Popcorn

Fridays used to mean a marathon night in front of the TV with my dad in his arm chair and me sprawled out on the living room floor.  We’d start out on ABC with the TGIF lineup — Family Matters, Step By Step, Boy Meets World, Dinosaurs (briefly), Sabrina the Teenage Witch — and then click over to CBS for more “grown up” shows — Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Walker Texas Ranger, and Early Edition. I had the biggest crush on Kyle Chandler (Early Edition), which made sitting through Walker Texas Ranger totally worth it.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been Friday night without popcorn and it wouldn’t have been popcorn without a stove-top popper. Sure, we had an air popper, but that wasn’t “real” popcorn. (Don’t get me started on microwave popcorn.) After the second show, my dad would rush into the kitchen and clatter around during the commercial break. He would emerge during the opening credits of the third show with a heaping bowl of popcorn and two Cokes.

Naturally, I thought I would inherit the popcorn popper when we packed up my childhood home and divvied up the bounty.  Somehow, the fact that I didn’t have a kitchen at the time made my siblings think they could walk off with the popper without a peep from me. My brother wound up with it even though he didn’t even know how to use the stupid thing! After hearing me rant about this for years, my dad gave me an Atom Popper for Christmas. He found it in a thrift store, complete with its original packaging, but you can order one online.

Here’s how it works:

Put the popper on a burner and turn the heat on to medium..

Put some Crisco in the popper. Butter flavored is best, but regular will do. I never measure the oil — I just put in enough to cover the bottom of the popper in 1/4″ – 1/2″ of oil (the directions say 3 Tb).

Put in one popcorn kernel. When it pops, the oil is hot enough to add the rest of the kernels. The oil should coat the kernels, but they shouldn’t be submerged (the directions say 1/2 cup).

Put the lid on the popper. While you wait, melt some butter in the microwave (2 Tb or more). Listen to the popcorn. When there are about 3 seconds between pops, take the popper off the stove.

Take the lid off the popper immediately so that the steam doesn’t build up and make your popcorn tough. Pour the butter over the popcorn, add some salt, stir it up, and enjoy!

Party Mix

During the holiday season, when most people are icing sugar cookies or breaking up peanut brittle, the Youngs are frying Party Mix. As I’ve mentioned before, my family doesn’t care much for sweets, so my mom always prepared plenty of Party Mix to snack on between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. By the time the end of January hits, I’m always pouting that no one has saved a single bag for my birthday. I would so much rather have a gallon Ziploc bag of Party Mix than a cake.

The Youngs claim to have preserved the Original Chex Party Mix recipe. I can’t say whether or not that’s true, but I can say that this stuff is darn good. However, I can only make that guarantee if you follow this recipe. Here are a few things I’ve learned about making Party Mix: measure the cereal because the ratios do matter; you can use butter or margarine, but butter is easier to burn; off-brand cereal is fine; one set of cereal boxes yields 3-4 gallon Ziploc bags of Party Mix; people who like pretzels prefer the knots or squares; let the Party Mix cool in paper grocery bags to prevent sogging in the Ziplocs; Party Mix never tastes right until it’s cool; and — this may be the most important part — store it in the largest containers possible (gallon Ziplocs or popcorn tins will make you feel like you have an endless supply).

Original Chex Party Mix
1 stick butter or margarine
4 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 tsp seasoned salt
2 cups Rice Chex
2 cups Corn Chex
2 cups Wheat Chex
2 cups Cheerios
1 cup pretzels

Mix the cereal and pretzels together in a large bowl.

Melt butter in a large pot or pan with high sides. Add the Worcestershire and seasoned salt to the butter. When the butter sizzles, pour in the cereal. Stirring constantly, fry the cereal for about five minutes or until the butter is well distributed over all the cereals.

Dump into a large paper bag and let cool 1-2 hours. Store in an airtight container.

Cheddar Puffs

I was looking for a quick snack to bring to a friend‘s house for TV night and found these Cheddar Puffs on one of my go-to food blogs, The Pioneer Woman. Even though the recipe claims these are easy and only require 15 minutes of prep time, there were a few steps that seemed excessively complicated and time-consuming to me.

Two beaten egg whites? Really? In a salty snack? Yes. really. I made a few with just the butter/cream cheese/cheddar mixture and I didn’t know how they could get any better — until I added the egg white. In the photo above, you can see that the three snacks on top are dense and crispy. Those do not have egg white. The three snacks on bottom are light and puffy. Apparently, that’s what the egg white does. So I say, go the extra mile, dirty a couple more dishes, use the beaten egg whites.

Do I really have to roll each individual bread cube in the cheese mixture? Why can’t I just dump all of it in a mixing bowl and stir it up? The deliciousness of each bite is directly related to the amount of cheese on it — the more the better. This pretty much requires you to coat the bread cubes one at a time. I got impatient halfway through and stirred everything together. Those pieces turned out more like cheesy croutons. Plan to spend at least 20 minutes on this step alone.

Do I really have to freeze these? For twice the amount of time that they bake? No. Definitely not. I tried it both ways and it didn’t seem to make a difference. Only freeze them if you’re going to prepare them in advance and bake them later. As delicious as these are the day they are baked, they are downright gross out of a Ziploc bag the next day. So only bake as many as you’re going to eat.

These were amazing and, even though I complained about many of the steps, fairly easy. They’ll probably be my new go-to party food. The great thing about that is that I already have several variations in mind — substitute smoked paprika for the mustard or green onions for the shallot, toss in a pinch of cayenne or load them up with garlic salt. Not that they weren’t perfect as they were…

Potato Chips

Potatoes might be my new favorite have-around-the-house item. They taste so different in all their various forms that you can eat them five days in a row and not get bored. And dishes that are prepared from real potatoes taste drastically different from their processed counterparts.

For instance, these potato chips had all the delicious, salty crunch of a bag of Lays, but also had the starchy substantialness of a potato. Sure, it was much more of a process than opening a bag of chips, but it was well worth the effort.

The steps aren’t hard, just time consuming. Peel the potatoes (any kind, I used Yukon gold), slice the potatoes really thin, soak the potatoes in cold water (for an hour or as long as you can stand to wait), drain the potatoes, lay them out on towels, heat oil (I used canola oil in my wok), fry the chips in batches (leave enough room for them to swim around in the oil), remove them after they start to brown, put them on a cooling rack to drain, and salt them.

I don’t know the chemistry behind soaking the potato slices in cold water before you fry them, but the slices come out firm and crisp. I highly recommend not skipping this step. But remember, moisture is the enemy of crispiness, so drain the potatoes well before frying them.

Feta Salsa

Feta Salsa

I stumbled across this recipe on Smitten Kitchen when I was looking for an easy snack to take to Anna’s for the season premiere of Project Runway. Feta, kalamata olives, sun dried tomatoes… How can you go wrong? So far I’ve eaten it with toast, pita chips, and wheat crackers — all delicious.

Smitten Kitchen talks about the outrage price of this dip at Whole Foods, but I wouldn’t say it’s exactly cheap to make from scratch. I might shell out a couple extra bucks to have someone do all the chopping for me, but maybe I’m just saying that because I nearly cut off my fingers trying to keep the fruit flies away from the cutting board. Too bad Greensboro doesn’t have Whole Foods.

Fried Cheerios

Fried Cheerios

When most people hear about fried Cheerios, they say it’s gross and that they won’t eat it. Don’t be one of those people; they always change their minds. It’s not gross and you will eat it and you will love it.

There is no recipe for fried Cheerios, so every batch is different. Here’s the gist of it: in a large frying pan, melt butter or margarine (1 stick), add worcestershire sauce (4Tb) and Lawry’s seasoned salt (2 tsp), add Cheerios (4-5 cups), stir until combined. I’ve never had fried Cheerios with too much worcestershire, but too much Lawry’s make them inedible. I use the big spoon that I stir with to measure the worcestershire and then sprinkle the Lawry’s to barely cover the surface of the liquid. Before you add the Cheerios, make sure your butter is nice and hot. As my brother Brian says, they don’t call them fried Cheerios for no reason. It’s a good idea to have one person pour in the Cheerios while the other person stirs, otherwise they get soggy. The amount of Cheerios is really the hardest part — too many and you’re eating dried cereal, too few and you’re eating a stick of butter.

Bacon-Wrapped Club Crackers

Bacon Crackers

I’m all for giving credit where credit is due, but I’m not sure where that is in this case. My coworker brought these to the office one day and I thought she said they were a Paula Deen recipe (which sounds about right). I can’t find anything on Paula Deen’s website, but that’s okay because you don’t need a recipe. Here’s what you do:

Take a club cracker. Sprinkle shredded cheese on top (I’ve tried parmesan and cheddar and both are good). Cut a strip of bacon in half. Wrap it around the cracker. Put it on a baking sheet (it must have sides!!!) and bake at about 350 for 20-40 minutes. I know that’s a really wide range, but baking bacon can be that way. If your smoke alarm goes off, they’ve been in too long.

It looks and sounds a little gross, but if you like bacon, I promise you’ll like it. The bacon comes out chewy and the cracker absorbs the grease, but that is what makes it taste good.