old maid" kernels are left. For on top* I mostly use melted butter, and once in a while we get this ridiculous Irish butter that costs like ten bucks a pound just for the popcorn. While Heather was rocking the JP, and occasionally to accommodate movie night with vegan friends, I make a topping that is as delicious as butter but isn't butter.

I'm going to call it a dressing. I hate that word "topping." It's a food industry word for something fake and gross to use instead of something normal like butter. Worse, it's an all-purpose word, used equivalently for synthetic versions of mayonnaise, whipped cream, bacon crumbles or ice cream sprinkles. Fuck "topping" and "spread" and "chocolaty" and "creamer" and the rest of the industrial food replacement dictionary.

The non-butter dressing I've settled on is a clove of garlic emulsified with some liquid smoke, siracha, sesame oil and olive oil. There's more olive oil than anything else, but the other elements make the dressing complex enough to do battle with the Irish butter. I have tried adding various other savory sauces, Worcestershire (and its Sheffield counterpart  Henderson's Relish), Tabasco and balsamic vinegar, but none of them improved matters and some of them occasionally made kernels damp in spots. 

Regardless of the dressing, popcorn isn't really fit for eating without salt, and given the geometry and physics of popcorn and oil, popcorn salt needs to be ground very fine to do any business with popcorn. A civilized popcorn experience requires fine popcorn salt, and trying to make do with granulated table salt is what pruno is to wine. Like that prisoner's tipple, brewed in toilet tanks from packets of mystery fruit jelly (topping? sure) and moldy bread, it sucks, it's degrading and it's for people who have been shit on by life. At the million-plex theater where Heather and I go see movies sometimes, they don't butter the popcorn at the concession, they hand it to you and make you walk over to the oil pumps to butter it yourself. With topping, we can call it topping. Adding fuck you you're a sucker and we hate you to insult, there is no popcorn salt, only little paper packets of granulated salt like you'd get in a pre-pack of plastic cutlery. In prison. The next step down the ladder is a cavity search.**

To salt our popcorn, I tart-up regular sea salt with some dried Mexican oregano, black pepper and paprika, and grind it super fine in a mortar. It comes out like talcum powder and it disperses well into the popcorn's texture. If I'm in a rush I'll grind some Vegeta with the salt instead of individual herbs and spices. If we're using the olive oil dressing instead of butter, I'm more likely to just use plain salt and pepper for seasoning. Having just returned from Hawaii (thank you Hawaii) and still being in the throes of a Li Hing Mui obsession, I'll be trying that out on some popcorn real soon, and I suspect it will be wonderful.
Li Hing Mui
Stop Press! Just made some li hing popcorn and it was delicious. Made popcorn and dressed it with butter, reserving some for the li hing experiment and seasoning the rest for Heather with ground salt, pepper and oregano. For the experimental bowl I ground li hing powder with salt and dusted the popcorn with it. It turned my fingers a rather gaudy scarlet, but man that stuff is great. Sour, salty and pungent with fruit and licorice.

Li Hing, I will see you soon. I have plans for you. (v) or (vg)

* Bishop.
** Then blanket party.