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In season: popcorn

Vicky Fry loves growing corn, but pests and the expense of controlling them organically has made growing sweet corn more and more difficult. Looking for a fall crop that would store well, she landed on popcorn. It has done really well for her in the five years she’s been growing it.

“Our popcorn has become a fall staple for our regular customers and is gaining popularity. The customers that are seeing it for the first time are usually pleasantly surprised to see it locally grown and are often unaware that popcorn is different from sweet corn,” said Fry.

The corn grown for popcorn is indeed different from sweet corn bred for eating fresh off the cob or from corn destined to become cornmeal or grits. Fry says popcorn has a stronger hull and when heated, the starchy center allows the kernels to expand and “pop.”

Fry and her husband Steve are the owners of Fry Farm in the north Walton County community of Bethlehem. They sell their produce on Saturday mornings at the Sandy Springs Farmers Market and on Wednesday mornings at the Dunwoody Green Market.

The popcorn is planted in June. “After about four months of growing, the stalks start to turn brown and the ears turn toward the ground which tells us it’s time to harvest. After harvesting, we shuck the husks, bunch them and hang them to cure for six to eight weeks. We periodically test the corn until we get almost 100 percent pop rate. We then shell it and winnow the kernels to clean it for market.”

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The thousand row feet of corn they planted in June will yield about 300 pounds of popcorn. Five years of growing popcorn has yielded a favorite variety, Robust Yellow, which they find to be the most reliable and best tasting. Colorful varieties of popcorn they’ve also grown include Red Beauty and Snow Puff White.

Some farmers bring their popcorn to market still on the cob. Popcorn on the cob can be popped by placing the whole cob in a paper bag and heating it on high power in a microwave for about two minutes.

Fry finds most of her customers prefer to kernels off the cob, so that’s the majority of what she sells. She finds the popcorn sells well because it’s fresher, has more flavor and is more tender than what can be found in the grocery store.

“We love our popcorn. We pop it on the stove in a pot with extra virgin coconut oil. Bring the oil to a medium heat, drop a tablespoon per serving of kernels into the oil, add sea salt, cover and give the pot an occasional shake until all popping has ceased.”

The farm’s 300 pounds of popcorn should provide enough to sell through the end of November.

Popcorn is an easy keeper at home. Fry suggests her customers store their purchases at room temperature in an airtight container.

Joe Truex’ Popcorn Balls

Louisiana native chef Joe Truex of Watershed on Peachtree is partial to Steen’s cane syrup, a product of Abbeville, Louisiana. Since you have to move quickly once the syrup hits the popcorn, Truex suggests this is a good recipe to make when you have an extra pair of hands or two to help.

1/2 cup popcorn kernels

3 tablespoons peanut or canola oil

Salt

1 cup diced bacon

1 cup cane syrup

2/3 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup water

4 teaspoons white vinegar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for buttering hands

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

In a large saucepan, combine popcorn and oil. Put on lid and shake well. Heat saucepan over medium heat. Shake occasionally until kernels start to pop, then shake continuously until kernels finish popping, about 3 minutes. Carefully remove lid to release steam. Move popcorn to a large bowl and lightly salt. Be sure to remove any unpopped kernels. Set aside.

In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp. Remove bacon, drain and add to popcorn. Reserve bacon fat.

Cover a work surface with waxed paper.

In a large saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer, combine cane syrup, sugar, water, vinegar and 1 teaspoon salt over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture reaches 250 degrees, 15 to 20 minutes. Watch carefully so mixture does not boil over. Remove from heat and add 2 tablespoons butter, baking soda and reserved bacon fat. Mixture will foam up.

Pour about two-thirds of the syrup over popcorn and return the remainder in the saucepan to the cooktop over very low heat.

Mix popcorn and syrup well with a wooden spoon. Working quickly, butter hands and scoop out enough popcorn to form a 1-cup ball, set the ball on the waxed paper to cool. Repeat with remaining popcorn. This is best done by more than one person, so the syrup does not have time to harden. If mixture seems dry or isn’t holding together, stir in remaining syrup.

Allow balls to cool and serve immediately, or wrap individually in waxed paper and store in an airtight container. Makes: 15 balls

Per popcorn ball: 223 calories (percent of calories from fat, 46), 15 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 12 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 16 milligrams cholesterol, 295 milligrams sodium.

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