Archive for April, 2010

Popcorn Basics: How to Make Great Popcorn

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Popcorn -

Normally, I like food with exotic flavors and sauces. But, popcorn, I like simple – popped fresh with a dash of salt and, on occasion, lightly buttered.

After talking with folks here and there about how they eat p-corn, it seems I’m not alone. Most adults, or at least the ones I spoke with, prefer to nosh on popcorn that’s simply salted and buttered. It’s most often eaten while watching flicks.

So this post is about the basics. No fancy toppings or long ingredient list. (My shortest recipe to date.)  Just some guidance on making great popcorn at home.

I do not claim to be an expert. But, we know a bit about popcorn in our house since we make it two to three times per week. Roughly speaking, I (yes, just me) eat about 100 quarts of popped popcorn a year. Note: the average American generally consumes about 44 quarts of per year.

Let me know how you like your popcorn? Or, if you employ any interesting techniques. Before we get to popping, here’s some helpful info:

Why does popcorn pop?

The outer shell of popcorn kernels (the pericarp) is tougher than regular corn and can withstand greater pressure. This special maize “pops” when heated because the moisture inside the kernel swells as it cooks, rapidly expanding to a point where the shell cannot contain the explosion. It bursts, turning it inside out.

Butterfly v. Mushroom?

These terms refer to the “flake” shape. Whether it’s marked “butterfly” or not, it’s the kind found in most grocery stores. Butterfly popcorn is irregular in shape with protruding “wings.”  The mushroom variety is ball-shaped with less distinct wings. The main difference comes down to texture. Popped butterfly popcorn is light and fluffy, with wings that are delicate. Mushroom popcorn is generally preferred for candied and coated popcorn because it is denser and less delicate.

Popcorn Maize - Cob - Kernels - ForkFingersChopsticks

Boulder Popcorn heirloom (left); Popcorn varieties (right, clockwise - top right): Kailey's Kernels, Ryder's Red, Cambria's Cream from Boulder Popcorn, large yellow and white from the grocery store.

Which type:  yellow, white, colored?

Regardless of the color you buy, it’ll pop up some color of white. If you’re shopping for popcorn at a regular grocery store and they have white and yellow kernels, choose white. White popcorn pops lighter and crisper. The yellow has a tougher hull, which makes it much chewier. I also find it sticks in my teeth.

If you have access to other varieties, definitely give them a try. There are several companies selling heirloom popcorn online and at local farmers’ markets. In the Denver area, there’s Boulder Popcorn.

Boulder Popcorn sells three heirloom varieties:  red, blue-grey and yellow. The kernels are smaller than what you find in the store and are much lighter and crisp when popped. They carry Ryder’s Red, Kailey’s Kernels (hulless), and Cambria’s Cream (hulless). Note, the hulless varieties still have hulls but they are less distinct, easier on the teeth and to digest. Their popcorn is natural and non-Genetically Modified. This was so good, we ate it plain – no salt or butter. Each variety is unique: the red pops large and fluffy; the blue has a medium, bright white wings with a slight nuttiness; and the cream is smooth and creamy.

Addendum 10/17/10:  Andrew Knowlton, the BA Foodist (Bon Appetit) is also a fan of Boulder Popcorn. In the October 2010 issue and on the BA Foodist blog he says Boulder Popcorn is his current favorite brand of popcorn.

What kind of popper?

There’s a lot on the market from hot air poppers to fancy/gimmicky contraptions. However, a no fail method and my preferred equipment is a heavy pot with a lid.

What if I have a lot of duds?

It’s likely the moisture content is low. Don’t throw it out, you can fix it. Put your kernels in a glass jar with about a tablespoon of water. Cover, shake and refrigerate for a day or two. The moisture will absorb into the popcorn and should pop up fluffy. Just make sure the kernels are dry first. Researchers say the moisture content of popcorn kernels should be between 11 to 14 percent.

What kind of fat or oil?

I’ve popped it in olive oil, coconut oil, butter and bacon grease. But, we still prefer canola oil.

What about leftovers?

Heat oven to 200 degrees and reheat on a cookie sheet for about 20 minutes. However, I think the best popcorn is fresh popped.


Rice: Puerto Rican Rice with Chicken – Arroz con Pollo

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Puerto Rican - Arroz con Pollo - Rice with Chicken -

A couple of months ago my amiga Kitty and I spent an afternoon cooking. She offered to show me how to make Puerto Rican arroz con pollo, rice with chicken.

I happily assumed the role of sous chef – peeling heads of garlic, chopping veggies, and stirring this and that. Meanwhile, Nivia was my window into the cultural and personal nuances of Puerto Rican cookery .  .  .

For starters, Puerto Rican cuisine employs a spectrum of cooking techniques and ingredients that reflect the island’s diverse inhabitants: the Caribbean native Tainos, Africans, Spanish, and other Europeans.

Three items are signature to the cuisine:  adobo, sofrito and achiote.  Arroz con pollo employs all three. No wonder it’s touted as the most popular chicken dish on the island.

Adobo: In Puerto Rican parlance, adobo is a seasoned salt. A wet adobo made of garlic, olive oil, salt, black pepper, oregano and citrus juice is rubbed on the chicken in this dish and marinated overnight. It’s the secret to moist and flavorful chicken, and it also infuses a layer of flavor to the rice.  Sofrito: The rice is bursting with flavor because of the sofrito, a fresh bouillon of peppers, onions, garlic and herbs. (Read about sofrito and view recipe.) Achiote: Achiote is derived from annato seeds and is used for its subtle flavor and to give the dish a reddish hue. No saffron here, the less expensive achiote is a long-time tradition in Puerto Rican cooking. Achiote can be purchased as a paste, ground or in seed form. It is readily available in Latino markets and spice stores.

After cooking with Kitty, I did some research. The majority of recipes out there are more intuitive rather than specific. For a Puerto Rican arroz con pollo novice, that’s not helpful. I know, I made this dish three times in the last several weeks.

Here’s my final recipe, with a bit more detail – I’ve borrowed techniques I learned from Kitty, other Puerto Rican friends and research. Remember it’s the process that matters, so make certain to read the instructions thoroughly before you begin.

It serves six. You’ll be glad to have leftovers!

One more thing, don’t forget the little bits of crispy, cooked rice at the bottom of the pan are called “pegao.” It’s considered the best part of arroz con pollo by some aficionados.

Tidbits on Rice

  1. Rice was introduced to Puerto Rico by Columbus in his second trip to America in 1493 and has since become a primary food source.
  2. Long grain rice is said to be favored in Puerto Rico, according to some sources. However, medium and short grain rice are heavily favored in dishes like arroz con pollo and arroz con gandules.
  3. Arroz con pollo dates back to the eighth century to Andalusia, when the Moors occupied Spain. It has become a popular rice dish in nearly all of Latin America and the Caribbean, with regional variations, of course.

Sources:  The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America; Puerto Rican Dishes by Berta Cabanillas and Carmen Ginorio.


Sofrito – Puerto Rican Fresh Bouillon

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

Puerto Rican Sofrito - Fresh Bouillon -

Sofrito is the essence in Puerto Rican dishes like arroz con pollo – the next rice recipe in the queue. It’s also the foundation of flavor for beans, soups and other good eats.

What is sofrito? It’s a blend of fresh vegetables and herbs. You could liken it to fresh bouillon because it can be added to a dish to round it out and give it depth.

The idea to liken this fresh base to a “bouillon” was inspired by Heidi at 101 Cookbooks. She posted a recipe for homemade bouillon a few months ago. Her version had carrots, fennel, and a slew of other veggies and herbs – preserved with salt. When I read her post, I immediately reconceptualized a way to explain the culinary use of sofrito.

This sofrito is Puerto Rican. It is not spicy. But, it is flavorful! The main ingredients include: onion, peppers (bell pepper and aji dulce), garlic, cilantro and recao.

In Puerto Rican cookery, recao is also referred to as culantro. It is an herb typically found in tropical areas like Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Mexico. It has a mild green flavor that is reminiscent of, but not as strong as cilantro.

Look for it in the fresh herb section of ethnic markets labeled as spirit weed, fit weed, cilantro extranjero, cilantro habanero, or in Asian/Vietnamese markets as ngo gai.  I managed to score some at Rancho Liborio, here in Denver.

If you are a sofrito purist and have access to aji dulce, yours will likely be greener in hue. I used a red pepper, which gave it a reddish tinge.

This fresh bouillon is a great addition to your kitchen staples, especially if you’re big on Latino and Caribbean food. It can be made in large batches and frozen in smaller portions (such as ice cube trays) for convenience. For vegetarians and vegans, it’s a nice alternative to oomph up flavor. And, another huge plus, there’s no salt.

Try it! If you make sofrito and have any interesting uses for it, please leave a comment.