When summer is described as popcorn season, it usually refers to the avalanche of movie entertainment. But the most indulgent popcorn munching this summer isn't being done in front of the big screen. Restaurants across the country are getting creative with their crunch heaping hip flavors on one of America's favorite snack foods.
It's a crackerjack idea.
Flavorings such as smoked Spanish paprika, gourmet salts, Old Bay seasoning, citrus zest, imported grated cheese, ground chile and other atypical add-ins are replacing plain old butter and salt as popcorn's best friends. At Terrance Brennan's Bar Artisanal in New York, popcorn with Basque flavors is served as a bar snack. Alizée in Baltimore offers duck-fat popped corn with truffle salt. Barbrix in Los Angeles has revved up its happy hour with duck fat and fennel pollen popcorn. And The Breslin in New York, the new restaurant from the Spotted Pig's April Bloomfield, has caramel popcorn on the snack menu.
In Houston, Block 7 Wine Co. makes irresistible popcorn with black truffle salt, while Branch Water Tavern down the street pops its kernels in duck fat and sprinkles the hot, glistening popcorn with sea salt.
Chef Donatella Arpaia's new cookbook, "Donatella Cooks: Simple Food Made Glamorous" (Rodale, $32.50), includes a recipe for popcorn fit for uptown entertaining. "A humble bowl of salty, buttery popcorn is one thing (mouthwatering, let's face it)," she writes. "But toss it with truffle oil, rosemary and a little pecorino and it's something else altogether."
Why this mini explosion of flavored popcorn?
"It's popcorn getting dressed up; popcorn putting on some fancy duds and heading out as an amuse bouche," said Wendy Boersema Rappel, spokeswoman for the Popcorn Board, an organization of U.S. popcorn processors. "I think chefs understand that there are a lot of possibilities with popcorn. They want to see how far they can push it and what they can do. It's great fun."
Block 7's double truffle assault (popcorn with truffle butter and truffle salt) is made fresh daily and has become more than a menu novelty.
"People started getting it because they were curious. Now people know about it and it's one of the first things they order," said chef Miguel Hernandez. "It's one of our signatures on the menu."
Hernandez said that the popcorn is a good bridge to appetizers as customers peruse the menu. It also happens to pair well with wine, he said.
Ditto the luxurious duck fat popcorn at Branch Water Tavern, which acts as a deliciously clever red carpet to chef David Grossman's menu.
Gussying up popcorn might be trendy but it also smacks of recession chic. "It's yummy by itself. We think of it in terms of an everyman snack," Rappel said. "And it's cheap. You can do with popcorn whatever you want. It's not just a comfort thing, it's a value thing."
At the end of the day, Rappel said, "you're just putting some sides with oil in a pan."
But what's happening to it after it leaves the pan is what's making popcorn hot. Home cooks interested in notching up their popcorn experience can borrow from the spice drawer (curry powder, nutmeg, cinnamon, garlic, paprika, dill weed), employ fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage), borrow from the flavor packets (ranch dressing, Italian dressing mix, taco seasoning, chili mix), and tour the exotics (sesame seeds, garam masala, saffron, zatar, harissa, wasabi, sriracha). Popcorn's expanding flavor profiles also come from fats that can be added during or after popping: olive oil, flavored butters, duck fat, bacon fat and truffle oil. Gourmet salts (sea salts, smoked salts, herbed salts and salt and pepper combos) also up the ante.
Probably the most surprising thing about flavored popcorn is what doesn't go with it.
"In terms of a flavor world, whatever you dream or whatever you're thinking, it can work," Rappel said. "Go ahead and put it on popcorn."
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
2 Tbsp. black or white truffle oil
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 Tbsp. fresh rosemary
11/4 cups popcorn kernels
1/2 cup grated imported Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Grana Padano
Combine butter, truffle oil, salt and plenty of pepper in a large metal bowl; set aside. Warm vegetable oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add rosemary and cook for 1 minute to infuse the oil with the herb. Do not let rosemary burn. Remove rosemary from the oil using a slotted spoon, and add it to the butter mixture.
Add popcorn to the pot, cover, and stand close by until the corn starts popping. Shake the pan back and forth until the popping has slowed but not entirely stopped. Dump the popcorn into the metal bowl with the butter mixture and immediately toss well to distribute the flavorings evenly. Sprinkle with cheese, toss again, and transfer to a serving bowl. Serve warm. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
— 'Donatella Cooks: Simple Foods Made Glamorous' by Donatella Arpaia
Duck Fat Popcorn
2 Tbsp. duck fat
1/3 cup popcorn kernels
Extra duck fat
Sea salt, to taste
Heat 2 Tbsp. duck fat with a few kernels in 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, covered, until 1 or 2 kernels pop. Quickly add remaining popcorn then cook, shaking pan frequently, until kernels stop popping, about 3 minutes. Place in bowl.
Sprinkle popped corn with sea salt. Drizzle additional duck fat, as desired, over popped corn. Makes about 8 cups.
— David Grossman, Branch Water Tavern
Dilly Lemon Munch Popcorn
2 quarts popped popcorn
2 Tbsp. shredded lemon peel (zest)
1 tsp. dill weed
Toss popcorn with lemon peel and dill weed. Add salt as desired. Makes 8 servings.