Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Peanuts

I have to admit something rather un-American: up until recently, I really didn't like peanut butter. I was never one of those kids who subsisted on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or who loved ants-on-a-log (bletch). (The occasional Reese's peanut butter cup, yes.) But when I got pregnant with my second child, I could not get enough peanut butter: peanut butter and honey sandwiches, peanut butter and cocoa smoothies, peanut butter straight from the jar. (Probably explains some of that weight gain... oops.) Turns out that peanuts are a great source of folic acid, which is important for pregnant women, as it protects against neural-tube defects in the fetus. My new-found peanut-butter love has stuck with me, even after my daughter was born - which is fortuitous, because now I have barely enough time to put together a peanut butter sandwich for lunch.

A Brief History

As with chiles, tomatoes and potatoes, the story of peanuts is the story of European expansion, trade and colonialism. It is also the story of the amazing way cultures incorporate new ingredients into their cuisines, and indeed, peanuts have insinuated themselves into dishes all over the world.

Peanuts are native to South America, with their likely origin in either Bolivia or Peru. They were probably first cultivated by the Incas. Evidence of peanuts has been found by archaeologists in Andean Peruvian tombs dating from about 7,600 BCE. The Spanish "discovered" peanuts in South America and Mexico, and Columbus found them being enjoyed by native Caribbean peoples when he first landed there. Portuguese and Spanish then traders introduced peanuts all over the world - to Malaysia, China, India and East and West Africa.

According to John Mariani in The American Encyclopedia of Food and Drink, the Portuguese planted peanuts in West Africa to feed slaves on their forced trips to North and South America and the Caribbean. (There is a native African relative of the peanut called the Bambara groundnut that was already being grown, with similar cultivation requirements.) Through the West African slave trade, peanuts were introduced into the American south, where they quickly became a cash crop, along with cotton. African-American George Washington Carver, working at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, is famous for popularizing the crop among rural southerners in the 1890s, as a solution to the devastation the boll weevil and soil depletion wrought to the cotton crop there.

Mariani notes that two Italian immigrants were the first to develop a method to roast peanuts in oil in the early 20th century (they later started the "Planters" brand). Peanut butter was first invented in 1890 in St. Louis, marketed as a protein substitute for people with bad teeth (and I'm guessing there were quite a few in 1890). It was introduced to the wider public at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. In Andrew W. Smith's fascinating book Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea, he describes how the history of peanuts is intimately intertwined with the history of candy in the US. Famous candy bars and confections like the Baby Ruth, Oh! Henry, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and the Snickers bar were all invented in the early half of the 20th century as the peanut became an important agricultural commodity. Today, peanuts are a billion-dollar industry in the United States. (Check out Smith's book for more information on the fascinating life of George Washington Carver and the history of the peanut. His book also contains numerous fun historical recipes with peanuts as their primary ingredients.)

Factual Nibbles

  • Most peanuts grown in the US are made into peanut butter. According to the National Peanut Board, Americans spend almost $800 million a year on the nutty spread.
  • Here is Dizzy Gillespie performing "Salt Peanuts" in 1947. 
  • Alternate names for the peanut include "groundnut" (because the seed pod grows under ground) and "goober pea," a corruption of a native West African word for the legume. 
  • In recent years, high protein and calorie peanut paste has played a large part in the reduction of famine-related deaths in parts of Africa, the Caribbean and other areas. 
  • We've had two peanut farmers in the White House: Thomas Jefferson grew the legume, and Jimmy Carter famously grew up on a peanut farm in rural Georgia.

Cultivation

Contrary to popular belief, peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) are not true nuts at all, but legumes. They are part of the Fabaceae (legume) family, which also includes beans, lentils, peas, tamarind, clover and mesquite. Peanuts grow much like other legumes, with one critical difference: after the plant is pollinated and the lovely blossoms drop off of the plant, the stalks begin to elongate, eventually pushing themselves underground where the peanut pods and seeds mature. Peanuts require a long, warm growing season and ample water, which limits their production to sub-tropical and warmer temperate regions, like the southern US. And like other legumes, they are soil nitrogen fixers; indeed, this is part of the reason George Washington Carver and the USDA encouraged southern farmers to convert their nitrogen-depleted cotton fields to peanut growing.

China, India, Nigeria and the US lead the world in peanut production. The National Peanut Board says that peanuts are grown commercially in 13 US states, with Georgia, Texas, Alabama and North Carolina leading the pack. (Here's a map of the 13 major and minor peanut producing states if you're interested.)

Seasonality

In the US, fresh peanuts are generally harvested in September and October. If you are lucky to live in a peanut-growing area, you may find fresh "green" peanuts for sale at your local farm stand or farmer's market. The rest of us will have to make due with dried and roasted peanuts more commonly available year round.

Environmental Impact

Less than 1 percent of peanuts were grown organically in the US as of 2011, according to the USDA, which means that toxic pesticides (including herbicides and insecticides) are common in conventional peanuts and peanut products. At least eight different pesticide residues were found by the USDA's pesticide data program in conventional peanut butter. In addition, peanuts are commonly crop-rotated with cotton. Why do we care? Because 96 percent of all cotton grown in the US is genetically engineered (GE), much of which is herbicide tolerant (HT) cotton. This means that huge amounts of herbicides can be sprayed on the cotton without damage to the plant.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) note that climate change could be devastating to US peanut production. In fact, recent droughts have already taken a toll on peanut production, causing the price of peanuts and peanut products to rise.

Characteristics

You can most commonly find peanuts roasted in their distinctive textured shell, dry roasted and roasted in oil. In the US, there are four main types of peanuts grown

  • Valencia : make up the smallest percentage of peanuts grown in the US. Valencia peanuts are small and are usually roasted in the shell.
  • Spanish : small seeds covered in reddish skins. You will sometimes see recipes call for Spanish peanuts specifically, although other peanuts can be substituted. They are higher in oil than other types of peanuts and are commonly used in candy and confections.
  • Virginia : have the largest seeds. They are commonly roasted in the shell and sold either in the shell or as salted peanuts. 
  • Runner : make up most of the peanuts grown in the US. They have higher yields than the other peanut types. Frequently ground into peanut butter.

Nutrition and effects on the body

Peanuts are an incredible food. Like other legumes, they are extremely high in protein and fiber. They are a great source of niacin, Vitamin E, Vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, manganese and potassium. Peanuts also contain iron and calcium, and are loaded with monounsaturated fats, which can help lower cholesterol.

There are some rather gnarly health issues with peanuts, however. If you are a parent or have young children in your life, you probably already know that peanuts have been banned from many schools in the last few decades (yes, my kid's school is a nut-free zone). This is because peanut-related allergies, some of which can be extremely severe, are on the rise. There are two major theories as to why peanut allergies (and allergies in general) have increased in the last few decades. The hygiene hypothesis posits that excessively clean environments hinder the development of our immune systems, increasing risk of allergies and asthma. Another theory is that delayed introduction of allergenic foods like peanuts is the primary cause of food allergies. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) revised its former policy advocating waiting until age three to introduce peanuts and tree nuts; the current AAP policy now notes that there is no benefit to delaying the introduction of peanuts and other nuts after the introduction of solid foods, usually around the age of four to six months. (Of course, always talk to your pediatrician first about the introduction of any solids, especially nuts.)

In addition to allergies, improperly handled and stored peanuts and peanut products can become contaminated with aflatoxin, a type of toxin that is produced by certain fungi present in legumes, grains and other foods. Aflatoxin has been linked to liver cancer. It can also cause acute symptoms like vomiting, convulsions, coma and even death. Fortunately, peanuts and peanut products like peanut butter are rigorously tested for aflatoxin, and most aflatoxin-related deaths have occurred in places where regulatory oversight is lax.

What to Do with It and Cooking

Few ingredients make the transition from sweet to savory with as much ease as peanuts. Classic pairings from around the world include chocolate, caramel, vanilla, chiles, curry and fruit (think apples and bananas). Of course, peanuts and peanut butter are exceedingly important in American cuisine, but the legume also plays a role in cuisines from around the world.

Peanuts are frequently used in Southeast Asian cuisine: most commonly in Malaysian and Indonesian dishes, and in Thai dishes influenced by Malaysian cuisine. In Vietnam, cookbook author Mai Pham notes that chopped, roasted peanuts are used to add "richness and texture" to many dishes, especially noodle and rice dishes. Peanut-based sauce also shows up in many countries in Southeast Asia, most famously as dipping sauce for satay. In India, peanuts are sold as street food (as in this peanut chaat). Peanuts are also added to rice dishes and curries, and peanut oil is commonly used as cooking oil in India. The legume is also popular in China, especially as a cooking oil and street snack, but they also add crunch to stir fries and other dishes.

Peanuts are especially important in parts of Africa - especially Central and West Africa. Peanut stews and soups are common, often incorporating chiles, meat and starchy vegetables. In the US, boiled peanuts are a Southern specialty, traditionally made with the first harvested "green" peanuts. But really, peanut butter is where's it's at in the US. You can easily make your own peanut butter, but it is also increasingly easy to find high-quality organic peanut butter at the supermarket (and many markets even allow you to grind your own). Chocolate and peanut butter is a match made in heaven, from peanut butter cups (make your own!) to peanut M&Ms. Or chocolate peanut butter pie. Or peanut butter brownies.

Storage

Store peanuts and peanut products in a cool, dry place. Immediately discard any peanuts that show signs of mold.

Recipe

Peanut Butter and Cocoa Nib Cookies

Peanut butter cookies are the best, but they're made even better with the addition of cocoa nibs. Cocoa nibs are basically little bits of roasted cocoa bean - they have a crunchy texture but taste like a nuttier unsweetened cocoa. The two form a perfect match for these sweet peanut butter cookies. The original cookie recipe comes from one of my grandmother's cookbooks, dating from 1952.

Ingredients:
112 cups all purpose flour
14 teaspoon baking soda
12 teaspoon salt
12 cup (one stick) butter, softened to room temperature
12 cup organic granulated sugar
12 cup organic brown sugar
1 organic egg
12 cup natural peanut butter
1 teaspoon pure vanilla
14 cup cocoa nibs
Sugar for flattening the cookies

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda and salt. Whisk to incorporate; set aside.
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or using a hand mixer), beat the butter and the two sugars on medium speed until well blended (the mixture doesn't need to get fluffy). Add the egg and beat until incorporated. Add the peanut butter and vanilla and beat until well incorporated. 
  4. With the mixer running on the lowest speed, add the flour mixture and cocoa nibs. Stir until just combined (don't over beat or the cookies will be tough). 
  5. Using a tablespoon cookie (or ice cream scoop), scoop balls of dough and roll between your palms to form about 1-inch balls. Using a fork dipped in sugar, make criss-cross patterns in the balls as you flatten them.
  6. Bake in preheated oven for 12-15 minutes, until cookies are golden-brown on the bottoms. Cool for one minute on the baking sheet, then transfer to cooling racks.

Makes 2 dozen cookies.


(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)

This post was originally published in September 2014.