Free Range on Food: Restaurant reviews, popcorn and more

Jul 31, 2013

Kristina L. Kern of Stella*s PopKern joins us to share tips on how to move beyond microwave popcorn.
Every Wednesday at noon, Food section staff members and guests answer your burning culinary questions.
Past Free Range on Food chats

So glad you popped in today, Free Rangers! It's our kernels of truth hour, be they from Tim Carman's essay on where we can get the best restaurant review information or from guest Kristina Kern, local gourmet popcorn purveyor of  Stella*s PopKern and a source for our popcorn package today.  Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan and Smoke Signals' Jim Shahin are on hand as well.  Editor "little lad" Joe's on vacation but he ordered/executed enough of his favorite snack food that we can discuss Staff Favorites!


We'll have a Washington Post Cookbook to give away, as well as another prize...stay tuned for winner announcement at the end of the chat. Let's get to it! 

I am so excited about today's topic. Maybe even embarrassingly so. I eat popcorn at least 4 times a week, and have been known to have it every day. My brother asked me just last night if I ever get sick of it. Nope! My favorite way is to put some oil in a stockpot, add a few kernels, and when they pop, add the rest. Once it's done, I just sprinkle on a little finely ground sea salt. I want to branch out and will try some of the recipes in the article. Any tips on perfecting caramel or kettle corn?'re a person after my own heart! I LOVE popcorn too and also eat it daily - I'm embarassed to admit that I actually eat popcorn at home and not just at work. So this is funny - I've only made caramel corn in a commercial capacity. Real butter (of course), dark and light pure cane sugar and vanilla are essentials. Lastly try adding a light dusting of a high quality sea salt (finer grained). Oh, and use mushroom kernels... :-) I've never made kettle corn as I am a purest and only like it from a huge kettle. However, I do make a salty/sweet popcorn at home.

A friend brought a bottle of moscato over for a dinner party I threw recently. Opened the bottle last night, and while I knew it was a sweet wine, this was so cloyingly sweet that I was aghast at its apparent popularity (maybe pricier brands are more nuanced?) Anyway, there's most of a bottle left, do you have any suggestions for repurposing it into something more palatable? Either in cooking or as an element in a cocktail where the flavor can be balanced? Thanks!

On the cocktail side, I would probably try something with gin -- ideally something with some interesting herbal or citrus notes, like Botanist or Tanqueray 10 -- and maybe muddling a little mint with it? Other savory herbs like thyme or rosemary would probably add interest. Another possibility would be muddling in some fresh ginger, which I find always adds a nice pep to overly sweet drinks.

Today's article about popcorn awakened a memory of ordering fresh-popped popcorn at Georgetown's old Biograph Theater, where there was a choice of spices to shake on top, including curry powder. First time I ever saw toppings other than salt and butter (or ersatz butter) suggested for popcorn. This opened my mind as much as the films. <Sigh> The Biograph has long-since become yet another CVS.

I loved the Biograph, spent many a rainy Saturday afternoon there. (I still wear my Fred&Ginger Biograph T-shirt from time to time, which has a few conveniently positioned holes!) Spices are great to shake, but like the pros told us today, make sure they are ground fine enough so they don't all fall to the bottom of your soon-to-be-empty container. 

Just wanted to say that I enjoyed Tim's article today on restaurant reviews. I can understand why people are critical of Yelp, but I agree that it can be an extremely useful tool if you are willing to put in the effort. When I was involved, I knew who I could trust for excellent barbecue recommendations, and who else to check with for kabobs/Chinese/etc. If you want good recommendations, you need to know who is giving the recommendations, right? And I wouldn't necessarily trust a chef preparing classical French food (good as he or she may be) to recommend a good Indian place - I'd check with my Indian friend's parents. But it does take more effort, and I suppose not everyone has the time or inclination to do it.

Thank you!


Yelp may be one of the most useful tools on the Web for picking up tips about restaurants and dishes. I have on several occasions learned from Yelpers about a dish that I had never seen before in D.C.  That kind of research and scouting is invaluable to me.

Question for Kristina - where do you suggest getting different varieties of popcorn? We buy popping corn kernels to make at home (can't wait to try some of the recipes from today), but I don't remember it specifying whether it was a mushroom, butterfly, or other variety.

I would recommend Whole Foods as they now have some really cool varieties that could be fun for you to play with and at some point you may even want to start combining different kernels. Whole Foods in Chevy Chase has a neat display of bulk popcorn. Also, health food markets are a terrific source of bulk kernels. Let me know how you like the recipes! 

A big shout out to Kristina, who has brightened many of my afternoons. Also, my manager is obsessed with popcorn and ran for the door the minute I told him about the truck. I'm still trying to get him to move beyond the basic ones, but either way, when your boss is happy, you're happy. :)

Awwwww!  Thank you for the shout out.  I really appreciate it!

I am planning on grilling this weekend or next and want to do most of the meal on the grill, some bread, veggies, seafood, then dessert. For dessert I want to do grilled peaches, but I was curious if you guys clean the grill between "courses" and the best way to then prepare the grill before the peaches. I want the peaches to get caramelized and have the flavor of the grill, but don't want them to taste like vegetable oil or meat. Any tips?

I absolutely love that you are doing several courses on your grill. Lots of people make one dish, then leave that beautiful fire to did a lonely death.

A really easy way to keep your grill clean is to simply scrape it with a hard bristle brush. For a cleaner clean, you can take a pair of tongs, dip a wad of paper towel into a little vegetable oil, and scrape the grates with the towel (held, of course, at the end of the tongs). Some people feel you should oil the food, not the grate, so if you are of that philosophy, after doing the wadded paper towel in oil bit, just wipe clean, this time with an unoiled paper towel.

Where can I get barberries in NW DC? Does Whole Foods sell them?

Unfortunately that's a double negatory. However, if you're desperate I could bring my own stash from home. We could, um, arrange a rendezvous. Plead your case! 

A sprinkle of Old Bay seasoning on fresh, hot popcorn is awesome!

Je concur! ;-)

i got some at the farmers market...what should I do with them to maximize the pretty?

Scrub, don't peel.  Nutrients and the lovely colors will be preserved that way. And roast them simply, with olive oil and herbs, s&p. 

The other night, I chopped some jalapenos (which I'd never done before) to add to the ground turkey, onions, and bell peppers that I was cooking. What surprised me was that my hand was burning for the rest of the night. I always thought that the purpose of plastic gloves was to protect the food from the dirt and germs on your hands. Now I know that gloves can protect your hands from the food.

That can be a painful lesson to learn. Me, I've learned it several times over. 

You guys have actually answered the age old question of what to do when you have a recipe that calls for all yolks or all egg whites, and you don't know what to do with the other. I found the solution in your ice cream guide: use the yolks to make ice cream and use the egg whites to make meringues to mix into the ice cream. I'd imagine you could also use the egg whites to make angel food cake for a topping, etc. I'm surprised this isn't front page news!

Ding ding ding! Great answer. I was just pondering this the other day, although instead of stirring in meringues, I was thinking I'd use the egg whites to make giant macarons for macaron ice cream sandwiches, a la Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams.

And thanks for giving us the opportunity to plug our ice cream graphic again!

I think there are some Persian grocers in VA suburbs.

Yes, you can find them at Middle Eastern markets in the BURBS, sure. I get them at Yekta in Rockville. NOTE TO RETAILERS: WE NEED SUCH A MARKET IN DC. xox,

It's not NW DC but you can get them at Yetka's in Rockville, along with other Persian delicacies. The dried limes are great with braised chicken.

I second those emotions! 

I don't know if chefs know "best" but I wouldn't discount the books as a resource since it would be one more place to hear about a restaurant I may not have heard about before. My problem is that when you do get these questions posed to chefs of "where do you like to eat?" in interviews in papers, magazines and blogs I get the impression that there's just a ton of backscratching between chefs. I guess I cant begrudge anyone trying to help a friend out but I do worry about bias more than I would a professional food critic.

Agreed. But now that I have a chance to elaborate further on this point, I would say that just because chefs select their friends or their friends' restaurants, that doesn't mean those picks are poor. In most cases, their  friends are probably excellent cooks and probably run excellent restaurants.


The bigger issue is that there are many talented cooks hiding in all corners of our metropolitan area, some of whom will never rub shoulders with Jeffrey Buben or Cathal Armstrong or Ris Lacoste or Mike Isabella.

I'm the chatter from 2 weeks ago that had the WP party and won the (autographed!) WP cookbook. Everything turned out perfectly! Bonnie predicted that my friends probably wouldn't mind being test kitchen subjects. Mind? They were shrieking for the recipes! Thanks for everything!


Sometime within the past ten years, the Food Section in the Post ran a 12-month long series of articles designed to teach a person to cook. I have googled and cannot find those articles. Is there any way to find them? (Sorry if you have had to answer this question before.)

Good memory! Those actually date back to 2001, so I'm not sure even I'd be able to dig them up online. But I did find them in our archives. Shoot me an e-mail -- -- and I'll figure out a way to send them.

I loved the popcorn stories this morning. So many great ideas! I wanted to ask for tips on the best way to butter popcorn. When I've tried it, I usually end up with a few drenched pieces and a lot of unbuttered pieces, with butter on the bottom of the bowl. How can I more evenly butter my popcorn? I was thinking of trying an oil sprayer, but I'm afraid the butter might clog it. Thanks.

When at home, I layer it in the bowl from the pan. So I start with a third or fourth of the popped kernels and drizzle and salt, then add another and drizzle and salt until I reach the top. It's definitely no fun to have to stop what you're doing and re-apply seasonings!

I think it was two chats back that mention was made of storing coffee in a container with a valve that lets out gas. Could you tell a bit more about this? I never realized coffee has gas. Are those little squeeze-holes in bagged coffee beans meant for this, and not just so one can smell the beans before buying? Should I squeeze the bagged coffee in my pantry once a week to keep it from getting ... gassy?

The gas in question is carbon dioxide or CO2. It's a byproduct of the roasting process. Those roasted beans release CO2 as they sit in bags; the value help the gas escape.


The problem is, as I understand it, once the CO2 starts to escape, oxygen starts to enter, and oxidation is what will degrade your coffee beans. Which is why you need to grind through them in about two weeks to enjoy their maximum flavor (and even then, they will change flavors from day to day).

What was your favorite popcorn this week from all the recipes? Were there any that didn't make the cut? I have to admit I'm not a huge popcorn fan unless it's dressed up, either with chocolate or something savory. Which means I will definitely be trying your recipes this week! I'm almost wishing for another rainy Saturday to make it a movie night!

Well I recommend making the garlic ghee tonight for a snack before dinner or maybe even dinner?  Why wait?  And there are soooo many fun things you can add on to that recipe!

Not sure I can choose a fave, per se, but Joe's take on the noochy popcorn is as he says, addictive.  And I'm a cornbread fan, so I liked the added texture in the Cheesy Popcorn Bread


Hi Rangers, This weekend, I made an upside down peach cornmeal cake. I used organic corn meal that I got locally a month or so ago. The final product had an off taste. Like... when the cornmeal was in my cabinet, I could smell it in the cabinet and that's how the cake tasted, like the cornmeal smelled. (Does that make any sense??) I'm wondering if the cornmeal should have been refrigerated, or if the cornmeal (which was closed just by a twisty tie, should have been in an airtight container? Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thank you!

It's very possible your cornmeal went bad -- or was bad when you got it. Here are some tips from the University of Missouri Extension. An airtight container wouldn't hurt. You could even pop a container in the freezer, and it can keep up to several years there.

Hi Rangers! I'm the nine months pregnant OP who asked for your help with a 2Amys tomato fondutta bruschetta recipe from last week. As directed, I emailed you after the chat, but I never heard anything back from anyone. Does this mean my quest/craving will go unfulfilled? Or did you get a million other emails and mine got lost in the shuffle? Here's hoping you can still help. Thanks!

We got your e-mail, and we're working on it!

I eat popcorn almost every single day of my life. It's my 3 p.m. pick me up. I always air pop, adding a bit of real butter and Old Bay or a sprinkle of Salt. I've also been known to make caramel popcorn with bacon (yes, bacon... to die for). If you want to goose that one up, a drizzle of chocolate is tasty as well. To my question: Where can I get fabulous popcorn kernels? I generally buy what is available at the grocery story but can get hit-or-miss results. Thanks for giving props to a fabulous food.

Try Whole Foods (the one in Chevy Chase) - my local one has a bulk popcorn section. Also, try your local health food market - they usually have a bulk popcorn section. 

Oh - and I had to tell you this. Recently, Makers Mark asked me to partner with them and asked me to create a few tasty popcorn concoctions wtih their bourbon. The two I created were - spicy caramelized bourbon bacon salted caramel popcorn and a caramelized bourbon bacon white cheddar cheese with a hint of chipotle. They were both AWESOME!

Happy popcorn eating!

I was catching up on past weeks of the Food section and the Chilly Chile Paloma caught my eye - is there a way to do a homemade version of the chile simple syrup called for in the drink? Feels weird to buy simple syrup, but I will if you think it's worth it!

Yes! Though you may have to play around to get a degree of heat that you like -- one of the reasons I liked that Royal Rose version is because it has a decent complexity and it's not smoking hot. I know not everyone is a pepperhead.

That said, I like spicy, and currently have several homemade pepper syrups in the fridge, one of which is made from scorpion peppers (it is not to be trifled with). Depending on your taste, you could make a simple syrup with jalapenos, serranos, habaneros -- or a combination. I've also played with smoking or grilling the peppers first, which can add a nice note.

A nice, milder chile syrup: 

Combine 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar. Add 1 roughly chopped jalapeno pepper (seeds removed if you want it to stay pretty mild!). Bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Then remove the pepper pieces and let it cool. Should keep for a few weeks in the fridge.



Any suggestions on how to flavor popcorn successfully with Old Bay? It's a bit strong and doesn't stick when you sprinkle it on freshly popped popcorn. What can I add to it to make it work?

Add a drizzle of evoo or real butter. That should work very well to help the old bay stick.

On storing popcorn: We get popcorn on the cob from our CSA every fall. I've always left it on the cob in airtight containers and found they keep well about a year (never any unpopped kernels). however, I was recently told that I should be removing all the kernels as they would keep much better off the cob. Do you know if that's true? I must admit, laziness is my main reason for leaving them on the cob (plus I like the way the giant jar of corn looks on the kitchen counter). Thanks.

Hmmmmm...this is what I think...keep doing what has worked for you. I think it sounds like a perfectly fabulous way to store popcorn - you've got the taste and the look all in one. How fabulous is that!?! The most important part of this equation is air tight and keep it in a temperate environment, which is what you're doing. It sounds really lovely and I thank you for sharing!

Sunday is pancake day for me and I'm looking for some new ideas. What are your favorites? I've always hated maple syrup (even the real kind) so I like to get creative.

Two pancake recipes I love from our database:

Carrot Cake Pancakes With Cream Cheese Sauce

Carrot Cake Pancakes With Cream Cheese Sauce

Pumpkin Pancakes

Everyone stop everything and go sprinkle copious amounts of za'atar on your next batch of popcorn! I really can't get enough of it.

What a fine idea. Two snaps up. 

Discussion link missing from top of home page

Details? Not sure what you're talking about and where. If you mean on the chat page itself, I think they've stopped listing individual sessions there.

I had air-popped popcorn with coconut oil and curry powder last subconscious must have been preparing me for today's chat. Thanks for all the new combinations to try out!

Love that! I've done a yummy spicy curried popcorn for my business and for the final yum factor, I toss it with a garlic fused sea salt. Soooo good!

Where do you guys get the books for the giveaways? I think I can figure out where you get the WaPo ones but are the others ones that authors or publishers sent you, or some of your favorites?

Many times they are recent ones we've tested out of. Figure that you'd like to save some benjamins and stay on trend, ya know? Publishers send us many, many, many cookbooks, 'tis true. 

For kettle-corn style popcorn I dump a handful of demerara/sugar-in-the-raw in with the popcorn kernels as they begin to pop. I think the sugar melts in the oil and coats the corn. Keep the pot moving on and off the flame so the sugar doesn't burn. Sprinkle salt, serve. A sprinkle of Ethiopian berbere spice is delicious on this salty-sweet popcorn too!

[INSERT CONTENTED SIGH OF APPROVAL HERE.] We could be the hungriest staff at 1:01 pm. Ever. 

Is there an easy way to remove rust from a wire ladle or "spider," or do I need to scrub each bit clean with steel wool? I'm not sure what metal it's made from. It looks like copper but maybe that's 'cause copper and rust are pretty much the same color. Thanks for your help!

I was reading Heloise's column in the Style section yesterday and she advised someone who wanted to get rust off her husband's tools to soak them in undiluted cider or white vinegar for overnight or longer. Scrub with a brush, rinse and dry. Sounds like that might work for you too.

I buy the 100 calorie popcorn things, because they are quick and easy and keep me in my diet. However, The plan one is...well, plain and the butter flavor tastes so artificial. Any ideas of what I can maybe do to spice up the plain one so that I don't have to eat the artificial butter one? I eat these as work snacks at work, so cooking my own on a stove top is not an option, nor is doing anything crazy. It has to be doable in an office (we have a fridge and microwave and that is it).

Sure! Try a drizzle of evoo and add a bit of salt or any favorite spice of yours. For instance, as another person mentioned, old bay is delicious and you can add cayenne, smoked paprika or chopped fresh herbs. They are really yummy and light during the summer months.

Barberries grow all over. One of your neighbors probably have a barberry bush planted in their yard. They look like this in November when the berries ripen. If you knock on your neighbor's door and introduce yourself, then politely ask if you could have some of their barberry berries, they will probably let you. (That's been my experience, anyway.) Wear VERY heavy gloves--something heavier than regular gardening gloves--and bring a bowl. The berries can be gently stripped from the thorn-laden, waist-high branches. Just be gentle with your neighbors' shrubberies. Barberries have a delicious, spicy flavor and contain natural pectin. I often make a lemon-barberry compote for Thanksgiving.

Hmm. I hate to sound all Debbie Downer, but I wonder whether your neighbor can also tell you if the local dogs avoid sprinkling on the barberries and local lawn companies don't spray it? 

I was watching Bar Rescue the other day (don't judge, it's actually pretty good) and the host said that men have fewer taste buds (or maybe fewer of a certain type of tastebud) than women so that's why they prefer stronger drinks like whiskey, etc. Obviously that's a generality but it's still interesting. I'm sure part of it is cultural, too.

I've heard about this and do think it's interesting. But as you noted, it's definitely cultural, too. I'd hate to think that a plethora of tastebuds makes you want only sweeter drinks? But I may be biased on this one -- in fact, as a female drinker of Negronis who regularly gets a puckered little girl face from men I try to introduce to the drink, I'm sure of it ;)  

I love smoky flavored foods, but since I live an apartment, I unfortunately have very limited access to the best way to impart such flavors with a grill (and no, I'm not moving to the suburbs just so I can have a barbecue). I got to thinking yesterday about brining as a possible method for creating smoke flavored meats indoors. I had a lot of success brining my turkey for Thanksgiving last year and with a beautifully brined roasted chicken in the spring. Have any of you ever tried (or heard of) using liquid smoke in brine for roasted chicken? I'd like to give it a try, but I'm not sure if it would even work.

I've never tried creating a smoky brine; I love the idea, and may play around with it for a column one of these days. Until then, you might try smoked salt in your brine and also to season the food. Also, depending on what you are cooking, you can use a Camerons stovetop smoker; it is just a box that releases smoke in your oven. Works quite well for situations like yours. 

The mushroom popcorn sounds very interesting. You've mentioned Whole Foods as having a good variety of popcorn types. Have you seen that there specifically? I would love to try the chocolate-drizzed popcorn. Looks so delicious in the picture.

I'm not certain, but if not, you can definitely purchase it online. Let me know how it turns out!

Ok, will def try this on popcorn, but where do we find it?

     You can buy za'atar at Shemali's on New Mexico Ave in the District, at Mediterranean Bakery on South Picket Street in Alexandria and at Thomas Market on University Blvd in Wheaton. 

Anyone remember the name of the stove-top popcorn that came in its own pan with a coiled tin or aluminum top that unfurled as the kernels popped, ending as a foot-high dome you'd rip open to release the popped corn, steam and smells? Is it still around? It was my introduction to kitchen magic.

Jiffy Pop! Still around; you can pick it up on Amazon and at Walmart, among other places. 

I'm planning to make pasta with fresh tomato sauce for dinner tonight, since I have a nice bag of fresh red tomatoes I got from the farmers market. Usually I just make this pretty simply with garlic, salt and pepper and fresh basil. Any ideas for adding a few other flavors? Some of kind of wine perhaps like sherry or vermouth? Or maybe a spice? I've used nutmeg before and that was good.

I think you're well on your way to making an excellent, fresh-tasting tomato sauce. The only things I would add to your ingredient  list are onions, probably yellow onions, and some carrots, both of which will add sweetness to your sauce. I would also put a little olive oil in there.  Remember to let your sauce simmer slowly for as long as it needs, until the flavors are combined and the tomato tartness has been mellowed.


Here's another basic tomato sauce idea from the always-reliable Stephanie Witt Sedgwick. It includes some red wine.

I think a little tarragon vinegar or champagne vinegar or red wine vinegar might be good. Roasted garlic would lend a sweetness and subtlety if you wanted to swap out the fresh stuff. Or maybe add some texture like....oh, I don't know...popcorn?

My favorite popcorn indulgence is to buy the red popcorn kernels from Rancho Gordo online. They pop up white and are just fantastic. He is primarily a bean purveyor, but his red popcorn is great, as is his hominy.

I have a 10 inch cast iron skillet that I want to use more often. My problem is that it never seems to cook evenly. Are there any tricks to getting it to cook more evenly? I keep it well seasoned and it never sees soap or water. Thank you!

Are you sure the prob doesn't exist beneath its surface, as in your burner? Does it act the same on all your stove burners and in the oven? I've found that cast-iron's a pretty even conductor of heat. Chatters, how about you?

Hi Free Rangers - love the chats! I just got a new refrigerator, and the bottom drawers have settings for adjusting the humidity between hi and low. None of my other refrigerators have had this, so I was wondering what the proper settings would be for various produce items. There's nothing in the manual. I usually have some of the following at a given time: baby carrots, onions, cukes, peppers, celery, apples, plums, peaches, nectarines, grapes, and oranges. I tend to keep the fruit in one drawer and veggies in the other but can mix them. Any guidance would be appreciated. Thanks!

This post from the Kitchn should help you.

Hi Rangers! I'm having a dinner party on Saturday and a friend offered to bring lemon drop martinis for a pre-dinner cocktail. Yum. But what should I serve as a starter to go with it? Thanks!

I'm not sure if you're looking for a finger food option. If not, I'd suggest maybe a grilled asparagus. If so, you might still stick with the grilled/smoky zone -- toasted crostini with grilled peaches, chevre, chives? Lemon pairs widely and well, though -- I think this would be a tough one to screw up unless everyone has three martinis :)

Of all the things in my garden that are underperforming, basil is NOT one of them. I've been making and freezing pesto, but I'm wondering if you have any particular favorite recipes. I've been using either the Silver Palate or Cook's Illustrated so far. Thanks!

I'm sure others will have contributions on this one, but basil is beautiful in some vodka and gin cocktails. I had a basil and cucumber Collins the other night that was perfect for the season -- lightly sweet, tart, and herbal -- and really easy to make.

Like you, my tiny garden might be titled, Basil Gone Wild.

I have no recipe per se (though I like Marcella Hazan's pesto recipe), but my suggestion is to use it in everything that sounds good to you. I've been adding it to bruschetta and a tomato and watermelon and feta salad and, in some cases, substituting basil for mint (the latter of which isn't doing as well). Oh, and just a very simple pasta with uncooked fresh cubes of tomato and torn basil makes for a great light summer dinner. 

I was intrigued to learn about mushroom popcorn in today's food section. Does it really dissolve in your mouth? I love popcorn but gave it up many years ago after an unpleasant experience with movie-theatre popcorn. A piece of hull lodged in the back of my throat at the beginning of Das Boot and I spent the entire movie coughing to try to dislodge it. Also, I live with someone who also loves popcorn but can't eat it due to a medical condition (diverticulosis). And then there's the dental problem of getting hulls stuck between two teeth or between a tooth and your gum. I actually think the Post should put an article in the next health/science section about the adverse side effects of eating popcorn and how to mitigate them.

Hi - a dislodged kernel during the entire Das Boot movie must've be AWFUL! And diverticulosis is such a painful condition - not being able to consume any seed based food is just awful! Popcorn is hulled and with that said, one of the side effects of eating it is that sometimes the hulls wedge themselves in places that aren't comfortable. The only thing I can really recommend is flossing after consuming. I hope that you give popcorn another try - it's so yummy and nostalgic. I think you might be happy to eat it again. 


Mushroom popcorn, to me, is very pretty and tastes great. With that said, it is the kernel of choice for me when popping at my business.

A kernel or two can disintegrate pretty easily on the tongue, yes. 

I think Gene Weingarten would enjoy that your name is an aptonym.


Jim-- I know you probably cook with wood most often, but for those of us who use charcoal, I wonder if you have tried various brands of charcoal that are easily available in this area. For hot grilling, I tend to use Cowboy or other hardwood lump charcoals, and for slow cooking I use Kingsford briquets or more recently the Trader Joe's hardwood briquets. Could you render an opinion about these and/or suggest better alternatives?

Here's the deal. You can get all fetishistic about charcoal, but, in the end, Kingsford briquettes are fine. Me, I hate the Match Light stuff. But the regular Blue Bag does exactly what it is supposed to do - cook uniformly and for a long time. I tend to start a wood fire with Kingsford if I am going to do a long cook  for say five-hour ribs or 12-plus hour brisket, etc., and add wood when the coals are ready, then more wood throughout the cooking process.

I use lump hardwood charcoal if I want a really hot fire - for searing steaks, say.

That said, Cooks Illustrated did some tests and concluded that there is no difference between the temps you get from briquettes and hardwood charcoal. Tests, shests. I know this: my steak chars much better over hardwood lump than over briquettes. 

Here's a piece I did for Esquire on this subject, which includes a fantastic Web site for more info.

Learned from my daddy back in the 1950s (when I was little) to make popcorn at home in a wire-mesh popper with a long handle -- the kind used in the olden days for over camp fires! -- over the flame on our gas range. The trick is to keep shaking the popper back and forth so the popped kernels rise to the top and don't burn. Strictly melted real butter and a dusting of salt are all that are needed.

Now that sounds wonderful! And your daddy certainly taught you right! I love old schoool ways to do everything. We all need to embrace those wonderful memories.

I really like loose leaf tea, but find that a lot of the shops around here or nearby only sell them in larger tins or bags. While this is great, sometimes I just want a little for a special drink or, even worse, I spend the money but realize the smell was better than the taste. Capitol Teas is good, but the last time I was there the smallest tin was till pretty large. Do any of you drink loose leaf tea and have a good shop, or store online?

Teaism sells 2-ounce bags. Is that too big for you? At the Spice and Tea Exchange in Alexandria, the smallest bag you can get is 1 ounce.

Oh darn! I finally succumbed to the Jerusalem craze and bought the cookbook and the dish that quite a few ppl seemed to rave about (even before the NYT feature) is the chicken with cardamom rice and I was so intrigued by the flavor possibilities of the barberry. I live quite close to the Washington Post and would happily exchange baked goods for a bit of your stash!

Alrighty. Email us at and we'll set it up. 

The recipe I've long since lost, but that I remember pretty well, went like this: 1/2 cup unpopped corn (makes 4 cups popped). 1 cup brown sugar. 1/2 cup corn syrup. 1/2 cup real butter. 1/2 to 1 tsp salt. 1/2 tsp baking SODA (de-clumped), 1 tsp vanilla. Preheat oven to 250. Generously grease one or two 13x9 pans. Pop your corn with the appropriate oils and methods. Put it in very large bowl or brown paper bag from which you have removed all receipts. Combine sugar, corn syrup and butter. Bring to boil, stirring a lot, in very large pan and boil hard for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Add salt, soda and vanilla. It will foam up. Add this to your popped corn, and working quickly, stir like mad or shake the bag to distribute. (If you opt for the bag, fold back the edges before you pour in the blazing hot sugary mass and have someone help you the first time. Wear long sleeves and close-toed shoes. Seriously--from experience.) Spread into pan(s). Bake 45 minute to 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. The. Most. Delicious. Carmel. Corn. Ever.

Thanks for sharing! 

I know this is more Tom's area, but he didn't get to my question....if you had to make a list of the best brunch places in DC and VA, what would you include? Also, my brunch obsessed friends and are are doing a brunch potluck. Any good idea on what to make?

Here's a list of best brunch specials from the Going Out Guide. Other places to add to the list: Birch and Barley, Locolat, Le Diplomate, Ashby Inn. Among others.

What to make? Scones, baked French toast, strata, biscuits, frittata, mimosas, bellinis...

Do you think the lentils I cooked last Wednesday are still good? Have been in a tupperware in the fridge.... please say yes! I hate wasting food.

I rely on the smell taste for everything in our fridge. I'm constantly amazed how long foods last beyond the sell-by dates. Sometimes it's weeks beyond, at least according to my nose!

You can also do the peaches first, or at least before the seafood. They do well at room temperature or a quick reheat on foil.

Kudos as always to Tim for his excellent reporting. This week, I appreciate the scoop on Bandolero. Only one thing irked me: "I concepted and developed and designed the whole entire thing for them." Maybe I'm too grammar-obsessed, but "concepted"? Really? Any chance the Post can start putting a "[sic]" in quotes that use words THAT ARE NOT WORDS??

Thank you!


The reader is refering to this morning's news that Mike Isabella has formally cut ties with Bandolero. I have to admit that my inner grammarian (not usually the Conan type)  cringed a little when Mike used the word, "concepted," but I also understand restaurant culture, which throws around the term "concept" regularly.  Mike turned "concept" into a verb much the same way, I guess, that musicians have turned "woodshed" into a verb.

I pour all the (air-dried) popcorn in the bowl, then drizzle half the melted butter over the corn, stir it in with a knife(!), repeat with the rest of the butter, salt lightly, then finally stir again with the knife. That way very little butter reaches the bottom of the bowl.

We go to the movies in large part due to an addiction to movie-theater popcorn. Is there anyway that I can replicate that taste at home?

Use fake butter? And a ton of salt? (Says the popcorn neophyte among us.)

There used to be a Discussions link on the home page of the Washington it has not been there this week.

You mean in the black bar? I think maybe it got bumped out for the PostTV button, but I'm not 100 percent sure. There are two separate boxes further down the page for the discussions -- one in the rail down the right side of the page and another that says "DISCUSSIONS" in blue.

I love the Za'atar idea. As a kid, we always just had our popcorn with a little salt. Then I had a friend show me how she made hers with salt-free lemon pepper and an herb blend called "spike." It was really good! Now I'm always thinking about new things to sprinkle on popcorn.

Za'tar crusted PopKern is one of the flavors I've featured with my business and people LOVE it! And, I suspect you will too. Try it and any other spice blend you like!

There's no "tab" at the top of the home screen. And, is there a particular reason the Post eliminated links to other, same day discussions on each page?

I'm guessing they eliminated the links because it was a box that had to be manually updated and it's easier -- and more accurate -- for people to get the links from the schedule.

Late to chat, but the best homemade popcorn I made was last year for my Thanksgiving "snack" that I served while I still had a few hours to go in the kitchen: roasted garlic, rosemary, browned butter. Every single one of my guests gorged themselves on it and talk about it regularly, no doubt encouraging me to do it again ASAP!

Yes, I agree! Brown butter popcorn is delish! I, too, have done it many times. So, so yummy!

Snowflake, butterfly and mushroom? All I've ever seen is plain yellow kernels. Either in a plastic bag or, at country fairs, still on the cob. And of course, at the bottom of almost any bag of popped corn at the movies or from the microwave. Are these other varieties new?

Some are and some aren't. Mushroom and butterfuly are the two most common. Mushroom holds caramel and any other glaze type of thing very well as it's a bit more durable. The butterfly are more delicate and some say more flavorful. 

Now, with that said, there are a lot more fun varieties to try so I defintely say try them. They have so many different tastes and textures!

A couple months ago, there were several posts commenting on the fact that even whole fruit seems to be getting sweeter and losing its natural flavor. The new book, "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," may be of interest.

Have you ever done a column/article about cooking with a particular kitchen implement? For example, I'd love to know what to do with a toaster oven. I've never owned one, but have one at work, but just don't know its possibilities! You could do the immersion blender, or whatever. Anyway, just thinking with my fingers.

You know there are cookbooks dedicated to, believe it or not, toaster ovens, right? Like this one.


FYI: This is not an endorsement.

For someone who has never cooked roast beef [the Mindful Makeover recipe today]: If you don't have an outdoor grill, would you similarly roast in the oven by using very heat heat for a time and then going down to 375? Is there a better way for oven use? Thanks!

    I'd sear the meat on all sides till it turns a lovely brown, preferably in a cast-iron pan, lightly oiled. Then, put it in the oven.

   For the asparagus, you can char them in a cast iron skillet. Here, I don't use oil. I just put the asparagus (also unoiled) in a really hot pan, and, as they blister, move them around with long-handled tongs.

Stephanie Sedgwick says: Yes, but make sure hour oven is very clean when you start. Fat residue will smoke.


I had to go without popcorn for over TWO YEARS, while I had bands on my teeth back in the late 1950s. Guess what one of the very first things I ate was after the braces came off? Yup!

Dogs and pesticides are extremely important considerations. My husband and I make dandelion wine every other year or so and avoid picking them in public parks for this reasons [dogs]. But we happily ask neighbors with fenced-in yards sans dogs and think that the proliferation of dandelions speaks to the lack of chemicals. No one seems to mind as long as we ask. As to barberries, well, the berries are up pretty high so the odds of them being directly blessed by a dog are slim. And you can spot a chemically treated lawn/yard a mile away because it's a little too perfect. I think people should enjoy both the beauty and the flavor of the more easily identifiable plants that grow in our urban surroundings (dandelion, barberry, acorns) and that are entirely safe to eat with no poisonous lookalikes, instead of relying on just the things you buy in stores. My two cents.

I just stash the bag of kernels in the vegetable crisper in the refrigerator, and it's still viable months later.

used to be the family favorite, but we have moved on to 'Cholula'. The mild hot sauce can be mixed with butter before serving or shaken onto the popcorn when served to account for individual preferences. Yium!!

Just a comment on the popcorn topic. I've been getting Quinn Popcorn at my local co-op - it doesnt have the chemicals like other microwave popcorn and has great flavors like lemon/sea salt.. It tastes just like freshly air-popped popcorn. I bring it along when travelling for a snack in the hotel room.

Can you help with a recipe for that delicious yellow sauce/condiment that comes with the chicken at pollo places, such as Crisp 'n Juicy? The stuff is addictive. I've tried mixing the jarred aji hot sauce with some mayo. Close, but not the real thing. The folks behind the counter aren't very forthcoming about the contents. Thanks!

The stuff we get in those small plastic cups these days might be nothing more than mayo with a little mustard stirred in, or powdered aji.  We know those folks like to keep it a secret. 

I always think that I'm a popcorn snob. Only white popcorn and only popped in olive oil with a little bit of salt. For parties I've been known to jazz it up with truffle oil, butter a sprinkle of parmesan and some parsley (and it's amazing how much of that can be eaten!). -- but for me, always only white popcorn and olive oil.

A question about putting the cork back in the wine bottle. With wine, I extract the cork, the bottom of which expands more widely than the top once it's out of the bottle. That means it's harder to put the cork back in the way it originally was in the bottle than it is to flip the cork upside-down and put the top of the cork in first, with the bottom then exposed to the outside air. Is this a problem? Does everyone do this?

As far as I know, there's no harm in recorking with the top of the cork. But I think if Dave McIntyre were here, he would recommend far better methods for saving your wine.

I cook my popcorn in a pan with a lid (slightly ajar to let the steam escape). However the final product is not 'crisp.' How come? What am I doing wrong? shouldn't be soggy. That's odd. Perhaps you're putting too much oil in the pan? Try this: warm your pan up first add a small amount of oil and get it hot. Add a couple of kernels and once they pop, add the remainder of your kernels. The oil should just cover the kernels. There shouldn't be any excess. 

Let me know if that works!

I recently picked up a tiny bottle of chocolate chili liqueur because I thought it was a great idea... but now what do I do with it?

Is it that Crave stuff? I've seen the bottles and didn't know whether to be excited or afraid! :) 

I'd probably start out trying it neat or on the rocks. I haven't tried it, so it's hard to suggest anything much more exciting than seeing how it plays in a vodka martini -- I think you'll want to get an idea of flavor notes before you mix it with anything more interesting, since it sounds like something designed to be The Whole Picture.

(Though a cold iced coffee drink seems like it might be an option?) 

I put kernels in a brown lunch bag and microwave them (2 tbsp 2 minutes)--no fake butter and cheap!

If you had to, had to, had to use only a gas grill and could not afford more than $400, what would you buy? Many thanks (and no charcoal is not an option - this is a bet question!).

I've not tried every gas grill on the market, so I can't really say. But I can tell you that the Huntington 3-burner has gotten high marks (though I think that costs $500).

The Weber Spirit is a well-made, reliable grill. Check it out. 

I'm wondering if you can help me out. I'm getting way too many cucumbers from the garden and I've let some get too big for pickling (not too big, but bigger than I wanted). I somehow have it in mind that I should try making a cucumber jelly/jam, but am having a hard time finding a good recipe with good canning instructions. The best I've found is on Food 52, though I'd have to guess at the canning times. I don't suppose you can help me out?

I would be very careful. Cucumbers are a low-acid food, so you don't want to be winging it on a jam recipe. The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a good resource. You may just want to stick to some fresh recipes. I had some suggestions last week.

A little off topic but .... I can only eat egg whites (no yolks) but each time I try to make an omelet, poach them in a ramekin in the microwave, etc., they are watery. This has happened with fresh cracked egg whites as well as the sort in the carton. It has happened with sauteed veggies and plain. I would like to make a little egg circle (ala McMuffin) to put on my English muffin in the morning or an egg white scramble that doesn't leave a puddle. Thanks!

This question will take more time to answer than we have now.  I would encourage you to reserach the question future. The problem is that egg whites have quite a bit of moisture in them. Some recommend that you cook them on a low temperature so the moisture evaporates without toughening the eggs. That's a start at least.

Well, those two-second intervals between our popping sounds have slowed to a stop, so you know what that means: Dump us into the bowl -- we're done! Thanks to Carrie, Jim and Kristina for joining us today, as well as you, dear chatters. 


The winner of the signed Washington Post Cookbook is the person who asked about uses for leftover moscato, and the winner of two 2-ounce bags of Little Lad's flavored popcorn is the first chatter who mentioned za-atar as a flavor agent. Send your mailing addresses to and she'll send those items right out. Until next week, happy cooking and eating! 

In This Chat
Bonnie Benwick
Bonnie Benwick is deputy editor of the Food section; joining us today are staff writer Tim Carman, editorial aide Becky Krystal, Spirits columnist Carrie Allan and Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin. Guest: Kristina L. Kern of Stella*s Pop­Kern, a gourmet popcorn catering company with a food truck.
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