Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Salty Tale of Many Poppers

Back when I was a kid, eating popcorn at home meant purchasing un-popped popcorn in plastic bags at the store, and popping it in a regular ole pan with oil on the stove-top. The neat thing was that back then, a packet of tasty butter-salt was included with each bag.

The packet’s directions advised mixing a half teaspoon of it with the oil before popping. I never understood the bother because the seasoning just stayed on the bottom of the pan. It would have been nice for it to coat the popped corn because doing so would have eliminated the effort of emptying half the popped corn into the serving bowl & salting it before emptying the remainder & applying more buttery seasoning. But I guess life was supposed to be tough back then.

Even though microwave popcorn is all the rage nowadays, I still prefer stove-top popcorn even though those buttery seasoning packets haven’t been around for years. I had not realized the packets’ contribution was missed until just recently.

Last year, I had a lot of fun troubleshooting a commercial corn popper, and while doing so concluded the secret to getting the buttery seasoning to coat the corn instead of settling to the bottom of the pan was to have a stirring bar keep everything mixed up during the popping process.

The repair effort inspired me to give buttery seasoning another shot. The hurdle now was to find some. The Pops-Rite brand appears to be a thing of the past, and no other brands of easily-available, supermarket popcorn include any seasonings. Oddly, while one store had a shelf with shakers of “alternate” popcorn seasonings (cheddar, cinnamon, etc.) the buttery seasoning of my youth was not to be found.

One Internet vendor had what I was looking for $2.69 plus $12 shipping. Considering the cost was for a 32 ounce carton of seasoning (roughly 21 packets worth), the price was not bad in spite of being a lot of seasoning. I was all set to order it, though, when someone recommended checking out Sam’s Club. Sure enough – Sam’s had a two-carton box (almost 47 packets worth) for $3.85.

In an unexpected bonus, the Mighty Pop brand Sam’s sold was what had been used while troubleshooting the commercial machine – It had a track record of good flavor.

The next hurdle up was locating a pan with a stirring bar. My first thought was to modify a pan & lid to use a stainless steel welding rod as a stirring bar. New pots & pans were looked at because I did not want to modify any of our existing cookware. Unfortunately, the current rage in new cookware is glass lids on everything, and the thought of drilling a hole in a glass lid (and using a glass lid with a hole drilled in it) made me uneasy.

One online company sells a new, six-quart corn popping pan complete with stirring bar, but user reviews were not very good, and I didn’t think the two gear transmission used to couple the stirring bar to the hand-crank on it looked like it would last very long.

While perusing eBay for options, I ran across a really old, electric, table-top popper with a lid-mounted hand-crank. I’d say it dates from the thirties or forties. The seller plugged it in briefly after being asked to, and posted that, while the FDR-era artifact did get warm, no effort was made to actually pop any corn.

For hoot value alone, I entered a maximum bid of $5. Although the closing moments of the auction were tense, my bid prevailed with quarters to spare. After adding an additional $10 shipping charge it was mine.

Little time was wasted after its arrival in popping a batch of corn with Mighty Pop seasoning mixed in the oil. The results were very good, and probably would have been excellent had I been wearing gloves: In order to crank the stirring rod, I had to hold on to one of the handles. When popping started, hot oil shot through the vent holes around the popper’s body and onto my hand. Reflexively, I kept letting go of the handle & stop cranking for a second or two.

If the rubber feet were not so dried out, there would probably be no need to hang on to the handle. Although the feet could be replaced for safer operation, while waiting to receive the popper, further research revealed that Target now sells a modern-day, bigger, motorized version of the same thing. Even though the unit was currently on sale, there had been no plans to buy the popper until the time came to clean the eBay popper – Due to the way it was constructed, dirty surfaces could only be wiped, and not rinsed. Between that, the antique’s relatively small cooking volume, and a desire to not wear gloves while cooking, I sprung for the Westbend popper.

Sweet – this modern day appliance even has a provision on top to allow real butter to drip on the popping kernels.

Its 1000 watt, Teflon-coated, mechanically agitated cooking surface produced tasty popcorn indistinguishable from that available at the movie theater.

As much as I enjoyed playing with my WW2-era cooking tool, it’s going in Kim’s next yard sale.


Friday, February 3, 2012

Little to Lose At 39¢ a Pound

One of the bonuses included with the purchase of our house 17 years ago was most of a Brinkmann smoker. With the subsequent purchase of a new charcoal pan, Kim & I enjoyed several years of slow-smoked brisket, pork butt, and whole chicken. After the Boyz were born, though, we found that grilled burgers & hotdogs had more overall appeal. As a result, the smoker’s use diminished considerably.

The Boyz are now older, and Daniel in particular has appeared to enjoy some of the meat I have cooked over low, indirect heat on both the charcoal, and gas grills. The other weekend, Kroger had ten-pound bags of leg quarters on sale for the ridiculously low price of 39¢ a pound. Between that and a break from the rainy weather which has occupied every weekend of 2012, the time seemed right to experiment again with the smoker.

For this effort, the chimney starter was filled halfway with charcoal, and topped with big chunks of hickory.

When smoking meats, I lean more towards dry rubs than marinades. For this particular meal, the leg-quarters were rubbed down with olive oil before being sprinkled with a homemade variation of Emeril’s Essence, followed by a light dusting of a granulated & confectioner sugar mixture. Most dry rub recipes call for brown sugar but I’ve had trouble with it clumping & not distributing well over the meat. White sugar goes on more uniformly, and is not distinguishable to my bourgeois palate.

The poultry was then arranged on the smoker’s top rack after being allowed to sit at room temperature [gasp!] for several hours.

One of this smoker’s selling points is the “moist heat” which comes from a four-quart pan of water suspended above the coals. Although the pan was, lo these many years, always dutifully kept full of hot water I never thought that, other than throttling the heat a little, it did much, if anything, for the effort. Knowing when to wrap the meat in aluminum foil always had a bigger effect on how moist & tender the effort was going to be.

Out of a combination of general curiosity, a smaller fire than usual, small pieces of meat, and the outside temperature being in the 50’s, no water pan was used for the first time ever with great results.

There are no plans to throw away the water pan, though. While pleased with the way this meal turned out, I’ll wager the big hunks of meat that require longer cooking times need a barrier against the direct heat.

But all bets are off should I find beef or pork at 39¢ a pound.