EATING MISSOULA: Popcorn connoisseur - Arts reporter provides museum crowds with experimental – and delicious – blends

2010-04-23T07:45:00Z 2011-02-09T20:41:16Z EATING MISSOULA: Popcorn connoisseur - Arts reporter provides museum crowds with experimental – and delicious – blendsBy LORI GRANNIS
April 23, 2010 7:45 am  • 

If what the late corn czar Orville Redenbacher used to say is true – that “every good movie deserves popcorn” – then surely a fine art installation might also benefit from a kernel or two.

At least that’s what Missoulian arts and entertainment reporter Joe Nickell thought when he proposed serving multiple flavors of his spice-laden popcorn last week at the Missoula Art Museum’s social oiling event, “Artini.”

A self-described diehard popcorn fiend, there are only two things Nickell has in common with Redenbacher, and one is spectacles.

Devoid of bow ties and suspenders, the lanky reporter, local musician, and toddler-dad says a childhood love of popcorn resurfaced with a vengeance about three years ago, when the family began grazing corn at least three nights a week.

Various online biographies credit the corn-obsessed Redenbacher with night-and-day interest in creating the perfect popping corn. And that’s the other thing he and Nickell have in common:

Nickell has been practically obsessed with finding the perfect popping corn since renewing finger surfing in family-sized corn bowls.

The former gourmet store “In Good Taste” used to carry a gourmet Amish brand the family loved. But when the store closed, they were set adrift to find a new favorite.

“This being the age that it is, we searched the Internet and found that even the Amish are online,” Nickell said.

Amish Country Popcorn hails from Ohio – the heart of horse-and-buggy country – and offers the popcorn aficionado a good selection of baby white, blue, red and yellow kernels. For the Nickell clan it’s the company’s “Midnight Blue” variety – a unique ‘hull-free’ type that won’t leave munchers picking teeth for hours.

Every two months or so, the family orders, and eats their way through, three six-pound bags.

The naturally sweet, hull-free blue corn is tasty, Nickell says, and definitely worth popping and eating. But it’s the seasoning that completes the picture.

With a “Stir Crazy” popper – a commercial popcorn maker that produces near-perfect corn just about every time – he’ll measure 1/2 cup of kernels to five tablespoons of olive oil.

Nickell says he likes olive oil because it flavors each batch enough to make butter obsolete, and is a healthier choice.

Kernels that begin an “inky blue” pop up white, and are ready for any flavor. After two years of experimentation, Nickell’s standby favorite is corn generously sprinkled with small-flake brewer’s yeast, purchased in bulk from the Good Food Store.

Mixed with the essence and flavor of olive oil, it lends a yeasty, buttery taste to puffy handfuls, alleviating the need for unhealthy fats.

Garlic salt is also often added, he says, but lately a curiosity for more intense flavors has emerged: red Indian curries, herbs such as dill, and even crushed black pepper.

Before Artini, Nickell said he was determined to create wasabi popcorn. With equal portions of wasabi and ginger powders, and the addition of three to four tablespoons of butter (to a ratio of two tablespoons olive oil to 1/2 cup of corn), he put finishing touches on this Asian-inspired creation with a sprinkling of black sesame seeds.

“That one debuted at Artini, and people were crazy for it,” he said.

Famished, art-loving grazers managed to polish off a full six-pound bag of corn in a matter of an hour or two last week, according to Nickell, which necessitated a quick trip home for more, and an accidental inspiration.

“I had been thinking of creating a sweet flavor, so when I went back home, I brought cinnamon, butter, sugar and salt together,” he said.

Fortunately for MAM, most museum goers respect the unspoken “no-touch rule” in hallowed art halls.

“So far it seems like any spice combination that will work in a dish will work on popcorn because it’s a blank slate for your favorite flavors,” said Nickell. “So the sky is the limit.”

Never talk to Nickell about microwave corn – it’s just plain finger-food blasphemy.

“It’s gross, and it tastes and smells unnatural,” he said.

Don’t blame Redenbacher for the microwave revolution though. The marriage of corn with the cooking method that takes a perfectly good kernel of corn and turns it into chewy, stale, unpalatable mess of variantly cooked foodstuff belongs to food giant ConAgra, which purchased the timid icon’s company in the 1970s.

For Nickell, who grew up with homemade popcorn as evening indulgence, the quest for corn is as much about crunch and craft as it

is about memories of mom.

Columnist Lori Grannis may be reached at 360-8788 or eating.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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