Popcorn: kernels about the harvest

Goodbye, sweet harvest of summer. Hello, autumn pickings, for hot popping all year.

Sweet corn commands intense attention because of the short turnaround between plucking those luscious ears and devouring the freshly steamed, boiled or roasted kernels.

Much less heralded is the reaping of Wisconsin-grown popcorn, which satisfies our hankering for a tasty, inexpensive snack that is low in fat and calories (if we don’t go hog-wild with buttery or sweet additions).

Popcorn kernels have a hard exterior and soft, starchy, moist center that steams and explodes as heat is generated. That’s what makes this type of corn different than sugary, soft-shelled sweet corn, or hard-shelled field corn to feed livestock.

The Popcorn Board, based in Chicago, declares October as National Popcorn Poppin’ Month. Almost all the world’s popcorn is grown and eaten in the U.S.

Nebraska leads, easily, in popcorn production. Wisconsin farmers grow the crop too, not with great fanfare or such a huge quantity, but we have our moments.

Whenever heading west on U.S. 18, chances are good that I’ll stop in Montfort, a village of 718 that straddles Iowa and Grant counties, because it is home to Rural Route 1 Popcorn.

The business began with 25 acres of popcorn and today encompasses several hundred acres. In the rural retail store are classic combos and decadent flavor combos like K-Nuckle (white fudge and almonds) and SS Dunkle (dark fudge, sea salt, caramel). Online and wholesale sales happen too. ruralroute1.com

Another popcorn producer – in business just as long – is Wisconsin Gold Harvest of Helenville, Jefferson County, which grows, harvests and markets popcorn as Theater Brand throughout the Midwest. Owner Carl Weider works the fields; wife Colleen handles sales.

They don’t have a storefront but sell online and at some of Wisconsin’s most prominent grocery stores. wisgold.com

Valley Popcorn, Neenah, was established around 30 years ago by agronomist Carl Freudl and his wife Carol. Small batches are produced over an open flame, “monitored by our chefs to ensure the heat, coconut oil and salt make the perfect combination to gently absorb into the popped corn for a consistent flavor.”

Popcorn seeds, grown in the Midwest, arrive in 2,200-pound bags. valleypopcorn.com

The Popcorn Board is a go-to destination for all things that involve popcorn: industry trivia to science fair project ideas. Online are dozens of recipes too, including this seasonal treat.

Spooky Popcorn Spider Web

1/4 cup butter
8 cups mini marshmallows, divided
1 tablespoon vanilla

9 cups popped popcorn, divided

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips, divided
Black string licorice
Candy eyes

Line a round pizza pan with parchment paper; set aside.

Melt butter in large saucepan set over low heat. Add 5 cups marshmallows, stirring constantly for 3 to 4 minutes or until completely melted. Stir in vanilla. Remove from heat.

Immediately stir in 8 cups popcorn until coated. Spread onto prepared pizza pan, forming an irregular round shape that is about 1 inch thick, to resemble spider web. Refrigerate about 15 minutes or until firm.

In microwave, melt remaining marshmallows about 20 seconds, or until melted. Using a spatula, string strands of melted marshmallow over popcorn spider web to create cobweb effect.

In heatproof bowl set over saucepan of hot (not boiling) water, melt 3/4 cup of the chocolate chips. Let cool slightly. Pour chocolate over remaining popcorn in large bowl, folding gently to coat. Spread mixture on baking sheet lined with waxed paper, separating into 8 small clusters. Affix 2 candy eyes onto each popcorn cluster. Refrigerate for 10 to 15 minutes, or until set.

Melt remaining 1/4 cup of chocolate chips. Cut licorice into 1-inch pieces. Use small spoon to dab circles of chocolate onto spider web. Affix chocolate-coated popcorn onto chocolate circles. Affix licorice pieces onto chocolate popcorn clusters, to resemble spider legs.

Refrigerate 15 minutes, or until set. To serve, cut into smaller pieces.

Looking for a snack with healthful ingredients? The Popcorn Board suggests this as an exercise workout reward.

Power-Packed Popcorn Sports Bars

(Makes 12 bars)

8 cups popped popcorn
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup chopped dried apricots
1/2 cup sweetened dried cranberries
1/2 cup roasted soy nuts (or shelled sunflower seeds)

3 tablespoons butter or margarine

2/3 cup honey
1/4 cup brown sugar (light or dark)

2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt

Heat oven to 300 degrees. Line 13×9-inch pan with foil and spray lightly with cooking spray; set aside.

Combine popcorn, almonds, coconut, apricots, cranberries and soy nuts in large bowl; set aside.

In small saucepan, heat butter, honey, brown sugar, vanilla and salt over medium heat. Stir to blend and bring to a boil. Boil 2 minutes, stirring constantly.

Pour heated mixture over popcorn mixture. Stir to blend all ingredients. Pour into foil-lined pan. With damp hands, press mixture lightly and evenly into pan.

Bake 30 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool in pan at least 3 hours before cutting into rectangles to serve. Or wrap bars individually in plastic wrap and store in airtight container up to two weeks.