Oregonian Popcorn

I come from a family of corn-poppers. I pop in vegetable oil, rarely buttering the finished product, although I do salt generously. I love it even without butter, and no butter makes cleanup easier. Here I describe each step of my corn-popping technique, explaining why I think it helps. Having used several combinations of pan and stove, I believe my approach is sound.

The pan. I recommend a dedicated corn-popping pan, say three quarts. I just can’t keep the pan clean enough for other uses. As the corn pops, oil seeps out between lid and pan, oozing down the outside and turning into a black and impenetrable coating. I simply wipe the pan free of debris with an old sponge, as with cleaning cast iron. The whole pan eventually becomes sticky, so it does get an annual trip through the dishwasher.

The oil. I use canola. Extra virgin olive oil contributes too much of its own flavor for me, although adding some to the canola is enjoyable. I’ve read that the distinctive flavor of movie theater popcorn is due to palm oil, but I’m not particularly fond of that flavor and so far haven’t tried it (although I’d like to, just to test that claim). I’ve used half bacon grease, but it somehow gets all over everything, doesn’t add much taste, and requires more cleanup, as with butter.

The corn. I like Orville Redenbacher’s yellow popcorn, because it consistently pops up into bigger, fluffier kernels than other popcorns. It’s more expensive, but so cheap per actual batch that it’s my first choice. I’ve found nothing wrong with megamart store brands. Yellow corn usually pops up bigger and fluffier than the white corn, and to me has a more intense corn flavor, but I’ve spoken to people who insist that white popcorn is superior. Obviously, it’s a matter of taste.

The technique. First, decide how much popcorn you are going to make, then add the right amount of oil. This step takes experience. I slowly pour it in until it doesn’t quite cover the pan bottom. In summer, when the oil flows freely, I stop adding just before it fills the bottom. In winter the oil is thicker, so I stop adding just past the half-way mark.

Second, add three kernels, adjust the burner to the proper setting, and put the lid on. This step also takes experience. Your pan/burner combination defines the appropriate setting, and the three pops you hear will be informative. Starting from cold, it should take a couple minutes before they pop. There may be quite a long time between pops, or they might be nearly simultaneous. Rarely, one will not pop, or will only half pop. If they pop too quickly or look small and burned when popped, your burner is too hot. A bit above medium may be the right setting.

Third, pour in the kernels. The oil will now flow like water rather than sludge. I pour until there are still a few lakes of oil visible among the kernels. Then I give the pan twelve good swirls and some back-and-forths to make sure the kernels are fully coated. I then check and add more kernels (with swirling/shaking), repeating until the kernels are glistening with oil, but there are no major lakes or rivers. Then I let er pop! If it starts pushing the lid off, just pour a bit out into your bowl, put the lid back on, and set the pan back on the burner, perhaps with a few shakes. If you get a lot of burned or unpopped kernels, you may have put in too much oil and thus too much corn. Or you may have the oil to corn ratio too low.

Bangers and Hass

Bangers and mash, one of my favorite British dishes. Mrs. Dean and I took in a guided pub walk in Chelsea, ending up at what was then the King’s Head and Eight Bells. We had been chatted up by some fellow pub crawler from Florida who was on various airline “sudden deal” lists, and pretty much every weekend he would fly somewhere on an overnight exotica trip for ninety nine bucks or whatever.

The pub walk itself was slow yet enjoyable. Unlike USians who find British beer warm and flat, I easily adapt to it and am prone to having perhaps one too many pints of Old Speckled Hen or Boddington’s. Besides the beer stories, our guide regaled us between pubs with history, probably so that people like myself wouldn’t outpace the others, staggering or stumbling to the final venues. One of the first pubs had “Oregon Ale”, brewed locally but hopped with leafy buds from the Willamette Valley. Ah nostalgia! The penultimate pub, our guide assured us after lecturing about various events in the history of, perhaps, Cheyne Walk, was guaranteed to be a surprise! And it was! It was the Surprise! Tavern, named after HMS Surprise! It was so memorable that on a later trip, after dropping lug at some hipster youth hostel in Gray’s Inn Road, I insisted that we tube over to Sloane Square and find the place again.

The King’s Head etc. was the last pub of the tour, but we stayed for dinner. Seeing bangers and mash on the menu, I knew what I would be ordering. Florida Man had I guess been wandering about but had returned, espied us, and joined us just after we had ordered. This was when we learned of his travel hobby. We also learned that he tended to be strict about his diet, eating mostly vegetables, didn’t usually drink so much. He struggled through the menu looking for an acceptable item. Waitstaff was eventually signaled, and his salad order placed just as ours was being delivered. Mrs. Dean likely had lamb, as that meat is curiously (to us USians) inexpensive in the UK so we never really ate it that much at home.

“What’s that?” asked Florida Man as waitstaff flourished a platter of fatty meat carbs before me. “Bangers and mash”, said I, “sausage and mashed potatoes with onion gravy. It’s a traditional…”. Before I could finish my lecture, FM was standing and shoving his chair back, prior to actually running after the waitron shouting about wanting to change his order.

I recently had guests. Snacks were demanded. “I could make some onion gravy”, I suggested, but they weren’t into it. I often make it: quick, tasty, nutritious, uses up the extra alliums often laying around trying to sprout. “It’s just a stock reduction!” – I usually have ample poultry stock as well. Good on the leftover carbs abundant after guest feasts. Having mentioned it I wanted some myself, so made rather a lot.

Days before, watching cooking videos, I saw a new (to me) dish, Hasselback potatoes. Like making thick potato chips but not slicing all the way through, so you have an intact spud that looks like a ribcage. Slather with tasty fat and bake. A nice substrate for possibly too much gravy. I picked up a couple of Russets and gave it a whirl. Having some duck fat on hand (not as usual has having alliums or poultry stock), I basted them every twenty minutes or so with that. Somewhere along the line I realized that in a couple of months when I allow myself to have sausage, I could concoct a new dish, derived from the British classic, bangers and Hasselback potatoes, bangers and Hass for short.


I hereby suggest  that, to “be like me” (q.v. Policy), readers attempt their own version of the following:

Strive for five. Five servings (1/2 cup each) of fruits and/or vegetables per day. Difficult for me: absent a toothsome sauce or cooking tricks, I pretty much dislike, or at best, have no interest in, the taste and texture of vegetables. Instant menu fatigue. Thus, I like to serve my vegetables with a thick stew, which I think of more as a sauce and call “glop”, in combination with carbs like rice or pasta to help in the vegetable-choking-down process. I do like dehydrated figs, so with those as a desert-like-substance, I need but four servings – two cups – of actual veg daily. I break that up into two or three meals. My stews are usually meat-based, with plenty of veg as well, although I also make quite a bit of a decent vegan chili. By choosing among various stew recipes, my approach provides a diverse freezerful of relatively delicious, nutritious meal starters. I also sometimes make a casserole.

Convenience. Minimize cooking and clean-up labor. I often make two glops on one day. I can reuse pots and pans with just a rinse rather than a full wash. It doesn’t take the whole day, and there is but one big washing-up to do at the end. I design my recipes to produce about two weeks’ worth of glop.

Creative. I adapt recipes I find online or in books or the newspaper, increasing the thickness and flavor density to counteract the intended dilution with veg and carbs. With some fiddling I can usually adjust them for serving to guests rather than foisting my boring-ish mix-it-all-together daily presentation upon them.

Vegetables. I try to always have carrots, celery, peppers, alliums, and a brassica on hand, alternating among onions, leeks, and shallots, or cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli; often I have leftover veg from glop or other cooking. I cycle through red-orange-yellow peppers, never green. I variously boil, fry, or roast them in large quantities for easy incorporation into a microwavable bowlful.

Carbs. I mostly use white rice to make a pilaf with tomato bouillon, some vegan broth powder, and powders of chili, onion, and garlic, but I try to occasionally utilize potatoes and pasta. As with the veg I make a large quantity. Sometimes I mix the finished carbs and veg together to make preparation even easier. Just spoon the ingredients into a bowl, cover and nuke for several minutes at 50%.

Protein. I try to minimize my meat intake, avoiding the worst offenders as much as menu fatigue allows. Beef or pork rarely, mostly chicken and salmon. “Best Vegetarian Chili” by Cook’s Illustrated and rotisserie chickens are my major protein sources. I often add a few tablespoons of quinoa to my rice.

Sauce. The sauce/stew alone should be a little too concentrated: salty, umami, chili heat, as it will be diluted by the veg and carbs. I shoot for about two servings of protein in one two-cup freezer container. Salmon and the evil meats are great alone, but they also serve well to extend the chicken or chili, so that everything lasts a little longer than it would have.

Cooking. I chop the veg to about bite size. Roasting is a great way to make them less unenjoyable. Frying is also acceptable, and if I boil them I reserve the liquid to make rice with. Rotisserie chickens are convenient, but if my store is out, I can roast some bone-in skin-on thighs. Either way I get chicken stock as well. In the rare circumstance that the chicken supply chain is stalled I allow myself some pork or beef. I strive to have two or three sauces in play, cooking a vat of sauce, or a bunch of veg or rice, once a week or so. Every so often I let things lapse, meaning I’ll need to have a major cooking session.

Stock Split

Last Winterfest, my main Christmas present was an Instant Pot, collectively given by The Rellies. For my part, I got everybody a safety vest and a handy microplane grater (we had arranged this transaction months previously, as I am hard to buy for and hate shopping). A few days later, I remembered, barely in time, an impending Space 2.0 rocket landing. With amazing luck, I activated the live SpaceX feed a handful of seconds before the landing burn. I was so elated to have not missed it that I posted about my coincidence-joy to my historic mailing list. The succeeding conversation turned, with internal logic, into a discussion of the Mexican stew pozole, and how I have been making my chicken stock. Now that I actually have an Instant Pot, perhaps I should switch over to that as my stock pot. Thus, the following side-by-side comparison:

Here I compare two batches of chicken stock, one made according to my original procedure (OP), the other employing the Instant Pot (IP) instead.

I obtained two cold rotisserie chickens from the local supermarket, refrigerating them immediately after getting them home. The next day, I weighed each chicken, picked and weighed its meat, then froze the carcasses.

Some time later I prepared equal quantities of onions (quartered), carrots (halved lengthwise and cut into lengths), and celery (prepared as were the carrots).

OP chicken stock was made by placing one frozen carcass in a 5 qt pot, just covering it with water, then adding the remaining ingredients once a steady low boil was obtained. Once the steady low boil resumed after ingredient addition, cooking proceeded for three hours. IP chicken stock was made by placing one frozen carcass in a 6 qt Instant Pot, just covering with water, adding the remaining ingredients, pressure cooking for 1 hr, and releasing pressure after 20 min. For each preparation, the cooked material was filtered through a coarse kitchen sieve, boiled down to a final volume of just under 1 c, then brought to a final volume of 1 c with hot water. The reduced stock was then poured into a pyrex container, allowed to cool to near room temperature, and refrigerated overnight. Fat and scum were scraped off of the cooled stock, and it was remelted. The lower volume batch was brought to the same volume as the higher. Each batch was then poured back into a clean Pyrex storage container, allowed to cool and refrigerated.

The IP stock was darker in color, suggesting increased extraction of soluble components versus the OP stock. It was also much stiffer, as indicated by much lower jiggle when given a gentle shake, suggesting a higher gelatin concentration, consistent with increased extraction of soluble components. It was much more sensuous to carve off bits of it for ad hoc dishes or my usual fare.

Rather than continue with further experiments – making double batches of my usual fare and having blind taste tests and what not, I have simply adopted IP as my chicken stock method of choice. I did a similar experiment with pork butt (the pig is an animal whose shoulder is also its butt), but my local megamart carries butt only in about 10 lb bone-in pieces, which needs further annoying butchering in order to fit half of it into an Instant Pot, so for now I am sticking with a simple braise of the whole butt in a big pot and boiling down and skimming the drippings.


I visited the Bowers Chili Festival, mainly for the U-pick component, although we did wander through the super-spreader component. Here is a bit of a photo essay taking you through some of the steps of what happened after I got home with 8-ish pounds of chili peppers. First I dried them at 165° F in my convection oven. I then converted them to cut-up pepper bits that I toasted in a cast-iron skillet, loosing the stems and most of the seeds along the way. Then I converted them to powder with a coffee-whacker. In the future, I will probably go directly from fresh peppers to cut-up bits, as the drying process for whole peppers is pretty long.

One thing I like to do is just open my jars of chili powder and smell them. Generally I do this by taking off the lid and holding it under my nose and inhaling therethrough. Something is different about making powder from freshly dried peppers, or from these particular peppers: it needed more of a chemistry class “hold it away from yourself and waft the scent gently towards your nose” approach.

Fresh Chilis

Dried Chilis
Chili Bits in the Pan
Chili Bits in the Whacker
The Wages of Capsaicin


In Germany, “das Bier (e)s, -e” refers to, say, a glass of Löwenbräu or Beck’s, which, though perhaps slightly richer, are quite similar to the Miller or Coors you might drink in the USA. In general, the word encompasses any beverage made from water and yeast-fermented grain malt. More German-specific, however, as with much of continental Europe and the USA, the notion of “beer” is synonymous with the notion of “lager”. Now, many people know that “ale” and “pilsner” are somehow also kinds of beers. Pilsner is actually a specific kind of lager, and I’ve heard people distinguish lager and ale with ideas such as “ale is actually alive”, or “ale is aged in wooden kegs”. Not accurately definitional. Now, unless you’re a beer afficionado, you may be thinking something along the lines of “who cares: tomahto, tomayto”. Still, when discussing the topic of beer, or should I say, Bier, people often seem to have the impression that the Germans invented beer brewing, even having famous laws about it, therefore German beer must be some of the best (none of that is true).

Whatever. Taste is a matter of, well, taste. You like what you like, I like what I like, it’s not a rational decision based on factual information and logical reasoning. My taste, as it happens, tends rather towards a dislike, or at least a very low like, of most lagers, which means most German or American beers. And it turns out that, although a matter of taste, there is factual information and logical reasoning that, while not justifying such differences, can at least explain them.

The yeast used to ferment beer has a substantial effect on the brew’s ultimate flavor. Obviously, the grains and other ingredients (such as hops) used in the recipe also have an influence, but even if the only difference between two recipes is the yeast used, the beers can taste extremely different. Ale yeast is the same species as baker’s yeast: Saccharomyces cerevisiae, “sweet fungus of beer”. It has been domesticated for thousands of years and as a result there are thousands of cultivars, as different from each other as cabbage and kale. Lager yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus (sweet fungus of Pasteur), is a hybrid of S. cerevisiae and S. eubayanus, and has been domesticated for only hundreds of years, hardly enough time to develop as many different varieties. Evidently the hybridization event that led to lager yeast was special, as it has proven very difficult to hybridize Scer and Seub in the lab. Hybridizing between Scer variants couldn’t be easier, and folks are constantly bioprospecting for natural variants of Scer all the time, constantly adding dimensions to “beer space” (there are even tales of “yeast rustlers” – check out Travels with Barley, by Ken Wells). Thus, my perception that lagers all taste essentially the same, while there is a great variety in ales, has factual support.

The main reason that lagers have become so dominant is that lager yeast ferments well at low temperatures, and the yeast particles settle to the bottom of the vessel, making it relatively easy to create a consistent, clear brew if you have access to constant-temperature caves for fermenting and storing your product (“Lager” in German means a storage area or warehouse), especially useful hundreds of years ago before knowledge of microbiology and mechanical refrigeration. Now, although it has proven difficult, it has not proven impossible, to hybridize Scer and Seub in the lab. This is good news – there is great potential for developing new lager strains with as great a variety of flavors as ale yeasts, perhaps allowing humanity to accomplish for lagers in the next century (through direct genetic intervention) what it took natural and human selection millenia to accomplish for ales. Cheers!