And now for something completely different.
There's been a lot of meat in these pages lately, organs, even--livers and kidneys and tongues. Oh, my. Rich sauces, slaughtered bunnies.
Time for a little palate cleanser. Time for some popcorn. This will sort of wrap up the 2009 Food Highlights (I haven't forgotten the book drawing, will get to that this week). The subject here is not just any old popcorn, but the best popcorn ever, and a local, homegrown product, to boot: Clem's Homegrown Popcorn from Castle Rock Township, Minnesota.
I first came across Clem's popcorn a couple of years ago at Greg's Meats on U.S. Highway 52 in Hampton, MN, on my way home from a fishing outing to the Whitewater area. Unsuccessful at putting a meal of trout in the creel (that hardly ever happens...), I stopped at Greg's to pick up a couple of steaks. A display of interesting cloth bags near the checkout caught my eye--hand-picked popcorn, "Minnesota Grown," how could I resist? And it was there, my friends, at an unassuming butcher shop in the middle of a cornfield, it was there, that day, that my lifelong quest for the perfect popcorn came to an end.
Popcorn is one of the world's most appetizing foods, and Clem's is the best popcorn in the world. It pops up into beautiful, full, tasty kernels with perfect popcorn texture. It leaves almost no "old maids," or whatever you like to call those unpopped kernels (recognizing that the term "old maid" is perhaps not considered quite politically correct these days). We pop ours the old-fashioned way, in a heavy-bottomed pan on the stovetop. We use canola oil to pop it, the least coating of the pan bottom, and top it temperately with Hope unsalted butter and sea salt. We eat it for lunch sometimes, or with happy hour, or as the classic TV-watching snack. And, as of today, I've eaten it as part of a salad! More on that below.
I've made my case, and now I'll let Cindy Plash, Clem Becker's daughter-in-law, tell the rest of the story. She tells it wonderfully well. It makes me like Clem's even more:
[15 February update: Cindy wanted me to mention a couple of other people responsible for making Clem's homegrown popcorn available to us. They are: "Randy Becker (Clem's son and my husband). He is the essential part of the whole popcorn business with his knowledge and strong back! Also, Imelda (mother-in-law) sews all of the bags (about 600 a year) that the popcorn is sold in--she definitely deserves mention." Happy to give credit where credit is due (and preserve family harmony!).]
Clem is my father-in-law who will be 90 years old this year. He started growing popcorn about 25 years ago, just for family and friends. I moved to Farmington and began learning how to grow popcorn in 1995. In 1998, we started marketing and selling the popcorn with the bag that features Clem picking popcorn. Clem still comes out to the farm to help with popcorn and last year he picked about 180 5-gallon buckets of popcorn ears. (I didn’t keep track of the number of buckets I picked.) We plant about three-quarters of an acre of popcorn.
We start picking the popcorn in late October and it will usually take about a month. Because we hand pick the popcorn, each ear is inspected and bad kernels are dug out with a special hand tool. The ears are then put on large screens to dry. We use a corn sheller to remove the kernels from the cobs. The kernels are put through a fanning mill that separates the large and small kernels (this is done because the large kernels will take longer to dry). The kernels are put into small boxes with screens on the bottom to dry to the perfect moisture for popping. After the corn is dried, we put the kernels through the fanning mill twice to remove the chaff (or "bees' wings"). The sheller and fanning mill are from the 1930s. All the popcorn is stored in five-gallon buckets and each bucket is popped to ensure quality and ‘popability’ (that’s my own made-up word) before it is packaged for sale. This past harvest was the best crop we’ve had at about 4,000 pounds.
Clem’s popcorn is available through mail order and the following retail outlets – Greg’s Meats in Hampton (on Hwy 52), Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls (31659 County 24 Boulevard), and Just Food Co-op in Northfield (516 Water Street South). We also participate in the Farmers Market in Farmington and plan to attend the Eagan Market this year.
We are a very small business and plan to remain small so that the quality of our popcorn will continue. Last year we sold out of popcorn by mid-October, but people will wait for the fresh crop, I think, because of our quality.
Here’s a recipe for popcorn salad:
2 cups Clem’s Homegrown Popcorn, popped (use more or less popcorn, depending on taste)
2 cups diced celery
1/2 medium onion diced
1 can diced water chestnuts (drained)
8 ounce shredded cheddar cheese
½ cup bacon, fried and crumbled
2 cups of mayo
Chill for two hours before serving. Keeps well in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours.
(Note: Don’t ever use flavored popcorn such as white cheddar, it’s too salty.)
I made a version of the popcorn salad this afternoon. I wanted to play up the popcorn aspect, so I cut back some on the supporting cast of ingredients. I subbed apple for water chestnuts to keep it more local, and I omitted the bacon. Here's my version:
2 cups popped popcorn, Clem’s Homegrown
1 rib celery, chopped, about 3/4 cup
1/2 medium onion, chopped, about 3/4 cup (I used a red onion, which added nice color)
1 small apple, peeled, in 1/2-inch dice
3 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese, about a cup
1/2 cup of mayo (I like Hellmann's, by which I mean, I adore Hellmann's, could live on Hellmann's...)
Yes, I was skeptical about popcorn salad. Who ever heard of popcorn salad? You know what? It's delicious. Put it on the salad buffet at next summer's barbecue gathering. You will get quizzical comments, you will get compliments, you will get requests for the recipe.
Thanks so much to Cindy for sharing the story of Clem's popcorn, and to the Becker-Plash family for their wonderful product.
A 2.25 pound bag of Clem's Homegrown Popcorn costs $5.00 (plus shipping if you get it by mail order). To place an order contact Cindy Plash by email-- firstname.lastname@example.org --or phone, 651.460.8034. Look for Clem's listing in the Minnesota Grown directory.
Update on ordering Clem's popcorn: Cindy just let me know that Clem's popcorn can also be ordered in bulk, any amount, for $2 a pound. Also, please note that if you're ordering small amounts by mail order, the shipping may cost more than the popcorn. The flat rate box is the most economical way to go, so get some friends involved. At Christmas I ordered a half dozen bags, and the shipping was $10.35 for the whole thing. (Added 11 February 2010)
Text (except Cindy Plash's story of Clem's popcorn) and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw