Growing and Cooking Peanuts

Growing and Cooking Peanuts

They look like nuts, they crunch like nuts, they even hang out with nuts, but they aren't nuts. They're "pea," as in the legume family they belong to and "nuts," as in well, gosh darn they ought to be.

For one of the most popular foods in the United States today, peanuts sure did take the long road getting there. Originally from South America, they had to travel around the world and back again to find acceptance in the US.

We know they were important to ancient Peruvians because peanut-shaped jars were found at 3500-year old burial sites. The Incas, too, appreciated them: they buried peanuts with the dead for food in the afterlife. The Spanish and Portuguese explorers for their part dutifully took the peanut back to Europe, where it never really caught on, and from there it traveled to Africa and Asia, where it did catch on--with gusto.

Europeans, you see, relied primarily on animals for their protein source. Asian and African diets were more adaptable and recognized the worth of peanuts: a protein source that was easy to grow, portable and versatile, not to mention cheap--it's still one of the cheapest sources of protein you can find. That peanut staple, peanut butter, has eight grams of protein per one-ounce serving--more than milk, eggs, tuna, turkey, ham or beef for about half the price of most sandwich meat. Slap that on a slice of whole-wheat bread, you have a complete protein with no cholesterol. (Okay, so peanuts are full of fat. You can't have everything. What else can you use to make shaving cream, axle grease, fireplace logs, paper, coffee, medicinal salves, and even snack on when the going gets tough?)

Peanuts made it back to America by way of slaves, who brought this important food with them from Africa. (The name goober comes from an African word for peanut: nguba.)

Although they were being grown on North American soil, peanuts still weren't held in high esteem here. In fact, it wasn't until the Civil War that peanuts began to find their fame. They were used by Confederate troops first as a coffee substitute, but as the war raged on, the soldiers began to depend on peanuts for the protein and energy they provided. They even immortalized peanuts in a song, part of which has stuck with me since childhood: "goodness how delicious, eating goober peas." Union soldiers took this amazing vegetable back north with them, where folks ate it largely as a roasted snack.

You can credit George Washington Carver, that remarkable inventor, painter, botanist, and all-around Renaissance man for the popularity peanuts enjoy today: he did for the peanut what Mr. Kellogg did for bran flakes, and more. In his years of research, he discovered hundreds of uses for them and delighted in serving whole dinners of peanuts: from soup to coffee, salad dressing, bread, gravy, ice cream, and candy.

Today, Americans each eat the equivalent of 11 pounds of unshelled peanuts a year, largely in the form of peanut butter. Originally intended as an easy-to-eat food for the elderly, (the tooth-deficient didn't have to bother with chewing it) peanut butter found its niche with a younger set. For parents it's a blessing--a universally loved food that kids can fix themselves.

There has been a resurgence in the appreciation of other peanutty foods in the past few years, and it's about time; peanuts have been under appreciated long enough. They are good in desserts, soups and stir-fries partly because they marry well with things sweet, salty, creamy and spicy.

Don't forget about peanut oil--it's one of the most prized cooking oils in the world. Cooks treasure it for several reasons, but the main one is its high smoke point, which means it cooks at high temperatures without burning. That's why it's a favorite for stir-frying--it can take the heat. In combination with its good frying qualities, peanut oil doesn't absorb very much odor from the fryee--catfish, let's say--so it can be used to later fry french fries without passing on fishy flavor.

If that's not enough for you, peanut oil also has a delicate flavor that doesn't overwhelm food like olive oil can, so it's good for tossing with greens.

All in all, peanut oil is just about the only part of peanuts Europeans embrace. There, you see, peanuts are considered something of an American oddity, like tea with ice in it.

Americans are proud to claim peanuts as their own--especially in the South, where peanut festivals are held in at least six states during the harvest season each fall. There you can find tons of peanut brittle, peanut butter pie--even peanut soup.

You can grow peanuts way up in New England, too, if you plant them early in rich soil in mid-April. They do require a long growing season, which is why they are usually only commercially grown in the South. They're not picky about whether you plant them shelled or unshelled, as long as you don't damage the skin surrounding the nut.

Plant them deeply in the South, at least 4 inches, and more shallowly in the North--about 1 1/2 inches deep, which helps them to grow more quickly and survive a damp spring. Plant them in hills, like squash, in rows 2 to 3 feet apart. You can grow them in smaller gardens using a more intensive method of planting them in 4 x 4 foot squares, as you would bush beans.

As the plants appear, hill around them as with potatoes or leeks. The peanut pods form underground, you see, from vines that grow from nodes where the leaves fall off the branches. Mulch them heavily with straw or grass clippings to keep down weeds and hold in moisture.

They're ready for harvest when the leaves start yellowing and the veins in the peanut hulls start to deepen in color, often around the first frost. Pull the whole plant up gently and shake off excess dirt. You may want to hose them off, as well. Pick the pods from the plant and dry for a month or so (think of it like onions or garlic in this way) in a warm, dry place with good air circulation--an attic is ideal.

Whether you grow them or buy them, you can have your own peanut festival in your kitchen, because from fall through spring you can buy fresh, unshelled peanuts by the pound at the grocery store or farmers' market. You'll find salted, unsalted, roasted and raw ones. I usually buy some roasted, salted-in-the-shell peanuts to snack on immediately, and some raw unshelled ones to roast on a cool evening--baseball fans can attest to the irresistible flavor of a freshly roasted, still-warm peanut. It's just as good at home and easy enough to try tonight.

To salt unsalted, unshelled ones, soak them in a salt-water solution as you would for sunflower seeds. Use a ratio of 1 part salt to five parts water, and let them stand in the solution over night.

To roast your own peanuts, just spread raw nuts, shelled or unshelled, in a single layer in a cookie sheet or baking pan and cook at 275F for thirty minutes. Store any leftovers in a cool, dry place because the high oil content of the nuts can lead to rancidity. For the same reason, you should refrigerate or freeze peanuts for long-term storage, just as you would walnuts or pecans.

For sweet flavor, try them with chocolate--it's a natural combination. These chocolate-covered ones are an irresistible and easy to prepare treat.

Chocolate Peanut Clusters

  • 1 cup of semi-sweet or milk chocolate morsels
  • 1 cup peanuts (salted or unsalted)

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or a microwave-safe bowl. Stir in the cup of peanuts, drop spoonfuls onto waxed paper and chill in the refrigerator (the freezer if you're in a hurry) for an energy-filled snack that's good for hiking trips or satisfying a sweet urge.

If those peanut clusters don't do it, try rocky ice cream balls. They're easy to make, just roll scoops of chocolate ice cream in crushed nuts, freeze until hard and serve with hot fudge sauce.

These Honey-Caramel Nuts are suitable for topping desserts or eating by the handful.

Honey-Caramel Nuts

  • 1 1/2 cups raw or roasted nuts
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Combine the peanuts, honey, and butter in a heavy frying pan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the honey begins to caramelize into a golden brown. Cook for a few minutes longer, remove from the heat and pour nuts onto a buttered dish. Let them cool before eating, if you can wait.

Peanuts aren't just for snacking or for special treats, though. You can use them to boost your morning's protein without adding the cholesterol of bacon. Add peanut butter to your pancake batter or spread it on a toasted bagel--a two-tablespoon serving of peanut butter has two grams of fiber--or sprinkle chopped peanuts on your cereal.

While you're chopping those peanuts, hack up a few extra to have on hand. The uses are nearly endless. You can add crunch to muffins by sprinkling peanuts over the top before you bake them--especially delicious with apple or banana muffins. Or, dip chicken breasts in milk or egg, then roll in crushed peanuts and bake.

Making chicken salad from the leftovers? Stir in a tablespoon or two of chopped nuts. If you're making a green salad instead, shake some into your favorite salad dressing or sprinkle them over the greens.

Instead of topping your favorite casserole with plain old breadcrumbs, mix some chopped peanuts with the bread to add a nutty twist. Try pureeing peanuts with cooked sweet potatoes and bake for a dish you can serve as an entree or dessert.

This recipe borrows flavors from several Asian cooking styles and makes good use of the flavor fusion peanuts provide. The heat of the peppers is tempered by the peanuts, the sweetness of the honey balanced by the soy sauce and the citrusy tang of the ginger complemented by the garlic. The sauce is a terrific match with chicken as used here, but be sure to try it on baked or grilled pork chops, too.

Spicy Peanut Chicken

  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 3" section of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup water 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Sauté the garlic and ginger in the peanut oil until the garlic softens, then mix with the rest of the ingredients and whiz in a blender or food processor until the peanuts are chopped. Return to the stove and cook over medium heat until the sauce thickens a little. Let it cool slightly then spoon over chicken breasts, covering both sides. Let the sauce stand on the chicken for thirty minutes.

Bake uncovered at 350F for thirty-five minutes and serve with rice or rice noodles, ladling on any extra sauce, or eat it atop a spinach salad with red bell pepper and green onion.

While those with peanut allergies must avoid this versatile food--and you have my deepest sympathy--the rest of us can spend our days snacking on, nibbling on and just plain gobbling up this fabulous nut impostor. When you do, save those unsalted hulls for your compost heap or maybe your favorite budding scientist--who knows, Mr. Carver may have missed a use or two.

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