On Snacking (and Sichuan Peppercorn Popcorn)

I am a snacker. I have spent years of my life wishing it were otherwise. I have set rules about how often I can snack and what I can snack on–once an afternoon, only after 7:00; celery, green apples, nuts. But, honestly, I love snacks. And, not celery. I devour boxes of crackers; I try not to let chips in the house. And, since this post is turning into a bit of a confessional, I really, really love anything covered in fake powdered cheese.

As with most things, I blame my parents. As two busy people who valued family dinners and extremely fine cooking, my parents long, long ago embraced a European–bordering on Argentinian–meal schedule. “It’s only civilized,” they say. Projected dinner time falls somewhere between 9:00 and 10:00 in their house. And, my mother, phenomenal cook that she is, has never gotten a meal on the table until at least half-an-hour after her goal.

Eating this late, even if you push lunch back, requires snacking. So, as a child, I got very good at it. But, since it was the early ’90s and the powers that be had yet to develop a plethora of organic snacking options, “healthy” snacking consisted of a lot of “baked” versions of generally fried snacks. Baked not fried bugles were a favorite. For years, my family stocked an early form of “healthy” cheese doodles that resembled nothing so much as packaging foam. But, since none of these things were very good, it seemed that we were often the only people buying them. Eventually, they would disappear from the shelves of our grocery store. One favorite after another, gone.

I blame the sudden disappearance of so many favorite snacks for giving me snack commitment issues. These days, I will discover a new cracker, puffed chip, or crunchy veggie, devour it happily for months, and then, just like that, it seems like something is missing. I jump ship, onto the next thing.

For the last few months, after years of feeling kind of eh about popcorn, I have been on a real bender. After moving from the fake cheese stuff to the lightly salted variety, it became embarrassing to be buying what I knew I could easily make at home. So I bought some kernels.

As they popped, I had a revaluation. I had just returned from Chicago with bags full of new spices. I didn’t have powdered cheese, but I did have sichuan peppercorns and dried orange peel. This popcorn had all kinds of potential.

I experimented with a bunch of spice combinations in my first few popcorn batches, but I’ve settled on two favorites: Sichuan Peppercorn Popcorn and Orange-Thyme Butter Popcorn. The former gives your regularly salted popcorn a kick along with hints of floral citrus. The latter tastes like movie popcorn grown up. Neither takes more than 10 minutes to make if you have the ingredients on hand.

I’ll probably move on in a few months, but until I do, Sichuan Peppercorn Popcorn will help me make it to dinner time, whenever that is.

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These aren’t really recipes so much as suggested spice combinations. Pop the popcorn as you usually do–I generally pop about half a cup of kernels at a time and then have enough or a few days. Here are some excellent popping instructions if you need them: http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/perfect_popcorn/

For Sichuan Peppercorn Popcorn: While your kernels pop combine about a teaspoon of salt with 5 or 6 peppercorns in a mortar and pestle and mash together. Toss with popcorn a little bit at a time until salted and spiced to taste. 

For Orange-Thyme Butter Popcorn: While your kernels pop, melt a tablespoon of butter in the microwave. Stir in a large pinch of thyme and a small pinch of dried orange peel. Pour butter mixture over popcorn and toss lightly to coat popcorn–again, I do this a little at a time until I think my popcorn is sufficiently flavorful. Any leftover butter is delicious on almost everything. 

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