Sitting down to a meal is a feast for all the senses. We see the vibrant hue of a raspberry, intense enough to merit its own shade in a box of crayons. We sniff the smoke wafting from a grill loaded with kebabs or the steam rising from a vat of tomato sauce, and we breathe a deep sigh of satisfaction. Our mouths water in anticipation of what they’re about to feel: the char and chew of a perfectly seared steak, the crackle and chill of a crème brûlée.
Food is noisy, too. There are foods that crunch and foods that squeak, foods that are slurped and foods that jiggle. There are foods that sizzle in a hot pan or shatter into frozen shards. And there are foods that pop — perhaps the only overlap between bubble gum, Rice Krispies, and corn.
Like most Americans, I assumed that the only poppable grain was that classic snack food: popcorn. But then I discovered that many grains besides corn — including amaranth, quinoa, millet, and sorghum — have the same moisture-sealed hull and dense interior that allow the grain to pop when enough steam pressure builds up inside the kernel.
Way back in February, Food & Wine magazine named popped grains as one of their top food trends for 2013. And these protein-packed treats have been popping up, so to speak, on menus and in recipes with increasing frequency. (More and more Indian restaurants in the U.S., for example, are serving chaat, or Indian street food, and one of the most popular chaat dishes is bhel puri, which features puffed rice.)
Popped whole grains are crunchy and almost nutty in flavor. They work equally well in savory or sweet situations. Scatter them over braised vegetables, kale salad, or mashed potatoes. Sprinkle them on salads, stir them into yogurt, mix them into granola, or throw a handful atop a scoop of ice cream.
You can also combine a mixture of one or all of these popped grains as an alternative the next time you make Rice Krispy treats. If you’re not a fan of those marshmallowy chews, try instead the rich, chocolaty Peanut Butter Crispy Bars, or the much healthier Mexican bar known as dulce de alegría.
The big difference between corn and other poppable grains is size. Amaranth, quinoa, and millet grains are much, much smaller than popcorn kernels, and their size doesn’t change much even after popping.
Corn, of course, requires a lid to contain the popping kernels as they explode. But to pop smaller grains, you don’t need a lid or even a deep pot, just a cast-iron skillet set over medium-low heat.
No grain likes to be crowded while it’s popping, so resist the temptation to fill the pan with tiny grains. (An overcrowded pan means a host of burnt grains.) Pop just a tablespoon at a time, gently shaking the pan back and forth on the burner, listening carefully for the much softer sounds of the little grains popping. Popping a smaller amount like this ensures that almost every grain will pop around the same time.
A quarter-cup of small grains will yield about one cup popped. Let them cool, then store them within easy reach to add snap, crackle, and pop to your cooking.
Based in Eugene, Oregon, Jackie Varriano is a writer who loves tackling kitchen projects big and small. Keep up with her at SeeJackWrite.
Related recipe: Popped Whole Grains
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