CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It might not pop immediately to mind when his customers think of fall produce, but the Capitol Market's Purple Onion owner Allan Hathaway stocks baskets of freshly harvested popcorn kernels right next to a more traditional autumn display of apples and gourds.
Hathaway buys the popcorn from an Amish producer who picks the corn in August. Hathaway carries eight to 10 varieties, each with their own unique qualities. The Baby Blue kernels produce a slightly sweet and very crunchy popcorn. The red kernels are the healthiest, the highest in antioxidants, and are nearly hull-less. Both the red and blue are higher in antioxidants than the white or yellow kernels.
Lady Finger kernels are the smallest of the hull-less popcorns and have a nutty flavor. He has large and small yellow kernels and the standard white. They're all the same price, $1.45 a pound, and customers can scoop up any combination they want to fill a bag.
One ounce of kernels produces a quart of popped corn. The kernels in one $1.45 pound produce 16 quarts of popcorn, making it a snack-food bargain.
The small variations in taste and texture are important for aficionados who prefer their popcorn undressed and in its purest form. One cup of popcorn popped without oil or butter has just 31 calories. But who can eat just 1 cup? Even if you scarf down 5 cups, you still have a satisfying snack of fewer than 160 calories.
Hathaway's preferred popping method is to shake a lidded pan over a hot burner on the stove, but, he said, he usually pops in the microwave for his two young children who might be tempted to emulate the hot-pot method on their own.
For them, he dry pops the popcorn in a clear, oven-safe glass bowl with a lid or plate on top so they can watch the corn pop.
Although he sells a variety of spritzers and flavored toppings, Hathaway's children prefer dry lime Jell-O mix sprinkled on their popcorn. Tossed with hot popcorn, the tangy lime powder melts slightly and sticks to the kernels.
Any spicy or sweet mixture will work as a popcorn topping, including savory spices and seasoning packages from the spice rack and sweet toppings like Jell-O, cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar and cocoa.
The flavorings adhere best to hot popcorn tossed with oil or butter. Hathaway sells a grape-seed oil spritzer as a healthy alternative to butter. Grape-seed oil is low in saturated fat and has a high smoke point.
If you want to pop corn on the stovetop, here's a tried-and-true method:
Coat the bottom of a large pan with oil, preferably one with a low smoke point such as grape seed, avocado and peanut. Heat oil on medium-high.
Place one kernel in the oil.
When it pops, add 1/4 to 1/3 cup popcorn, depending on the size of the pot.
Cover loosely. Leave the lid ajar, allowing steam to escape. If not, the steam coats the popped corn and makes it soggy. A large, pasta pot with a lid with holes for draining the water makes a good popcorn popper.
To shake or not to shake? Some poppers swear constant shaking is required, while others claim perfect popping results from an evenly heated and coated pot bottom.
When popping slows to about 1 pop every five seconds, dump the popcorn into a large bowl. Spritz, sprinkle or toss with preferred flavors while hot, or enjoy ungarnished.
If you have any unpopped kernels, your dentist will strongly advise you to throw them out. They taste like corn nuts, but their potential cost in terms of cracked teeth is high. Stick with the fluffy stuff.
Toppings and recipes
Add the following toppings to hot popcorn as soon as it is popped. For dry mixes, spritz popcorn with healthful grape-seed oil or flavorful melted butter before adding the seasoning mixes. Use suggested measurements when given, or experiment to meet personal taste preferences. Recipes adapted from www.giftsfromyourkitchen.com, www.chow.com and www.ehow.com.
Pizza: Combine 1/2 teaspoons oregano, basil and garlic powder with 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes and 3 tablespoons parmesan cheese
Tex Mex: Combine 1 teaspoon each chili powder and paprika with 1/2 teaspoon cumin. Or use store bought taco seasoning.
Indian: Curry powder or chili powder
Finger-licking: Barbecue rubs
Sea Breeze: Old Bay seasoning
Buffalo: Celery salt and black pepper added to popcorn tossed with hot sauce and crumbled blue cheese
Dilly: Dill weed and sea salt
Dress it up: ranch or Italian dressing mix
Salt and vinegar: Instead of butter or oil, use malt vinegar to spritz on salted popcorn
Fruity tutti: Jell-O mix, any flavor
Chocolate: powdered sugar, cocoa and cinnamon
Apple pie: Combine 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1/4 teaspoons each all-spice and ginger
Cinnamon sugar: Combine 2 teaspoons white sugar and 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon.
Heavenly Hash Popcorn
1/4 cup butter
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup pecans, toasted
6 cups popped corn
4 cups miniature marshmallows
COMBINE butter, chocolate and pecans in a heavy saucepan. Cook over moderate heat until melted, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Pour over the popped corn and marshmallows. Stir well. Spread on a buttered cookie sheet and refrigerate to cool.
Variations: Substitute butterscotch morsels, bitter chocolate or white chocolate pieces in place of chips.
Kentucky Praline Popcorn
Makes 4 quarts.
4 quarts popped popcorn, lightly salted
2 cups chopped pecans
3/4 cup butter
3/4 cup light brown sugar
MIX popcorn and pecans in a large bowl. Combine butter and brown sugar in a small saucepan until brown sugar has melted. Heat, then stir into popcorn mixture. Mix well to coat.
Low-Fat Parmesan Popcorn
Makes 6 servings.
1 teaspoon oil, or to taste
1/2 cup popcorn
1/2 cup fat-free parmesan cheese, or to taste