Popcorn isn’t just the name of a crunchy movie snack – it’s also the corn variety namesake. Popcorn kernels are small, starchy and typically best for one thing: popping.
These misunderstood grains have had their corn potential overlooked for so long, until someone somewhere realised they can do so much more. Plain old popcorn can join the ranks of polenta, cornbread and grits in your house with the help of a high powered blender and a little creativity.
There are two methods of turning this snack food into a dinner food – one takes the traditional polenta route and the other a more pop and strain method.
Grinding the grain
To make polenta using dried popcorn kernels, you’ll need some heavy-duty equipment. It’s a matter of grinding the grain, just like any other corn destined for cooking – except this time we’re not in a commercial corn mill.
If you’re lucky enough to own a fancy hand or electric grain grinder, then read no further. However, for us lowly folk who can only afford to grind coffee beans and spices, you could either use a high-powered blender, or plain old coffee/spice grinder to blitz those popcorn kernels into oblivion.
As expected, you might be grinding for a while if using a small spice grinder, and the pieces may end up a tad irregular. Whatever grinding implement (you can even use a mortar and pestle if you're eager), shake the final product through a large mesh sieve to remove any unpleasantly large corn chunks so you end up with a consistent cook.
After the grind, it’s pretty much standard polenta procedure from here on out. A slow blip on the stove, followed by a chunk of butter and healthy grating of cheese should do the trick.
You can use white polenta made from white corn, if you can find it, for a more subtle result. Use the polenta as an accompaniment to a ragu of some kind, or ossobuco. Italians have told me to only stir in one direction, but I’ve found that it has made no difference to the end result when I reverse the stirring to rest my arm.
Popping the corn
Option B for creating popcorn polenta places a little more emphasis on the ‘pop’ part.
After popping the corn, blanch in boiling water in batches until softened. Once soft, pass through a large mesh sieve or medium strainer basket to remove husks. Then, thin as necessary with blanching liquid and season with salt, butter and cheese.
The pop method yields a softer, slightly less granular polenta dish, more similar to American grits. It is, however, said to have a stronger nutty flavour and distinct popcorn taste.
If you want to impress someone with polenta that tastes like popcorn, this is the best method.
Unfortunately though popcorn can be polenta, it doesn’t typically go both ways. The specific corn used for popcorn possesses characteristics that allow it to form the beloved snack. There are four main types of corn: popcorn, flint corn, dent corn and sweetcorn.
Flint corn can be popped, but can also be ground down for polenta or cornmeal, as demonstrated on Gourmet Farmer by Matthew Evans’ soft polenta recipe. Flint corn is also sometimes hung decoratively as it grows in a range of colours and can be commonly seen throughout autumn in North America.
Flint corn is picked dry, just like popcorn and its agricultural cousin dent corn. Dent corn earns its name from the dents in the tips of the kernels that form as the grain dries out (you may have seen it in bird or rodent feed mixes). It’s primarily used in animal feed and has a small role in food production.
Dent corn and its young eating cousin, sweetcorn, are un-poppable. Sweet corn contains high levels of sugar and soft starches and differs from all other corns in that it is picked fresh for our eating pleasure.
Matthew Evans explores all things farm to table in season 5 of Gourmet Farmer, 8pm Thursday nights from August 1 to October 3 on SBS and SBS On Demand. Visit the Gourmet Farmer website for recipes, the episode guide and more.
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