Pepper your food with peanuts

Peanuts are perfect for enhancing all sorts of dishes like a simple salad.

Peanuts 521 (photo credit: Yomiuri Shumbun/MCT)
Peanuts 521
(photo credit: Yomiuri Shumbun/MCT)
The other day, when I was looking for a way to dress up a green salad that I had topped with small pieces of grilled eggplant, roasted peanuts were my choice.
Peanuts are perfect for enhancing all sorts of dishes like my simple salad. They have a dual personality – serving as nuts in their culinary uses, they are actually legumes, and combine the advantages of both.
In fact, peanuts are unique. Unlike nuts, they don’t grow on trees. Unlike other legumes, they grow in the ground and have to be dug up; in Africa they are called groundnuts.
As a child I knew peanuts mostly as a snack that people munched on while watching movies or sports events. Then I tasted Chinese kung pao chicken sauteed with hot peppers and peanuts. This delicious dish showed peanuts in a whole new light.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that Asian cooks have developed ingenious ways to use peanuts. Perhaps this is only natural, since China is the world’s largest peanut producer, followed by India.
When I visited Taiwan, I had fried peanuts for breakfast as one of the condiments served with congee, or rice porridge. Just a small quantity of peanuts was a flavorful protein boost for the hot cereal.
Vietnamese cooks use peanuts in a variety of salads, such as turnip salad. The raw, thinly sliced turnips are marinated in vinaigrette seasoned with a little sugar, then mixed with sauteed tofu and mint leaves and enriched with crushed roasted peanuts. You could make this salad with kohlrabi or cucumber instead of turnips.
In Le Chant du Riz Pile (the chant of the pounded rice), a Vietnamese cookbook edited by Ione Rhodes, chopped roasted peanuts garnish an elaborate salad of cucumber, carrot and turnip with soy bean sprouts and mint, seasoned with vinaigrette and embellished with cooked meat and omelet strips. Recently I enjoyed a sensational salad of this type in Little Saigon in Orange County, California, made with unripe jackfruit used as a vegetable, mixed with a small quantity of fish-cake strips and fresh coriander. There was no oil in the chili-spiked sweet-and-sour dressing; a generous sprinkling of coarsely crushed roasted peanuts provided richness.
The Vietnamese also use peanuts to dress up basic bowls of rice noodles. The cooked noodles are combined with soybean sprouts, chopped mint and fresh coriander and are moistened with a sweet and sour sauce flavored with fish sauce or soy sauce. They are topped with sauteed strips of beef or tofu and served hot, crowned with crushed roasted peanuts.
Peanuts can be cooked with meat, providing a pleasing texture and enabling you to use less meat. One of my favorite Thai dishes is massaman curry, another meat entree that features whole roasted peanuts. They are simmered with beef and potatoes in coconut milk with a curry paste flavored with cumin, chilies and garlic.
The popular green papaya salad, which I enjoy at the Thai New Year festivals at the Wat Thai Temple in Los Angeles, is also topped with peanuts. This pungent salad of shredded papaya with tomato is flavored with chili flakes, garlic, lemon juice, sugar and soy sauce, but no oil.
Indonesians like peanuts not only as a sauce for their famous kebabs, called satays, but also in rice dishes.
Peanuts add pizzazz to Indonesian spiced rice, wrote Antoinette Dewit and Anita Borghese in The Complete Book of Indonesian Cooking. It is cooked in coconut milk and seasoned with onion, garlic, cumin, coriander, lemongrass and pepper flakes.
Cooks in India use peanuts to enliven salads of raw vegetables. Anjum Anand, author of Anjum’s New Indian, makes cucumber and carrot koshimbir with cilantro, green chilies and yogurt seasoned with sugar, salt and sauteed mustard seeds, as well as coarsely crushed roasted peanuts. Some versions of koshimbir are similar to Israeli cucumber-tomato-onion salad and are flavored with lime juice, hot pepper and fresh coriander, but include roasted peanuts instead of oil.
Anand also pairs peanuts with another legume – yellow lentils. She makes them sweet and sour with brown sugar and lemon juice, and flavors them with a paste of tomato and fresh ginger, as well as cumin seeds, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, chili powder and curry leaves. The peanuts give a pleasing textural contrast to the aromatic lentil puree.
Peanuts are best stored in a closed container in the refrigerator, where they will keep for three months. To keep them longer, freeze them. If you want to chop them, do so shortly before using.
The writer is the author of Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
Serve this spicy, colorful dish with steamed white or brown rice. Instead of green beans, you can use zucchini or white squash (kishuim) cut in strips.
4 green onions
1 sweet red pepper
1 sweet green or yellow pepper
450 to 560 gr. (1 to 11⁄4 pounds) boneless, skinless chicken, breast or thighs
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 tsp. rice vinegar
11⁄2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. cornstarch
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. water
2 cups green beans, cut in 5-cm. (2-in.) pieces
3 to 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp. minced, peeled ginger root
1 tsp. hot pepper paste, or 1⁄2 tsp. red chili flakes, or to taste
1 tsp. Asian sesame oil (optional)
1⁄2 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
Cut green onions in 5-cm. to 7.5-cm. (2-3-in.) lengths, cutting any thick pieces in half lengthwise. Cut sweet peppers in 5-cm. x 1-cm. (2-in. x 1⁄2-in.) strips. Cut chicken in slices about 6 mm. (1⁄4 in.) thick.
In a small bowl, combine soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, cornstarch and water. Mix well; reserve for sauce.
Add green beans to a saucepan of enough boiling water to cover them and cook over high heat for 2 or 3 minutes or until they are nearly tender but still crisp. Rinse with cold water and drain.
Heat 2 Tbsp. oil in a skillet or wok, add pepper strips and stir-fry over medium-high heat for 5 minutes or until softened. Add green onions and green beans and stir-fry for about 1⁄2 minute. Remove vegetables from pan.
Add 1 Tbsp. oil to skillet and heat over mediumhigh heat. Stir in garlic and ginger and stir-fry for a few seconds until fragrant. Add chicken and pepper paste and stir-fry, adding remaining oil if pan becomes dry, for 3 minutes or until chicken is cooked through; cut a piece to check.
Stir sauce mixture and add to skillet. Add vegetables and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, for 1 or 2 minutes or until sauce thickens. Off heat, stir in sesame oil and peanuts. Serve immediately.
Makes 3 or 4 servings
This recipe is from Helene Siegel, author of The Totally Nuts Cookbook. The savory sweet-and-sour cabbage salad is a refreshing, easy, low-fat accompaniment to summer barbecues.
1 green cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
4 green onions, cut in 2.5-cm (1-in.) lengths and slivered
1⁄2 cup chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)
1 small hot green pepper, seeded and diced
1 cup dry roasted, unsalted peanuts
juice of 2 oranges juices of 2 limes or 1 lemon, or to taste
11⁄2 Tbsp. brown sugar
1⁄4 cup Thai fish sauce (see Note below)
In a large bowl, combine cabbage, green onions, cilantro, hot pepper and peanuts. Mix well.
In a small bowl, whisk together orange and lime juices, brown sugar and fish sauce. Pour dressing over cabbage mixture. Taste and adjust seasoning. Toss to coat evenly, and chill until serving time.
Makes 8 cups
Note: Instead of Thai fish sauce, you can add soy sauce to taste.