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Recipes and Stories

23 October 2014: Boiled Peanuts

Perfectly boiled peanuts, photographed handsomely by John Carrington

Boiled peanuts: for most Southerners, those words conjure memories of running barefoot through freshly mown grass on a warm summer evening, or of cheering on the home team from rough, weather-worn bleachers. But for the uninitiated outside our region, who have never seen peanuts any way but toasted and served forth in a bowl on the top of a bar or ground and slathered between two slices of white bread, it probably sounds like a culinary train wreck.

They are nothing more than freshly dug, uncured peanuts, simmered in their shells in a mild brine until they’re salty-sweet and tender. Though always served as snack food, they’re a reminder that peanuts are neither peas nor nuts, but legumes that grow below the ground. Most likely, the idea for boiling them in their shells came from Southerners of African descent, since on that continent they are often used as beans. But in the South today, this snack knows absolutely no social, ethnic, or racial boundaries.

From mid-to-late summer and early autumn, roadsides all over the region sprout with itinerant vendors, offering hot, briny, boiled peanuts from steaming oil-barrel-sized kettles. Even produce stands and convenience stores sell them. They’re the one sure snack at any outdoor event, whether it’s a family picnic, a ballgame, or a church social. In South Georgia, they’re even the reason for the party: “peanut boilings,” an old-fashioned community fair, are still the way peanut farmers celebrate the harvest.

Traditionally, they were seasonal and strictly regional because only green (that is, freshly harvested and un-cured) peanuts can be cooked this way. Unfortunately, freshly dug peanuts are full of moisture and mold easily, and must be dried and cured before they can be stored for any length of time, so green peanuts were only available within a short distance of their growing area.

Why, you may ask, if their peak season is late summer, am I talking about them now? Well, in most places in the South green peanuts can still be had as late as the end of this month and even into early November. And fall is actually when I have my most vivid associations with them, and when I crave them most. The first bite inevitably brings back happy memories of munching still-warm boiled peanuts while huddled under a blanket against the crisp night air, either in the bleachers at a football game, or in front of a blazing campfire.

I can tell you how to make them well, but what I can’t tell you is how many you’ll need. If you love them, you won’t be able to stop eating them; if you hate them, you’re not going to eat more than it takes to figure that out. I never met anyone who was in between.

Makes about 8 cups, serving between 4 and 8

3 pounds unshelled green peanuts

1. Wash the peanuts in a couple of changes of cold water to cover and drain them well. Put them in a heavy-bottomed pot that will hold at least 6 quarts. Add cold water in 1-quart batches until it covers them by at least an inch or more: the nuts will float, so test the depth of the water by pressing them down. Sprinkle in a rounded tablespoon of salt for every quart of water and stir until it’s mostly dissolved.

2. Bring it to a good boil over medium high heat. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer and cook until the peanuts are tender. This will take at least 1½ hours, and maybe as long as 2 hours, depending on the freshness of the peanuts and your own taste. Some people like them very soft, while others like them to fight back a little. Start testing after 1½ hours, and continue simmering until they’re tender enough to suit you.

3. Turn off the heat and let them soak until they are salty enough to suit your taste, about 15 to 30 minutes or as long as an hour. Because I can’t stop eating them once I start, my own preference is to have them barely salty. At any rate, when they reach the stage of saltiness that suits you, drain off and discard the brine unless, like some, you like them very salty, in which case, don’t drain them at all, but store them in their cold cooking liquid.

4. Serve either warm or cold, providing large bowls for castoff shells. If you accidentally serve them to a bunch of unrefined palates that hate them and you actually have leftovers, store them in the refrigerator. They’ll keep for 4 or 5 days—or so I’ve been told.

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