A few years back on a whim I decided to grow popcorn. Certainly I wasn’t going to switch out the summer mainstay of delicious sweet corn any time soon, but I had room that year for a small block of starchy kernels carefully planted some distance away to avoid cross pollinating and dulling down the flavor of my favorite super-sweet. Summer passed all too fast which brought me to a cold winters evening remembering the dried corn tucked away in the cellar. I’ve not grown sweet corn since.
Not that I don’t like sweet corn, it’s just that the season for that particular snack is far too short, space too tight, and I’m a lazy gardener and avoid all efforts at special preservation techniques. No canning, no freezing, no processing, we prefer things fresh. Instead, after harvesting all the popcorn in September I just toss it into a box and forget about it until January when the flurry of holiday and family activities has calmed. There are few things on this earth as comforting on a cold winters evening as a warm bowl of the purest popcorn.
Last year I grew an attractive heirloom variety called Strawberry Popcorn. The 5′ tall plant produces several small ears of beautiful dark red jewels of whats called “rice” popcorn, as the ends of each kernel are pointed instead of round. My wife uses them throughout the house as an attractive fall decoration along with several French winter squashes.
Once popped, the little kernels are a delight in texture and taste, and in stark contrast to the large fluffy kernels of commercial corn that are mostly air. A half bowl of these little kernels are more than satisfying and without any of those hard hulls that get stuck in your teeth.
Nothing too unusual about my growing plan this year, except that it’s not Strawberry Popcorn. Instead I elected to grow another heirloom variety called Dakota Black, but I can write about that next winter.
I sow three or four seeds per foot directly outdoors, three rows per bed, one or two weeks before last frost and watch the chickens and squirrels carefully so they don’t dig them up. After the plants are about 6″ tall thin them to 12″ apart and maybe transplant a few to fill in any gaps. Expected harvest is about mid September allowing them to dry as much as possible on the stalk. I husk the corn and then place them in a well ventilated area for a few more months to dry. You know it’s ready to eat when the corn pops readily.
For rich nutrient dense corn, there are few plants written about as extensively as corn. This is because corn is a major commodity and many biological farmers rely upon it to pay the bills. We will explore this in greater detail over the summer as we use my small patch as an experiment.
The history behind Strawberry Popcorn is a mystery to me, I was able to find only a few vague references to it being an Indian corn. I even had a short exchange with Jack, the worlds only commercial grower of Strawberry Popcorn. This was Jack’s last growing season, retiring from an astounding 30 year Strawberry Popcorn growing career and producing 5000 lbs of delicious little red kernels every season. Jack admitted that he had only seen what looked like this variety’s ancestor in a museum somewhere once. Whatever its true origin and the fate of its breeder I can’t yet say.
As for the masters of vegetable gardening, the 19th century Parisian Market Gardeners, there is hardly a peep about corn and none about popcorn. One small page in the 1885 Vilmorin says “it is almost exclusively in the United States of America that the Maize is regarded as a regular table vegetable.” This lack of interest was hardly new at the time for we find another and earlier reference in the now amusing 16th century English tome of plant lore, The Herball of Generall Historie of Plantes, that “the barbarous Indians which know no better, are constrained to make a virtue of necessities, and think it a good food.” I am told that it’s still rarely eaten in Europe.
Certainly I’ve popped my fair share of popcorn in an air popper, and you may too if Styrofoam is your favorite flavor of corn. I have since learned however that the best way to pop corn is on the stove top with a pot, a lid and some olive oil.
I set a burner to high, and drizzle in a table spoon or two of olive oil. Drop in a few kernels and wait until they’re sizzling before adding a few handfuls of my favorite popcorn. For large popping corn use a little less to avoid over flowing the pot, but for the pint sized kernels of strawberry popcorn more is the rule. Gently agitate the pot to keep the kernels from burning until you see one or two of the kernels pop. Then quickly place the lid on to prevent hot oil and your corn escaping its confinement. Keep agitating the pot and listen to the exciting roar of the popping. As soon as it starts to slow turn off the heat and a few moments later the popping will have almost stopped. Pull from the heat and immediately pour into a bowl while the last few kernels explode. Timing is criticle, if your a little early you will have more unpopped kernels, and if yoru a little too late it may start to burn. Watch out too, that pot will be extremely hot, so place it carefully away and out of reach. Add a few pinches of real sea salt, the gray or pink kind, and enjoy.
Popcorn is one of those rare high quality products actually available in stores. Popcorn will only pop if the kernel is dense and fully filled out. Corn with dents and pits are nutritionally inferior and will not pop. Purchase only organic and heirloom varieties and avoid the abomination that GMO corn has become. And microwave popcorn is a terrible idea. Not only does does the product contain toxins but microwaves themselves may denature the food.
Corn meal is typically made from average low quality flint or dent corn usually fed only to those poor sick animals in intensive feeding operations. Avoid that stuff as it doesn’t make the animals healthy and it won’t you either, instead grind your own. You can create a rich and flavorful corn flower from organic popcorn in a grain mill. Be sure your mill is rated to grind popcorn as the extra dense kernels can damage it.