TV Snacks: Guilty Pleasures Made a Little Less Guilty

Popcorn

Popcorn and other snacks are a must for a night of TV viewing. Scroll down for popcorn topping ideas, brownies and pomegranate spritzers. iStockphoto hide caption

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Family i

Author Ellen Birkett Morris (foreground, center) and her sisters Julie (left) and Lynn loved to gather in front of the TV and snack on foods prepared by their mother, Liz Waldon (background). Courtesy Ellen Birkett Morris hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Ellen Birkett Morris
Family

Author Ellen Birkett Morris (foreground, center) and her sisters Julie (left) and Lynn loved to gather in front of the TV and snack on foods prepared by their mother, Liz Waldon (background).

Courtesy Ellen Birkett Morris

About the Author

Freelance food writer Ellen Birkett Morris is the product of a mixed marriage between her mother, a skilled home cook, and her father, a fast-food aficionado who regularly burns his toast. Her food-related fiction is forthcoming in the journal Alimentum.

We all have our guilty pleasures: junk food, an occasional peek at a gossip magazine, or a night in front of the television watching American Idol.

Sometimes guilty pleasures are best enjoyed together. So you read a trashy book at the beach, sing along with a sappy song or eat junk food while watching bad TV. My friend Marybeth gathers her family around the television once a week for Survivor and a pan of brownies.

Growing up in the 1970s, after-school television and snacking went together. Cheese-flavored chips were perfect with cheesy programs like The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island. Sour Smarties were a good match for the bittersweet poignancy of an After School Special.

My whole family got together to watch the yearly airing of The Wizard of Oz and ate homemade popcorn, my personal favorite in-front-of-the-TV snack.

Making the popcorn was an elaborate ritual, from the first sound of the corn hitting the pan to the last sprinkle of salt on top.

My mouth would water as my mother ran the metal pan over the burner, making a lovely riot of noise. When the noise stopped, my sisters and I would sit in a row, youngest to oldest, in front of the television, and wait for my mother to bring in the silver-colored bowl full of popcorn. We'd vie for the perfect handful as Dorothy walked down the yellow brick road to the Land of Oz.

Woe to the sister who knocked over the bowl during any scene featuring the Wicked Witch of the West. By the time the movie was over, all that was left was a small handful of unpopped kernels.

Snacking hasn't changed that much. You can still find versions of old favorites such as cheese-flavored crackers in the grocery aisles to share with your kids, though they might come in wild colors or in the shape of goldfish. There are even gummy Lifesavers on grocery-store shelves.

Heavily processed foods are not first choice in the era of organics and whole foods. But let's face it, there are times when carrot sticks and raisins just won't fly. To keep everyone happy and quiet, you have to offer something that tastes good. If these snacks harbor something of nutritional value, all the better.

Popcorn prepared with the right kind of oil and lightly topped with salt or spices is a tasty alternative to packaged candy and chips. Even brownies pass the test, if you believe recent reports on the antioxidant powers of chocolate. I like to pair these treats with a healthy alternative to straight sodas: pomegranate spritzers.

As with everything, moderation is key. Just hope that the networks don't offer a Survivor marathon, or you may have to lug the treadmill in front of the television and let the family take turns at their own endurance test.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

Old-Fashioned Popped Corn

Popcorn
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Kids love the noise and excitement of popping corn outside the microwave. This recipe has been modified from my mother's kitchen bible, Joy of Cooking (Bobbs-Merill 1985).

One-half cup corn makes about 1 quart of popcorn.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/2 cup popcorn kernels

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons or more of melted butter or grated cheese

Add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil to a heavy-lidded or electric skillet over high heat.

My mother's method for determining whether the oil is hot enough is to add a single drop of water to the pan and wait to hear it sizzle. If your oil starts to smoke, it's too hot. When the oil is hot, cover the bottom of the pan with a thin layer of the popcorn kernels and cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid.

As soon as the popcorn begins popping, run the pan back and forth across the burner. When the popping slows, remove pan from heat (keeping the lid on) and wait for popping to subside.

Pour popcorn into a large bowl and discard imperfect kernels. To save time, use the same pan for melting butter. Top warm popcorn with butter and salt or cheese and toss gently with a wooden spoon.

Popcorn Toppers

Here are updated toppings to really make the flavor of the popcorn pop.

· Add M&Ms for a touch of color and a mouth-watering mixture of salty and sweet.

· My mother would sprinkle on Kraft Grated Parmesan Cheese from its cylindrical green shaker. For a modern update on an old favorite, try topping your popcorn with grated Asiago cheese.

· If you don't have the time or inclination to make a batch of caramel corn, sprinkle the warm popcorn with brown sugar. Add some cinnamon to spice things up even more.

· For grown-ups looking for a little extra kick, try adding Cajun seasoning. For a milder kick, add Cavender's Greek seasoning.

Note: When using seasonings that already contain salt, adjust the amount of salt accordingly. For a more uniform coating, put popcorn and toppings into a large bag and shake well.

Star-Studded Brownies

Brownie
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This recipe comes from my favorite cookbook, Laurie Colwin's More Home Cooking (HarperCollins 1993). Her recipe came from a friend who got the recipe from an article about Katherine Hepburn. A Hepburn family recipe, these brownies are a divine snack when watching a contemporary sitcom or an old classic movie.

Makes 9 large brownies

1 stick butter (8 tablespoons)

2 1-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Butter and flour an 8-inch-square pan and set aside.

Melt together butter and chocolate and take the saucepan off the heat. Stir in sugar, add the eggs and vanilla and beat the mixture well. Stir in flour and salt. Add nuts if desired.

Pour batter into the pan and bake for 40 minutes.

Pom Spritzers

When enjoying sweet or salty snacks, I like a drink with a bit of zing. Kids will also get a kick out of the pink, bubbly concoction, and they won't think twice about drinking their juice.

Makes 1 serving

1/4 cup pomegranate juice

3/4 cup ginger ale, Sprite or 7-Up

Mix and serve in a clear glass.

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