Wednesday, August 5, 2009

we've come a long way rising from the flame


I can't think of another American food as divisive as boiled peanuts. On the one hand, you have those who consider them such commonplace roadfood that requests for recipes are met for derision, while notices of mail-order sources are treated with contempt, as though the seller is trying to get away with something. Look around the internet and you'll find people who think it's silly to even talk about boiled peanuts, which clearly aren't "serious" food and aren't worth all the fuss of mentioning. On the other hand, you have the northerners, most of whom have never heard of boiled peanuts and who may react to them in much the same way that people react to the idea of eating insects. Boiled peanuts are everything roasted peanuts aren't -- wet, messy, soft, more pea than nut.

On top of that, you have the current brouhaha over peanut allergies, which even the AMA considers widely overreported among youngsters whose parents browbeat a diagnosis out of the pediatrician. To even point this out -- even with the necessary disclaimers about peanut allergies being perfectly valid and absolutely serious for those who do possess them -- is to invite criticism, of course.

What are boiled peanuts, though?

Peanuts go through a few stages. When they're first dug up, they're green -- not in color, but we call them green peanuts. (Southerners, bear with me while I walk through this.) After a little time passes, they start to dry out of their own accord, just like any other bean will. We call them raw peanuts at that point. Most of the peanuts you've eaten -- and the peanuts used in nearly any peanut product, like peanut butter or a Snickers bar -- are roasted, which develops the flavor in a particular direction. When you think "peanut flavor," if you haven't had boiled peanuts, you're thinking about roasted peanuts. That, and the crunchy texture of roasted peanuts, is exactly why boiled peanuts are so weird for people who haven't encountered them before.

I like peanuts. A few years ago, impulsively picking up a tin of Very Very Good roasted peanuts, I discovered that I REALLY like peanuts. I mean, Planters are fine, Trader Joe's blistered peanuts are even better, but if you can get some really high-quality roasted peanuts ... well, look, until then I didn't even realize there was a quality difference in roasted peanuts. This was part of my subplot, my discovery that there's a quality difference in damn near everything.

But you remember what I said in my first post. Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. To really grok peanuts, roasted wasn't going to do it for me. My aunt sent my family a gift package of various peanut things a couple Christmases ago. I selected the burlap bag of raw shelled peanuts (shelled is one of those weird words like inflammable that could be taken by your audience to mean either the thing it is or its opposite, so I mean peanuts without shells, all right, shellless peanuts) and played around with those. You can boil those, they'll soften up after a while. They make a good chili bean, actually.

But it's not the same.

Last year, as part of the same gardening experiment in which I declared that it would be possible to grow okra and black-eyed peas in the frigid north of New Hampshire, I planted some peanuts. They did okay; not as well as the peas and the okra. The yield wasn't high enough for me to do anything with them, though, and as a condo-dweller, I have only a handful of square feet of dirt to plant in.

So this year I ordered some green peanuts. Tom was very helpful, especially when the Post Office damaged the first shipment; they processed his claim and he was able to send me some replacement peanuts which took only two days to get here, still nice and fresh.

You boil peanuts in the shell, in a big pot of water. Seasoning is optional and some people frown upon it, much as a New Englander would frown at the idea of seasoning the lobster pot. After a couple hours of boiling in heavily salted water -- the cooking time depends on the age and size of the peanuts -- I had a bowl full of absolute delicious peanut heaven. Now, when you let somebody else do the work and the boiling for you -- especially if you buy pouches or cans of boiled peanuts -- your peanuts are somewhat homogenized. They're going to be roughly the same size, probably the large size people are used to. Larger, more mature peanuts result in soft peas inside the shell, but you need to tear the shell open with your teeth to get at them (along with a slurpable swallow of peanut brine). Somewhat younger peanuts can be torn open with the fingers. Younger peanuts still can be eaten shell and all. In the last few hours I've pretty much learned how to tell one from the other, and have been separating out my peanuts into categories while watching ESPN during my dinner break.

Green peanuts

See? Look at that one that I broke open; the shell is thick and spongy when raw, and edible when cooked.

The taste is still peanutty. But there is no doubt that these peanuts are legumes. While they cook, they smell a lot like black-eyed peas. The flavor is ... well, it's salty, of course, and rich in a way a lot of beans aren't, but you have to be prepared for how very very far-removed it is from roasted peanut flavor.

I haven't got much time to blog this week or next, but I'm doing a lot more with these peanuts, as I can. Green peanuts in the shell supposedly don't freeze well. I'm going to try to freeze some shelled ones for use as beans, but it's hell on the fingernails trying to pry uncooked green peanuts open (dry raw peanuts have more brittle shells which open easier). Most of the rest will be boiled -- some seasoned, some just salted -- and then what I don't eat right away will be frozen in Zip-Loc bags with their brine. But then, then, I have plans to pickle some of these little guys -- the young ones with edible shells -- in a vinegar sweetened with Coca-Cola fountain syrup.

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