Thursday, April 12, 2012

Enlist the Kernel

Hi, my name is Gail and I’m a salt-aholic.  Or, I was until my doctor groused about my high blood pressure.  During the two years since that diagnosis, I’ve had to rethink and revise eating habits.  Cutting sodium was the highest priority, but saturated fats were also high on the no-no list.  Most of our cooking and food preparation is done from scratch so, with a few minor substitutions, it was easy to reduce these elements from our meals.  What I really  missed was my favourite crunchy treats – potato and tortilla chips.  Unable to renounce all salty delights, I turned to popcorn and its benefits have proven to be much greater than anticipated!

The first gain realized was in our grocery budget.  For less than the price of two family-sized bags of chips, we bought a 3.6 kg carton of brand-name popcorn kernels.  That carton produces a few dozen large bowls of popcorn.  The savings from that singular dietary switch are huge!  Even considering the added cost of oil and salt, we’re still saving several dollars each month.

Little did I know there were even greater health benefits than low-sodium and low-fat.  According to a press release by the American Chemical Society, popcorn is higher in antioxidants than fruits and vegetables.  Apparently, this is due to the concentration of polyphenols in popcorn as opposed to more diluted amounts in fresh produce.  And it’s not just the puffy white centres that are loaded with these antioxidants.  Turns out, those annoying little hulls that get stuck in the teeth do more than just add fibre.  They contain the greatest concentration of polyphenols.  The study does NOT suggest popcorn should replace fruits and vegetables in a wholesome diet, but it’s very clear this simple food can be a very healthy snack.

The method of cooking and the flavourings added will, of course, affect its nutritional values.  Of the various cooking methods for popcorn, our favourite is in oil.  Hot-air is much too flavourless and we don’t use a microwave.  I once would’ve doused hot-air popcorn in butter, but since we’re reducing saturated fats, another method had to be found.  That’s when I saw the cooking show ‘Good Eats’ hosted by Alton Brown.  Usually, salt is added after the popcorn is popped, and this often requires a teaspoon (or more) to properly season an 8-10 cup batch.  Brown’s method uses only ½ teaspoon of salt, added with the kernels, and its dispersal during cooking is much more even.  (Sometimes I substitute my own seasoned salt for an even lower sodium content.)  Also, by using peanut oil, there is a pleasing taste with none of the saturated fat of butter, and this oil easily tolerates the high-heat required for popping.

Hot Oil popping method:  Heat 1/3 cup peanut oil in a Dutch oven on medium-high heat.  Add 3 kernels of popcorn and wait until these pop before adding ½ cup of kernels and ½ teaspoon sea salt.  Shake pot to keep kernels from sticking, and remove from heat when the popping slows. 

Plain popcorn can get boring, though.  Fortunately, this mild-flavoured whole grain is easily jazzed up without negating its healthful benefits.  Hubby and I have developed a few spice, herb, and powdered milk blends that we use occasionally and sparingly.  Our favourite variations are Nacho- or Ranch-flavoured popcorn.

Nacho seasoning:  1 teaspoon chili powder, ½ teaspoon ground cumin, and ½ teaspoon garlic powder.  Just sprinkle on the hot, freshly-made popcorn, toss until well-coated, and then add ¼ cup parmesan cheese.
Ranch seasoning:  1 cup skim-milk powder, ½ teaspoon each – dried chives, parsley and dill weed, ¼ teaspoon each – garlic and onion powders,  1/8 teaspoon each – salt and pepper.  Combine ingredients in a food processor and blend until finely powdered.  Sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons of powder over fresh, hot popcorn while tossing to coat.
The only doctor who doesn’t like popcorn is my dentist.  While this snack has its obvious dietary benefits, it can also crack teeth or get stuck under the gums and cause abscess.  For this reason, some caution should be taken when eating popcorn.  Avoid the small, not fully opened kernels, and be sure to floss after noshing.

If, like me, you’re reducing your sodium intake but are hopelessly addicted to salty, crunchy snacks, you may want to enlist the kernel into your dietary regimen.  Popcorn will also increase your fibre intake, provide a treat rich in antioxidants, and spare your grocery budget.  Now that’s a powerhouse, whole grain munchie!