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A kernel of truth

Popcorn is not just for munching at the movies anymore

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Popcorn is having a moment. It’s increasingly appearing on menus in high-end restaurants and artisanal shops are dreaming up dozens of ways to dress up the nostalgic movie-time snack.

“I think popcorn is a really special ingredient,” says pastry chef Farzam Fallah of Richmond Station restaurant in Toronto, which sometimes features desserts with popcorn ice cream.

“I think it’s just a new ingredient to be more heavily explored.”

One dessert he’s served is based on Cracker Jack and teams sticky toffee pudding, peanuts, cream ale foam and popcorn ice cream. Another is influenced by movie theatre snack bars — a serving of popcorn ice cream, chocolate cake, cola meringue, Twizzlers puree and Skor candy bar mingled on a plate.

When popping the corn, he burns it slightly because “burned popcorn translates way better in flavour.” He then steeps the corn in an ice-cream base and strains it out so all that’s left is butter popcorn flavour.

Christine Couvelier, whose Culinary Concierge company helps clients build their brands and keep ahead of market trends, predicted last December that popcorn — in fun flavours or as a creative ingredient — was on the trend horizon.

“It has arrived and I also think it’s going to continue to be something to watch for next year too,” she says from Victoria.

She’s had popcorn drizzled with olive oil in an appetizer with avocado, smoked trout tartare and house-made chips.

“It was a really interesting texture combination to put on that plate,” she recalls.

Rob Bragagnolo, chef at Marben restaurant in Toronto, likes the texture and crunch popped grains add to food. He pops quinoa, chickpeas, wild rice and millet in addition to corn.

“Even things like ceviche, adding a bit of popcorn is quite cool in the summer…. I’ve seen it anywhere from a bar snack with an interesting sort of flavour topping to being an ingredient in a dish, both for different texture and for something that’s a bit more unusual.

“I think there’s a bit of nostalgia there for a lot of chefs who use it because it’s such a childhood flavour and memory.”

Peter Pan Bistro in Toronto serves gin popcorn — flavoured with the spirit’s base of juniper berries — as an appetizer.

Popcorn is relatively cost-effective too — unless you put truffle oil on it, says Couvelier.

Chef Graham Elliot, who judges on television’s “MasterChef,” includes a recipe for truffled popcorn in his new book “Cooking Like a Master Chef: 100 Recipes to Make the Everyday Extraordinary” (Atria Books), due out at the end of the month. Elliot writes that putting popcorn on the table at his Chicago restaurant instead of bread was a hit because it’s fun and less filling.

“I also get a kick out of pairing a food that costs about a nickel (popcorn) with one that can cost thousands of dollars a pound (truffles), and this has become one of my signature dishes,” Elliot writes.

At Toronto Popcorn Company, co-owners Joseph and Caramhel Villegas concoct more than 50 flavours. This fall, they’re introducing pumpkin spice and autumn delight, which has a riot of fall colours and a mixture of flavours such as green apple, orange peel, banana and grape.

Their spiciest offering, buffalo kick, and cookies-and-cream are bestsellers.

Joseph Villegas acknowledges competition from chains like Kernels, which launched in 1983 and now has 74 stores, according to the company’s website.

“Our edge would be the unique flavours that we have,” he says. “We make everything from scratch in small batches. We are able to customize flavours for special events.”

Last year, two months after they opened, they caught the eye of Toronto International Film Festival sponsor RBC, which ordered 12,000 bags of popcorn over four days to hand out to TIFF attendees.

The recent post-season excitement generated by the Toronto Blue Jays prompted a party planner to order a mixture of blueberry and white cheddar popcorn to mimic the team colours.

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