This Week with Arik

May 9, 2012

party popcorn
Photo by Sarah Shatz

- Arik

Beyond Buttered: New Ways with Popcorn

Popcorn seems as much a part of American life as apple pie, and, in fact, it may be more so. Maize was first domesticated from wild grass about 9,000 years ago by Native Americans and quickly spread throughout Central and South America. A recent discovery in Peru found archaeological evidence that popcorn was a food source as far back as 6,700 years ago, and that it was most likely popped right off the cobs over open flames. Christopher Columbus brought four bags of corn kernels back with him after he first visited the New World, and, within a generation, it was being cultivated throughout southern Europe. In the modern era, the advent of the mechanized commercial popcorn cart in Chicago in the early 1890s popularized it for the masses, and popcorn replaced candy during the sugar-rationed WWII period as our favorite movie snack.

The secret to popcorn’s magic is the internal balance of moisture, protein, and starch. The hull of each kernel creates a hard casing that seals in moisture. When heated, the moisture causes the kernel’s internal starch to gelatinize, and pressure builds inside the hull. Eventually, the moisture turns to steam, and when the pressure finally causes the hull to rupture, the gelatinized starch flies out and the steam escapes, yielding a soft, pillowy, and crunchy popped kernel.

Once popped, there are any number of ways to enjoy popcorn. There are the usual preparations that we all know and love -- salted, or tossed in melted butter, chili powder, fresh herbs, or, my favorite, truffle oil and freshly grated Parmesan -- and then there are some surprises.

This Thursday, join me at the Pearl Street store where I'll prepare a simple dish of cheesy grits using -- you guessed it -- popped popcorn. I'll also use popcorn to garnish a traditional shrimp ceviche this weekend. Stop by for cooking tips and samples!

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