As we head into holiday entertaining and craziness, don’t forget about popcorn! I am NOT talking about microwave popcorn, I’m talking about the real deal, popped in a pan, which takes about five minutes to make and tastes 50 million times—maybe 100 million times—better. When you’re done, you have a bowlful of fragrant crunchiness ready to be tarted up for a party (or plopped in front of the TV with a glass of wine, aka dinner).
When I was a kid, we were butter-and-salt purists, preferring plenty of both. Don’t get me wrong, browned butter with sea salt to this day makes up 80% of my popcorn consumption. I make it for my son’s friends, I set it out at our pool for swim parties, I make a batch after a night out with the girls. But it’s great fun, and almost as easy, to play around a bit with creative flavor combinations, which are both addictive and gorgeous, and tend to blow guests away for very little effort. Below are a few ideas to get you going.
For all the suggestions, figure 3 tablespoons of oil to 1/3 cup of best-quality popcorn kernels. For a neutral popping oil, choose high-heat sunflower, safflower, or peanut (not canola, which tastes fishy when heated to high heat). If you like ghee or coconut oil, both work nicely as well. Choose a large, heavy-bottom skillet with a lid. Have a large bowl ready. Heat the oil over medium-high heat with a few kernels of popcorn in the pan, covered. When those first kernels pop, add the rest of the corn and re-cover the pan. As the corn pops, slide the lid a bit to the side a few times to allow steam to escape (steam makes popcorn chewy instead of crisp, so let it escape from the pan whenever you can). Shake the pan a few times as well, and when the popping slows, turn the heat off, slide the lid to the side (or remove it completely), and let the pan sit off the heat for a minute or two until the popping stops. As soon as the popping is done, dump the popcorn into the large bowl. The popcorn is now ready to be seasoned.
Make sure to use really good, fresh butter. And good sea salt, too—I grind Maldon or large crystals of Irish sea salt in a spice grinder.
The following three combinations are pictured above:
Pumpkin Seeds, Browned Butter, Crispy Sage: Pop corn in neutral oil, transfer to a bowl. Toast 1/2 c. of pumpkin seeds in 1 Tbsp. butter until golden brown; add to the popcorn. Add 2 Tbsp. butter to the post-popped corn pan, set over medium heat. When flecks of brown start to show in the butter, add 2 Tbsp. of thinly sliced fresh sage. Stir a few times until sage is crispy and butter is browned, about 2 minutes. Pour over popcorn and pumpkin seeds, toss thoroughly, salt to taste, toss some more.
Bacon, Caraway Seeds, Bay Leaf: Slice 2 strips of bacon in thin strips, saute until crisp in popcorn pan. Remove bacon and set aside, leaving drippings in the pan. Pop popcorn in the drippings (yes!) and dump in the bowl. Add 2 Tbsp. of butter to the pan along with 1 tsp. of caraway seeds and a bay leaf. Over low heat, toast caraway seeds in butter until fragrant. Discard bay leaf. Add bacon to popcorn, toss with caraway seed butter and salt to taste, serve with beer.
Curry Powder, Honey, Lime Zest: Pop corn in neutral oil or coconut oil. Add 2 Tbsp. of butter or ghee to warm pan, stir in 1 Tbsp. of curry powder, heat over low heat until fragrant. Off heat, whisk 2 Tbsp. of honey and grated zest of one lime into the butter. Toss with popcorn and salt to taste. Try to not eat the whole bowl by yourself.
Other addictive ideas to toss with buttered popcorn:
- Bourbon caramel sauce
- Last week’s ginger scallion sauce
- Bourbon caramel sauce. Shake with a bit of salt and even cocoa powder for messy, finger-licking heaven.
- Bonita flakes or crushed dried shrimp or crushed dried anchovies and peanuts. Umami explosion. Lime zest in the butter would be good here, too.
- Crispy pancetta with black pepper, perhaps a shower of freshly grated Parmesan. Saute a clove of garlic in the butter for a few minutes (then discard) if you like.
- Saute a bit of last week’s ginger scallion sauce until scallions and ginger are crisp. Whisk in soy sauce for saltiness, toss, toss. I have yet to try this, but I suspect it would be pretty fabulous.