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Tips make popcorn so satisfying you can call it dinner

We’ll skip New Year’s Eve’s fancy appetizers this year in favor of a simple, but supremely satisfying, snack.

I stuffed Christmas stockings (mine included!) with canisters of powdered cheese for this year’s holiday. This seasoning augments our typical nutritional yeast and various other herbs and spices. My younger son, who has decreed he won’t eat popcorn without nutritional yeast, was a tad skeptical of his Kernel Season’s brand white cheddar powder. But the powdered blue cheese from Rogue Creamery caused my sister and I to start planning a Netflix night.

I purchased Kernel Season’s at Food 4 Less in Medford, which also stocks ranch, nacho cheese, caramel corn, sour cream and onion and even dill pickle flavors. Many other companies sell powdered cheese and various popcorn seasonings, including powdered tomato, online. Browse The Spice House (thespicehouse.com), The Great American Spice Co. (americanspice.com) and Nuts.com.

Powdered seasonings make popcorn almost dinner-worthy, in the opinion of Chicago Tribune food writer JeanMarie Brownson, with whom I couldn’t agree more. Popcorn has been my guilty-pleasure, solitary supper since I was pregnant with my oldest son. The past eight years have been spent perfecting my methods and flavor profiles.

First of all, really good popcorn is cooked on the stovetop in some type of fat, which allows all the other seasonings, salt included, to adhere. Air poppers have been heralded as the health-conscious alternative to stovetop or microwave popping, but I find they require the most melted butter to impart even a mild flavor.

Take it from me and JeanMarie: embrace popping corn on your stovetop, nail it and you’ll never look back. The key, I’ve found, is heat moderation at critical points in the cooking process and a large enough pot — but not too large — to allow enough space for the popping action. And don’t try popping more than about a half cup popcorn at once. If you need more than that, pop your corn in two batches.

This recipe calls for high-heat oil, but I like any solid fat, including coconut oil, clear bacon fat and even duck fat, mentioned in several columns and podcasts over the years. All of those are suited to high-heat cooking and lend their own specific flavor.

If using a solid fat for popping sounds decadent, remember that you won’t need as much butter. Instead of incorporating all the fat during the popping, as this recipe indicates, I pop the kernels in about a tablespoon of melted fat or oil, then finish the popped corn with 2 tablespoons or so of melted butter, sometimes with an extra drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

When it comes to seasoning, my method is more involved than this recipe. I like to sprinkle some over the popcorn still in the pan, then spoon that layer into the bowl, so seasoning ends up on the bottom, then sprinkle more, add to the bowl and finally finish the top layer in the bowl with a final sprinkle of seasoning. The maneuver ensures mostly even distribution.

Nutritional yeast is a must, of course. If you’ve never tried it, trust us that you’ll wonder where it’s been all your life. It’s readily available in bulk foods sections of large grocers and natural foods stores. Beyond that, let your imagination and palate steer you toward the flavors you enjoy. One of my favorites is a mixture of granulated onion, dry mustard and dried dill. Cayenne pepper mixed with the salt sates cravings for spice. I also love a sprinkling of Aleppo pepper for its visual appeal and subtler burn.

Adding powdered turmeric to the melted butter makes for a vibrantly colored corn that rivals movie theater butter for eye candy but is many times more healthful. Popcorn itself, is low in calories and high in fiber.

Recently, I’ve started sprinkling on the Japanese rice seasoning furikake and adding a splash of sesame oil to the melted butter. And truffle oil and truffle salt, of course, transform popcorn into a $5 appetizer on new American restaurant menus.

Who would think a blog post on popcorn could be so involved? But when you’re as serious about popcorn as I am, you even give consideration to your wine pairing: slightly sweet white wine for Asian-inspired and spicy batches, a light-bodied red for onion-dill popcorn and Port for blue cheese corn, of course. For New Year’s Eve, of course, you can’t go wrong with a sparkling vintage.

Cheers!

Stovetop Popcorn With Cheesy Goodness

1/3 cup sunflower oil, peanut oil, safflower oil or expeller-pressed canola oil

1/2 cup yellow popcorn kernels

Fine table salt, to taste

Nutritional yeast, to taste

Powdered cheese, to taste

Have all ingredients ready near stove. Turn on exhaust fan. Pour the oil into a deep, 3-quart saucepan with a lid. Add 2 popcorn kernels and set it over medium-high heat. Cover pan.

Stand near stove and listen for kernels to pop. When they do, that means your oil is hot enough.

Carefully pour remaining popcorn kernels into pan. Cover and shake gently. Cook over medium-high heat while kernels pop vigorously, for a minute or two. Reduce heat to very low, shake pan and let cook until you hear kernels stop popping. Turn off heat and let stand covered while you get out a large bowl.

Pour popcorn into a large bowl. Immediately sprinkle with the salt, yeast and powdered cheese to taste while mixing gently with a large spoon. Enjoy while hot.

Makes 2 dinner servings or 4 snacks.

Tribune News Service photo