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Alternative pop! Make your own popcorn

SWEET CORN: Peanut Butter Chocolate Popcorn from BLT American Brasserie 500 W. Superior will hit spot. |  Richard A.

SWEET CORN: Peanut Butter Chocolate Popcorn from BLT American Brasserie, 500 W. Superior, will hit the spot. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 23, 2012 8:05AM

At “The Descendants,” that mediocre bucket cost a fortune. Who cares if George Clooney was on the screen? You were pining for Revolution Brewing’s bacon fat popcorn, done up with crispy sage, hunks of bacon and shaved Parmesan.

Watching the crucial ballgame in “Moneyball,” you knew the real loser was your sad, butter flavor-drenched sack. (Chicago Mix from Garrett Popcorn, anyone?)

With the Academy Awards around the corner, it’s an ideal time to tackle the problem of subpar popcorn head on. After all, popping kernels from scratch isn’t hard. The reward? An undeniably satisfying, gourmet snack.

Just ask Steve McDonagh, co-owner of Hearty in Lakeview. He’s working on The New Old Bar, a vintage cocktail-inspired cookbook due out in November. Naturally, popcorn — along with passed and buffet-style hors d’oeuvres — will come into play.

“I love popcorn because it’s salty, crunchy and something you can just put into a bowl,” McDonagh says. “In other words, you can make it without a lot of effort.”

McDonagh is at work developing an Asian twist on Cracker Jack; the caramel corn concoction is laced with wasabi peas.

“Popcorn is just innately satisfying,” he says. “You can reach your hand in the bowl again and again and not feel incredibly bad about the consequences.”

Chef/Owner Michael Kornick of mk in River North agrees. “My son Zach and I are extreme popcorn enthusiasts,” he admits. “We use a mix of black, gold and white organic kernels to give the popcorn extra flavor, and we pop the kernels in an old-time, hand-crank popper.”

At David Burke’s Primehouse in River North, Executive Chef Rick Gresh is every bit as corny. He serves a truffled, white and dark chocolate version — warmed with cayenne —as a bar snack.

When it comes to the how-to of popping kernels, generally air poppers receive top props.

“The benefit to doing it this way is you don’t need to add oil,” McDonagh notes, saying he’s not a butter guy, either.

Though you do need to use oil if you pop popcorn on the stove, this is not without merits. There’s no special kitchen gadget required. Plus, this approach yields a big, puffy end result.

A word to the wise if you do it this way, though: you need to keep the popcorn moving.

“If it sits too long, it’ll get scorched before it pops, and you’ll end up with a burnt flavor,” warns Gresh.

Of course, don’t rule out your microwave entirely, say chefs. However, a DIY approach is recommended .

“I have no issue using the microwave to pop popcorn — it’s convenient,” Gresh says. “But just make it plain, and add your own toppings.”

All you need is kernels and a brown paper (lunch) bag to do it. Simply put the corn inside bag, fold it over a few times and nuke it in the microwave for about three minutes or until there are no fewer than three seconds between pops.

For the best results, using high-quality corn kernels is important.

“Local farmers, such as Nichols Farm & Orchard, sell sustainable popcorn,” says Gresh.

The Marengo, Ill., farm appears at most major farmers markets.

“There are a number companies offering natural, non-GMO corn,” says Tim Donnelly of Mother Butter’s Popcorn And Confectionary, a crave-worthy destination on 35th Street near U.S. Cellular Field.

McDonagh also like to buy whole, dried ears of “popping” corn from Midwest farmers. He throws them in a paper bag as-is and places them in the microwave for three minutes.

“It pops on the cob,” he says, barely able to contain his excitement. “It’s a perfect rainy day treat, and it drives kids wild.”

So why is popcorn so irresistible?

“It’s a fun vessel to put flavors into,” McDonagh explains. “You can add bursts of color, and you don’t have to feel naughty eating a large quantity of it.”

But from there, opinions run deep.

“We only pop the kernels in virgin olive oil and season the popcorn with house-made seasoned salt, made from fine sea salt, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, cayenne, black and chili pepper,” says Kornick.

He then uses a microplane to grate on Parmigiano-Reggiano, and he kicks it into overdrive by liberally dousing Cholula hot sauce on top. Needless to say, finger-licking soon ensues.

“We have smuggled this into public movie theaters,” he laughs. “Shame on us!”

Donnelly takes a slightly different approach, though he, too, seeks inspiration from his spice rack and pantry.

Whether he selects truffle salt, makes easy, homemade caramel or sprinkles cinnamon sugar or curry on his popcorn, there’s an option for every mood. But let it be known that Donnelly favors popping kernels in coconut oil.

“It’s free of trans fats, and it has a natural butter taste,” he notes. “Plus, once corn is popped with coconut oil, the kernels have a nice crunch, before they melt in your mouth.”

Meanwhile, at West Town Tavern, Executive Chef/Owner Susan Goss takes something familiar — caramel corn — and adds a bit of New Mexican chile powder.

“We use it as a garnish on our apple turnover dessert,” she says. “But in-the-know diners request a straight-up bowl.”

And Gresh? He recommends flavor pairings like bacon-caramel, powdered horseradish-cheddar or a sprinkling of Japanese furikake seasoning because it delivers a blast of flavor from dehydrated lemon peel, sesame seeds and seaweed.

Whatever you settle on, though, don’t forget that time is of the essence.

“Humidity is the killer of good popcorn,” Donnelly says, admitting he never uses the microwave approach. “When you open that bag and see steam, it means you have about five minutes to eat it before it tastes stale.”

Whatever your approach, if you’re adding herbs, you have to wait for corn to cool before sprinkling them on top.

“If the popcorn doesn’t cool, the herbs will wilt,” says McDonagh. “You want them to be bright and fresh and add another layer of texture.”

Jennifer Olvera is a local free-lance writer.

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