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A&E >  Food

Boiled peanuts let you look at the legume in a new light

By Kristen Hartke Special To The Washington Post

If there’s anything that makes me feel homesick, it’s the scent of boiled peanuts.

Although I grew up primarily outside the South, my family moved to Central Florida when I was in high school, and it was there that I discovered the region’s ubiquitous snack food, bubbling away gently in 30-gallon oil drums set over an open flame at roadside stands and flea markets. Hand over a couple of dollars and you received a 32-ounce foam cup filled to the brim with hot, salty peanuts still in the shell; I loved the soft pop the wet shells made as I squeezed them between my thumb and forefinger, the juice running down my wrist as I savored the fleshy texture of the tender peanuts inside.

Decades later, whenever I head South to visit my parents, getting a cup of boiled peanuts is always at the top of my to-do list.

While boiled peanuts were a new concept for me as a teenager from the Northeast, they were a taste of home for chef Vishwesh Bhatt when his family moved from Gujarat, India, to Austin when he was 17. “I grew up eating boiled peanuts,” Bhatt said. “My mother would make them in the pressure cooker with salt, lemon, ginger and green chiles, so when I came here and saw boiled peanuts on the menu, it felt familiar.”

Boiled peanuts in the South tend to be cooked simply, with just salt and vinegar added to the water, and eaten just as simply – a snack straight from the shell. But once we remember that peanuts are actually legumes, a boiled peanut can shift from a snack to a centerpiece. Canadian-born chef Hugh Acheson, owner of Five & Ten restaurant in Athens, Georgia, says reframing the peanut this way opens the door to new preparations. “Sometimes when we look at food from one perspective, we are pigeonholing it.”

For Acheson, this might mean boiling raw peanuts with star anise and a seafood seasoning such as Old Bay, then using them in a reimagined hummus or falafel. “The closest affiliation we have to boiled peanuts worldwide is jarred or canned fava beans,” he said, “so it’s an easy stretch to substitute them anywhere you might use the fava.”

Originating in South America, peanuts had been spread by traders around the world by the 17th century; enslaved Africans brought them to the American South, where they were typically grown for livestock or as a protein source for those in bondage and for the poor, before gaining more widespread popularity during the Civil War and through the later work of agricultural scientist George Washington Carver. Confederate soldiers even sang about “goober peas” – boiled peanuts – in a popular wartime ditty.

Beyond the rural South, however, boiled peanuts became a favorite preparation in many cultures, including in zongzi, a Chinese sticky rice dumpling often stuffed with boiled peanuts, and Bolivia’s traditional sopa di mani, a chunky soup of boiled peanuts, potatoes, pasta and peas. In Hawaii, peanuts are boiled with star anise and Hawaiian red sea salt, while a Ghanaian dish of mashed papaya, fresh corn kernels and boiled peanuts highlights the legume’s natural sweetness.

At Snackbar, the globally influenced Southern restaurant that Bhatt helms in Oxford, Mississippi, you might find boiled peanuts in chaat, a category of Indian food ranging from snacks to small plates in which there must be a combination of textures and flavors: crunchy, creamy, spicy, sweet, sour, salty. The boiled-peanut chaat in Bhatt’s cookbook, “I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes From a Southern Chef,” features fresh tomatoes, red onion and cucumbers combined with fresh herbs and toasted spices, with the boiled peanuts playing a distinctly bean-like role.

“One of the greatest ways of using them is in a salad,” Bhatt said, “but any dish that uses roasted peanuts points us toward flavors that work with boiled peanuts as well. When you think about Thai food, basil and peanuts are a natural combination, so try using boiled peanuts in a pesto instead of pine nuts.”

Indeed, peanuts are a natural partner for many sweet and savory ingredients. Boiled with vegetable stock, cola and ancho chiles, they can become a savory-spiced accompaniment to the protein of your choice, whether shrimp or pork or tofu. Chill gingery boiled peanuts to toss with rice noodles, fresh lime juice and a splash of toasted sesame oil, or mix them with maple syrup to top off an ice cream sundae instead of wet walnuts.

Boiled peanuts can be an acquired taste for the uninitiated, said Acheson, who couldn’t even wrap his head around the concept of pimento cheese when he first arrived in the South: “Cheese mixed with mayonnaise was definitely off-putting to me, and boiled peanuts seemed just as strange.” As he began to experiment with the ingredient, he found that adding lightly crushed boiled peanuts to a beurre blanc for pan-roasted flounder allowed him to play with the texture of the softened peanuts against the crispy exterior of the fish.

“It’s such a wonderful basic food in so many ways,” Acheson said. “We just need to get away from the concept of it being a nut and treat it like the legume that it is. Boiling peanuts just opens up new possibilities.”

Boiled Peanut Dip

In this twist on hummus from Acheson, boiled peanuts are treated like the legumes they are, standing in for the traditional garbanzo beans. When boiled, peanuts’ flavor is more subtle than when they’re roasted. The resulting dip will not taste overwhelmingly peanutty, so if you want to amp up the peanut flavor, substitute a half tablespoon of peanut butter – or more – for a portion of the tahini.

For the boiled peanuts:

1 gallon water

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon fine salt

1 tablespoon seafood seasoning, such as Old Bay or Zatarain’s

2 whole star anise pods

1 pound raw unshelled peanuts, about 6 cups (see Where to buy)

For the dip:

1 cup shelled boiled peanuts

1 medium clove garlic, chopped

2 tablespoons well-stirred tahini (see headnote)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons water, plus more as needed

Fine salt (optional)

First, boil the peanuts. Find a heatproof plate or pot lid that is just smaller than the diameter of your large stockpot and set it near your work area. In the large stockpot over high heat, combine the water, vinegar and salt and bring to a boil.

When the water comes to a boil, stir in the seafood seasoning and star anise, then add the peanuts. Place the reserved plate or lid on top of the peanuts to weigh them down a bit. Cover and decrease the heat so the liquid is at a simmer and cook until the peanuts are very tender, about 6 hours. Drain, transfer to a large, rimmed baking sheet and let cool completely. Shell 1 cup of the peanuts for the dip, and transfer the rest to jars – you should have 51/2 cups – and save for snacks.

To make the dip, combine the boiled peanuts, garlic, tahini, lemon juice, cumin and cayenne in a food processor. With the motor running on low, if your processor allows, slowly add the olive oil and process until smooth and emulsified. Stir to be sure the mixture is well combined. Increase to high, then add the water to thin out the dip, processing until the spread is the consistency of hummus. If needed, add more water 1 tablespoon at a time. Taste, and season with salt, if desired (the peanuts are already salted). Transfer to a bowl and serve with bread, crackers, pickles and/or crudite.

Make ahead: If you want to cut the cooking time by half, soak the peanuts for several hours and up to 12 hours before boiling.

Storage: Refrigerate the dip for up to seven days. Refrigerate the boiled peanuts for up to seven days or freeze in an airtight container for up to three months. The raw peanuts in the shell can be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to 6 months.

Where to buy: Dried raw peanuts can be purchased at many Asian or Indian markets, with or without the shell. Raw green peanuts (freshly picked and still soft when sold) are a seasonal item and will cook more quickly than the more commonly available dried raw peanuts.

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