Nuts for Peanuts

An American icon gets spread on bread and mixed into Thai sauces
Aug 18, 2004

The almond is a more elegant nut. The macadamia is a more exotic and pricier nut. But no nut is more lovable to Americans than the peanut. We gobble goobers by the bagful at baseball games, we spread peanut butter on innumerable sandwiches, and we deep-fry everything from turkey to tempura in peanut oil. So fond are we of the peanut that an entire restaurant, Peanut Butter & Co., in New York, is devoted to it.

"I knew I loved peanut butter and others did too, but didn't realize just how many people were passionate about peanut butter and would eat it every day if they could until I opened the restaurant," says Lee Zalben, owner of Peanut Butter & Co. Zalben's shop sells sandwiches made with six different kinds of homemade peanut butter, from a white chocolate version to one spiked with chile peppers.

Uptown, multiple-Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse has peanut butter and jelly delivered to your table with the bread at his American comfort food restaurant Mix in New York.

However, peanut envy isn't merely the province of comfort food seekers. At 5 Ninth, his new cutting-edge restaurant in New York, Zakary Pelaccio makes bar-snack canapés of Chinese mustard greens stuffed with crushed peanuts, chiles, garlic and kecap manis, the Indonesian soy condiment.

At the wildly popular Slanted Door in San Francisco, chef Charles Phan makes "gallons" of peanut sauce containing lime, Thai chiles, miso and sticky rice for his signature Vietnamese spring roll.

Asian and West African cooking use peanuts extensively-and generally more inventively than we do in the United States. And many people mistakenly believe that the peanut originated in Africa. In fact, it originated in South America, some 3,500 years ago. The Portuguese and Spanish brought peanuts to Africa, Asia and Europe. African slaves took peanuts to plantations in the American South. Though George Washington Carver is often associated with enlightening us as to the versatility of the peanut, it was John Harvey Kellogg who patented peanut butter in 1895.

Today, China and India are the two top peanut producers. In the United States, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Texas, South Carolina and Oklahoma are the largest producers of runner peanuts, one of four types grown domestically. Runners are the main peanuts used in peanut butter and candy because of their uniform size. They have a broad and basic, though not particularly distinctive, peanut flavor-the Chardonnay of peanuts, they account for more than half the peanuts produced.

Valencia peanuts, grown primarily in New Mexico, are the smallest in size and quantity. They have a more focused, sharper peanut flavor, the Riesling of peanuts. Somewhat larger are Spanish peanuts, grown mostly in Oklahoma and Texas. A high oil content makes them richer than runners, and their familiar shiny red skins give a tannic counterpoint to their sweet flavor. Virginia peanuts, grown mainly in Virginia and North Carolina, are the plumpest of all peanuts. These voluptuous beauties are often sold in the shell at ballparks. They are also shelled and lightly fried in oil to retain the blond color, then salted and sealed in cans. They are similar in flavor to runners but with a bit more depth.

Unlike true nuts, which grow on trees, peanuts are the seeds or kernels in the pods of a legume, a plant that grows close to the ground, like beans and lentils. Hence, they were called groundnuts by Africans. Peanuts still in the shell can be roasted or boiled. Hot boiled or "biled" peanuts are a favorite Southern snack. Pelaccio boils in-the-shell peanuts in vinegar, salt and aromatics for two hours until soft. Then he adds the shelled peanuts to a salad of watercress, radishes and fried chicken skin that is paired with a poached chicken and pepper gravy.

Home-roasted peanuts are far superior to most commercial dry-roasted (i.e., roasted without oil) peanuts. Put raw, shelled peanuts in a single layer on a sheet pan in a 350° F oven for about 20 minutes.

Because they are legumes, peanuts lend a beanier, more vegetal quality to dishes than do true nuts, whose nature tends to be woodier. Among the most common peanut dishes are peanut sauces for Thai or Indonesian satés (grilled skewered meat). You can also sprinkle peanuts onto salads, fold them into noodle dishes or add them to stir-fries. Try coarsely chopped peanuts with stir-fried long beans or string beans, for example. You can also add them to stuffings. For her Vietnamese barbecue, Anita Lo, chef at Annisa restaurant in New York, stuffs boned pork ribs with peanuts, carrots, tree ear mushrooms, scallions, ginger and oyster sauce.

Peanut oil has long been used for deep-frying and stir-frying because of its high smoke point. But there are also peanut oils that are flavorful enough to be used in dressings and as condiments, like good olive oil. Jean-Marc Montegottero in France's Beaujolais region produces a superb peanut oil ($14 for 250ml) with an aroma of freshly roasted peanuts and a rich mouthfeel.

Of course, most Americans know peanuts best in peanut butter. For a tasting, I chose six different natural peanut butters, all creamy versions, made without sweeteners or hydrogenated oils (which keep more-commercial peanut butters from separating). All are broadly available. My favorite among the six tasted was Arrowhead Mills. Made from Valencia peanuts, it reflects their distinctive flavor. It was also smooth and didn't stick to the roof of my mouth as much as some others did. Sunland, another Valencia peanut butter, was second, losing some points because it was fairly sticky. Peanut Butter & Co., which uses a secret blend of peanuts, was the lightest in color owing to light roasting. It was sweet and clean, if rather subtle, with a grainy texture. Edwards-Freeman, the darkest roasted, and Maranatha, made from organic Valencia peanuts, tied for fourth. Edwards-Freeman had good peanut flavor but was too sticky for my taste. Maranatha was fine, though it lacked Arrowhead's emphatic Valencia flavor. A house brand from Whole Foods Market had decent flavor but was saltier than the others.

You can be as creative with peanut butter as you are with peanuts, even if you just stick to sandwiches, which is what Zalben does. The Elvis is a grilled peanut butter sandwich stuffed with bananas, honey and bacon. Zalben uses his cinnamon raisin peanut butter (which I think I could mainline) with vanilla cream cheese and slices of Granny Smith apple. To mimic a Thai saté, he puts his spicy peanut butter together with grilled chicken and pineapple jam.

To further illustrate that peanut butter can go haute, or at least semi-haute, Best Cellars, a New York wine retailer, put together a peanut butter and wine tasting for me. "Fruitier styles of wine seem to work best," says Mollie Battenhouse, wine and training director. The fruity sweetness of an Australian Queensland rosé with smooth peanut butter gave a sensation of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but more refreshing. A fortified Spanish Monastrell Dulce from Yecla was almost too good with cinnamon raisin peanut butter, echoing the dried fruit beautifully. Non-vintage tawny Port was an excellent foil for chocolate peanut butter.

The following Thai peanut sauce is adapted from a recipe from the National Peanut Board. Use it on any grilled meats, fowl or with shrimp. Or surprise your friends and slather it on a hot dog at the ballpark.

Thai Peanut Sauce

1 1/3 cups coconut milk
1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste
6 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup chicken broth or water
4 tablespoons roasted peanuts, chopped
1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste
1 tablespoon fish sauce, or to taste
1 tablespoon lime juice, or to taste
Salt to taste

Put half the coconut milk in a heavy saucepan over moderate heat. Stir 1 minute, then add the curry paste and stir until the paste is dissolved. Add the rest of the coconut milk and the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer while stirring. Simmer 2 to 3 minutes, stirring, until the sauce thickens slightly. Check for a balance of salty, sweet, sour and spicy flavors. Makes about 2 cups.

Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock (Chronicle Books).

How to Get It

Peanut Butter & Co.
New York
(866) 456-8372,

Edwards-Freeman Nut Co.
Conshohocken, Pa.
(877) 448-6887,

National Peanut Board
(866) 825-7946,

Sunland Inc.
Portales, N.M. (for Valencia peanuts)

Di Bruno Brothers
(888)-322-4337, (for mail order sales of Montegottero peanut oil), (for retailers that carry Montegottero peanut oil)