Daniel Patterson's Popcorn Grits

Acclaimed San Francisco restaurateur Daniel Patterson, pulls back the curtain on the high-brow California cooking revolution in his debut cookbook. Focusing on modern culinary techniques, local ingredients, and West Coast flair, the title is as much a gorgeous photo book as a catalog of recipes full to brimming with gelatins and foams. In addition to 50 significant recipes from the restaurant's evolution, there is a recipe for an 11-course tasting menu featuring popcorn grits, that allows the home cook to dip a toe into the sometimes intimidating universe of molecular gastronomy.

Popcorn Grits
(Serves 4)

• 500 g vegetable or corn oil
• 1 kg popcorn
• 750 g water
• 100 g butter
• Salt

It's amazing to me how many well-traveled, well-trained cooks have no idea how to pop popcorn. Give them a bag of gellan and they'll spew out ratios. Give them a bag of popcorn and they'll look confused.

So here's what I've learned: Start with good popcorn. Get an heirloom variety if you can. They taste better, even if sometimes they don't pop as uniformly. Red, purple, black, yellow, it doesn't matter, although I'm partial to yellow for this dish. Also popcorn doesn't fry open, it steams, so there has to be enough moisture in the popcorn to work. No stale corn.

Popcorn requires a lot of heat and a lot of oil. In a large pot (the one I use at the restaurant can pop an entire recipe of popcorn at a time), heat a generous amount of vegetable or corn oil to smoking. Add a thin but solid layer of kernels, cover, and shake the pot a few times until you hear the corn starting to pop. Lower the heat to medium-high, shaking often so there are no hot spots, and listen – it's the only way to know when to pull the popcorn. When the popping slows to a trickle, remove the pot from the heat and let it stand one minute. Uncover and pour the popcorn into a bowl, watching for any burnt pieces on the bottom, which should be discarded. If the corn tastes burnt, the grits will taste burnt.

Bring the water, butter and some salt to a simmer. Throw in a big handful of popped kernels, simmer for 30 seconds to a minute, until the corn has softened, and strain through a fine mesh sieve. Transfer the liquid that strains through back to the pot, and bring to a simmer. Add more popcorn. Repeat until all the corn is gone. Add water as necessary, although you shouldn't need to add too much.

Press the softened kernels through a medium strainer basket, discarding the hulls and seeds that cannot be pushed through. Transfer the strained corn, which will look like stiff grits, into a pot. Add the reserved cooking liquid, which should be slightly thickened from the corn starch and should taste like popcorn (on its own, this makes a nice sauce for steamed fish). Add butter and more water as necessary to make a grits-like texture – we find that slightly on the thicker side is better. It should taste like a cross between grits and a movie theater. Serve with a bowl of buttered popcorn on the side. (You don't need a recipe for that, do you? Good.) 

Popcorn Grits / From 'Coi: Stories and Recipes'by Daniel Patterson / all images by Maren Caruso, courtesy Phaidon Press
Collards & Carbonara. [Olive Press; October 2013; $50.00]