|In Chester, N.H., Joe Choquette mixes a batch so that the unpopped kernels fall out. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)|
Elevating flavored popcorn to the gourmet shelf
Parmesan and rosemary, toasted coconut crunch, chipotle barbecue. Hot flavors in the fancy food world have jumped across the aisle landing in an unlikely place: the lowly popcorn bowl.
In the last year the all-American snack has undergone a remake, similar to beer and cupcakes, with several local companies crafting the hits at home. “The popcorn industry needs a swift kick in the pants,’’ says Joe Choquette, 37, of J. Drizzle Gourmet Popcorn Co.
In a converted garage in Chester, N.H., Choquette is executing the kick with 70 flavors from coffee and cream to bacon and cheddar. Specializing in popcorn coated in chocolate or caramel drizzled in sweetness, he approaches each batch like an artist. Every naked bowl of popcorn “is a blank canvas. I paint the flavors,’’ he says, wielding a pastry bag filled with melted chocolate. Like most food entrepreneurs, Choquette had a lackluster experience with store-bought popcorn and set out to do one better.
After grabbing a bag of chocolate popcorn at a coffee shop one day and being woefully unsatisfied, the Dracut native went home and whipped up a batch. In a blind taste test, his children and in-laws picked his. He was off and running. He came up with such flavors as cinnamon toast and milk-and-cookies and brought them to parties. On a whim, a local farm stand started carrying his popcorn and soon sold out. “It was like catching lightning lighting in a bottle,’’ says Choquette, who learned to cook from his Italian grandmother in Quincy. “Popcorn is viewed as one of those snacks that everybody loves. It’s for the health-conscious and we’ve grown up with a culture of popcorn,’’ he says.
Kristy and Coulter Lewis grew up with popcorn, too, but when they reached their 20s, they were dissatisfied with the microwave options on the market. “Popcorn should be so healthy, it’s a natural product,’’ says Coulter Lewis, shaking a bag of Quinn Popcorn in his Arlington kitchen. Unable to find a microwave popcorn that wasn’t laden with butter, plastics, chemicals, and hydrogenated oils, the couple set out to reinvent this “forgotten category.’’
“We tried to make microwave popcorn that is not synthetic,’’ says Lewis, a product designer for a Cambridge design company. “It’s a passion of ours. It’s been so fun.’’ Neither had a background in food or business, but that didn’t stop them. Their compact kitchen became a food lab, friends and family their research and development team. Money was raised on the funding website Kickstarter.
“We tried every spice from every corner of the globe,’’ Lewis says, rummaging through a pungent bin of hickory smoke, red sea salt, black sea salt from Hawaii, and peanut butter powder from a peanut farm in Georgia.
Using a flavor poll on their blog, they settled on three flavors: Vermont maple and sea salt, lemon and sea salt, Parmesan and rosemary. But the genius of Quinn Popcorn, named after their newborn son, is in the bag. Organic kernels come in a chemical-free compostable paper bag devoid of butter or hydrogenated oils. Each box comes with a packet of either canola or grape-seed oil and seasonings. When the kernels are popped, you add the oil and seasoning to the popcorn. This, says the Lewises, allows the ingredients to stay additive free.
“It’s pure and free from all this stuff,’’ says Kristy Lewis, who researched the hazards of microwave popcorn and found out that a chemical related to Teflon is used in the bags. “It’s something you can feel good about sharing with your family and friends.’’
J. Drizzle Gourmet Popcorn $5-$8 per 6-ounce bag, $8 or more per half-gallon jug. Available at Market Street Market, 95 Market St., Lowell, 978-735-4532, or go to www.jdrizzlepopcorn.com.
Quinn Popcorn $4.99 for box of two. Available at Dave’s Fresh Pasta, 81 Holland St., Somerville, 617-623-0867; Joppa Fine Foods, 50 Water St., Newburyport, 978-462-4662; or go to www.quinnpopcorn.com.
Kathleen Pierce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.