Yellow bowl from Dishes Only.
WE ARE GONNA TURN POPCORN INTO GRITS
One sleepless night in Hong kong, I sat in darkness as my face was dimly illuminated with fascinations and lights extruding from an iPad, where David Chang and Daniel Patterson were performing the magic of turning popcorns into polenta. Popcorns. This lowly snack that nobody deems worthy as anything but an afterthought on movie nights, or an amusement as we watch them being tumbled in disgusting, clownish rainbow food-dyes, in their hands, became this creamy and velvety substance. That moment, I suddenly became interested in the word polenta again.
I tried cooking real polenta before… once.
It was somewhere back in the early 2000’s when I was still a collagen-filled college student, merely trying to feed myself at the end of the month by counting coins left from a careless visit to the Urban Outfitters. Had I, a barely seasoned juvenile cook, any business making this hopelessly romantic Italian staple with slogans like “stir till death do us apart”? No, absolutely no. But clearly, no one had the heart to tell me. I remember standing by the stove for what must’ve felt like an eternity, blood sweat and tears, tending a pot of lava-like substance that constantly spat out skin-meltingly hot sputters onto every surfaces that hurt, and yet somehow, still tasted like a flavorless goo with crunchy, uncooked bits.
It’s been like… I don’t know, 15 years? I’ve never tried again since. Actually, I forgot about polenta all together. Bad word. Very bad word.
Well, until PBS arrived.
Or more accurately, the show The Mind of a Chef arrived on PBS which was featured on Netflix which had just recently become available in Hong Kong.
I can’t quite remember the specific episode, but it was Season One somewhere, featuring David Chang with guest chef, Daniel Patterson. And the second they proclaimed, “We are gonna turn popcorns into grits” (not the exact quote)(and call it grits if you want but I’m calling mine polenta because it’s very yellow), I knew it was going to be very cool. Of course, being a respectably fancy chef, Daniel had to demonstrate achieving this goal through extra laboring steps just to prove his self-worth (like… God-knows-how-many small batches of popcorns, separately, being poached then pushed through a ricer and then strained again…). And leaving me, this lowly reputable home-cook with very little self-respect, to wonder why on earth couldn’t I cheat in like 4 steps?
Turned out, it can be.
Have your popcorns. Blend them with liquid. Strain. Heat and season.
Without any stirring or sputters, I had creamy polenta with an extra nutty flavor from the popcorns in under 15 min. Given that the texture may be less “pearly” compared to if I did it in 20 steps, but as a shortcut that served no other noble purposes but to make myself happy, I could gladly forgo the esthetic imperfections. Especially, did I mention, that it was armed with melted cheddar cheese, and topped with deeply caramelized mushrooms with a dark pan-sauce made from garlics, fresh thymes, wine, chicken stock and a good dousing of tabasco sauce… This gooey, buttery, savory, slightly spicy and tangy bed of comfort made an October Tuesday night really happy.
Who says that popcorns can’t be dinner?
- 2/3 cup dry corn kernels
- 6 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 3/4 cup (415 grams) water
- 1/2 cup (120 grams) heavy cream
- 1 cup (73 grams) shredded cheddar cheese
- 1 tbsp (13 grams) unsalted butter
- 1/4 tsp sea salt, plus more to adjust
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2 heads of shimeji mushrooms, or equivalent amount of assorted mushrooms
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter, plus more
- 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 tbsp shaoxing wine, or sherry wine
- 1/2 cup (120 grams) chicken stock
- 1/2 tsp tabasco sauce
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/8 tsp light brown sugar
- 2 tsp unsalted butter
- I would strongly recommend using homemade popcorns without butter for this recipe. I find the weirdly artificial "butter flavor" from microwave popcorns to be off-putting for this application.
- MAKE POPCORNS: In a large, heavy stock pot with lid, add the vegetable oil plus 2~3 kernels. Put the lid on, then heat over medium-high heat. Standby closely and wait for 1 min or so until you hear the kernels inside the pot pop. Once it does, pour the rest of the kernels in and put the lid back on. Give the pot a swirl over the burner and very soon, you'll hear the popping sounds increase. Keep on medium-high heat, and shake the pot over the burner every few seconds (to avoid burning at the bottom). Once the popping slows to more than 3 seconds between pops, turn off the heat and transfer the popcorns into another large container immediately.
- MAKE THE POLENTA: Bring 1 3/4 cup of water to a simmering, then transfer into a blender with 1/2 of the popcorns. Start on low speed and blend until coarsely broken down. Add the rest of the popcorns and blend again, pushing them down with a spatula if needed, until broken down. Then add the heavy cream and blend on high speed until it is smooth with a gritty texture. Place a coarse strainer over a large pot, then pass the polenta through in a couple batches (you'll see the tough husks being caught in the sieve at the end of each batch, scrape off and discard). In the pot where you have the strained polenta, add shredded cheddar, unsalted butter, sea salt and ground black pepper. Bring to a simmer to cook until the cheese has melted. Set aside and keep warm.
- MAKE MUSHROOM JUS: Whether you're using shimeji mushrooms or other varieties, trim off the tough ends and slice into thick chunks/slices. In a large flat skillet, heat olive oil and butter over high heat. Scatter the mushrooms in a single layer (do it in two batches if must), don't move them, and leave the first side to brown and caramelize. Once the first side has taken a deep caramelization, turn them over and brown the other side. Transfer to a plate and repeat with the rest of the mushrooms (add more oil if needed).
- Once all the mushrooms are caramelized, return all of them back into the skillet and add garlics and thymes. Cook until fragrant, then add shaoxing wine (or sherry), chicken stock, tabasco sauce, sea salt, black pepper and sugar. Cook for a couple min until the sauce has reduced just slightly, then add the unsalted butter. Turn off the heat now, and whisk the butter into the sauce. Serve the mushroom jus on top of the popcorn polenta (reheated if needed) with a bit more freshly cracked black pepper.