Learn to cook! Teach your kids to cook! That’s been my refrain during all the years I’ve been writing – and thinking – about food. I was pretty much ignored, but nowadays we hear it shouted from every omnipresent food show, television, radio and print columnists. Okay, so now we’re getting the message – Don’t rely on faceless industry to create and wrap and market your food for you. Just THINK of all the hands, the grimy corners, the exotic processes, the unfriendly bacteria and rat feces that become interested in being on our tables if we don’t relentlessly search out and buy the best raw materials we can find.
Let’s face it – if we don’t learn to spend some time, money, and effort on what we put into our mouths, we’re going to be sicker oftener. Today it’s peanut butter, yesterday it was tomatoes, or was that peppers, maybe salsa – Oh, god knows WHAT it was that gave us the tummy ache, the Johnny-quick-steps, the need to spend long hours worshiping at the porcelain goddess! And that’s not to mention the long, slow, downward tilt to our overall health.
Learning to prepare those ingredients is almost the least of it. Who couldn’t, in an afternoon’s time, learn to steam a vegetable, prepare a basic starch, add a bit of protein, combine it all with something unctuously oily, and serve it up.
But, I digress. I have become aware that people don’t know how to pop their own popcorn, and rely instead on bags of that awful stuff mixed with weirdly aromatic powders that you stuff into a microwave. Imagine!
Since I don’t own a nuclear fission appliance, I make my own popcorn, and our lives are so simple that Leo and I find endless fascination in watching corn pop ever since I started using a wide and deep sauté pan with a – voila! – glass cover!
In case you are one who doesn’t yet know – or has forgotten – how to pop your own corn – Shame! – this is the way it’s done.
First of all relentlessly search out the best popcorn. We like to get a winter’s supply in the fall from Williams Farmstead just north of Rutland. If we don’t get enough our lives become desperation-on-wheels until we find another source. Recently, I revisited organic corn sold in bulk at the Co-op and discovered it was REALLY good – tender kernels and very few unpopped when you’re done.
Start with a cold pan, cold oil, and cold corn. This way the corn warms gradually with the pan and the oil so that the insides come to popping temperature before the outside crisps and holds the pops in. This makes a tenderer popcorn, too. I use a wide deep sauté pan, set it over high heat, scoop in a couple of tablespoons of coconut oil, lard, or olive oil – what do we THINK people used for this purpose before the cereal growers started pressing their seeds under tremendous pressure, using enormous heats? – cover the bottom of the pan thoroughly with popcorn, so you can’t see any pan bottom, put on the see-through cover, and shake. If you keep an eye on the corn through the glass cover as it starts to pop you will see how important it is to shake the pan – the kernels on 1/3 of the perimeter begin to darken and pop sooner than the others, and by shaking, you mix all the colors and temperatures together.
One of my favorite bloggers, Michael Ruhlman, talks about wanting all his popcorn kernels to pop at once. I haven’t achieved that prodigious feat yet, and neither has he.
Once the popping slows to POP..POP..........POP..................pop, turn off the heat, pour into a large wooden bowl, put the pan back on the burner (remember, no heat), scoop in a couple of tablespoons of butter and put the top back on. While the butter sputters and melts in the hot pan, grind a good amount of salt over the popcorn, grate over it a plethora of cheese – Parmesan is awfully good – shake the bowl vigorously to disseminate the salt and cheese through the hot popcorn, then pour the butter over the corn, scoop a goodly amount of corn up in the pan and shake it around to scour the pan of butter (not to waste a drop of this dear stuff), pour back into the bowl, shake the bowl again, and serve with napkins.
For a sweeter alternative, after the corn is in the bowl and salted, turn the heat on under the pan again, pour in a third of a cup or so of maple syrup, bring it to a roiling boil – this takes only a moment – hold it there for another moment, then turn off the heat, take the pan from the burner, toss a lump of butter into the hot maple syrup and swirl it around until it’s melted, pour over the corn and scour the pan with the corn as before.
(Once you’ve finished the popcorn you’ll probably wander out to the kitchen and spy that pan and take a rigorous index finger to lick out the dregs of buttered maple syrup – and that might be the best treat of all.)
...the ghost of W...
Sometimes, instead of grating cheese over the popcorn, I like to scatter small chunks of bleu cheese or Roquefort over the top. Roquefort is, without doubt, and with no lessening of my regard for our wonderful Vermont cheeses, my all-time favorite cheese, already very expensive and getting more so as time passes.
This is why.
Long ago the European Union banned American hormone-treated beef on the grounds that it was unsafe to eat, showing once again their good sense. In a 1999 retaliation, Washington imposed a 100% tariff on European truffles, ham, chocolate, mineral water, sausages, some fruits and vegetables, as well as Roquefort cheese. That last is a pungent, salty, creamy, green-veined cheese made in the French region of Roquefort from unpasteurized ewe's milk. Now, with a backhanded, rude gesture as he walked out the door, G.W. Bush has tripled the tariff on Roquefort – from 100% to 300%. I’m angry (not exactly a new emotion from me for him), and I’m glad to see that the French are outraged. “There's no way the E.U. will reverse its ban on hormone-raised beef that consumers here don't want,” said one official. And there is hope that the Obama administration will reverse the tariff.
...a new bleu...
But in the meantime, and even forever after, I’ve found another, wondrous, cheese. Woodcock Farm Cheese Company, from over Weston way, set up at the Winter Farmers’ Market a few weeks ago (through the Co-op’s Wales Street Entrance, Saturdays, 10-2), and among their (East Friesian) sheep’s milk cheese offerings is a blue cheese with enough blue and green veining through its decidedly creamy yellow body to satisfy the most exacting of blue-cheese lovers. There’s buttermilk there. It’s creamy in texture, which makes it seem mellow, but it has a pungency that lingers in the nose and on the palate. Even the thin, somewhat leathery rind is toothsome.
What is that saying – Cheese is milk’s leap towards immortality. I’m looking at this nibbled wedge of cheese sitting here above my keyboard and in front of the monitor – doing my final taste test at 9:30 in the morning – and the truth of that is forcefully brought home to me.
The blue cheese isn't mentioned in the link to Woodcock Farm above, because it's a new effort. Call them and ask, or just show up at the Winter Farmers' Market.
***And no, you are NOT to go out and buy a glass-topped pan for popping corn. Just trust my words, and shake!