Last summer, when Jeremy Holst, executive chef at Anson Restaurant, was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City, he composed a fine-dining plate with plenty of distinctive Lowcountry flavors. He pan-roasted grouper cheeks to a golden brown, topped them with foraged mushrooms and a little sea-like foam, and laid them over a swirl of bright yellow corn pudding and a small pile of succotash.
That succotash had a twist you don’t often see here in the Lowcountry, much less in New York City: it was made not with limas or field peas but with boiled peanuts.
In a way, it was a bold declaration of Southerness. Boiled peanuts have long been one of those iconic foods that Southerners revere and Yankees find baffling. To a palate raised to expect a hard, crunchy nut, the soft, pea-like texture can be a shock.
I suspect that a lot more palates are about to get introduced to that taste, as green peanut season is fully underway in the Lowcountry and boiled peanuts are popping up in more local restaurants than ever before. Some are serving them the old-fashioned way — in the shell as a snack to peel and eat at your table — but a few are getting downright creative with this distinctively local ingredient.
It might just be the break that boiled peanuts have been waiting for.
If you dig into the subject of peanuts, one thing you’ll see repeated over and over is that many people believe they grow on trees like pecans or walnuts. Every time I read that, I think, “Who the hell are these people?” Maybe they’re Canadians.
Just to clear things up, let’s start by noting that peanuts are peas, not nuts. They’re legumes, actually, and grow on low, green vines. The weird part is this: after pollination, the flower stalk actually bends down and burrows into the earth, where the fruit develops underground into the 1 to 2 inch-long pod we know as the peanut.
To harvest those legumes, farmers have to turn them out of the ground with a pitchfork or, if they’re operating on a larger scale, with a big “digger-shaker-converter” contraption that first loosens the plant then lifts it from the soil, shaking away the dirt and flipping the plant on the ground with the exposed peanuts facing up so they can later be gathered by a combine.
These so-called “green” (that is, fresh) peanuts are highly perishable, which is why you can find them only at harvest time. You can buy raw peanuts for boiling during the rest of the year, but they’ve been air-dried to reduce the moisture content so they can be stored. Connoisseurs declare that the kind made from fresh green peanuts have a sweeter, more subtle taste.
If you’re looking to try your hand at boiling your own, now’s the time. The harvest typically runs from August to October. Sara Clow, the general manager for local produce distributor GrowFood Carolina, reports that they received their first shipment a few weeks ago from Myers Farms in Bowman and started distributing them to local retailers, including Earth Fare in West Ashley and various Harris Teeters around town.
There’s really not a whole lot to making boiled peanuts. You fill a big pot with well-salted water, add the peanuts, and boil them until they’re done. Still, there are a few tips and tricks you can pick up from the pros.
For a few of them, I turned to Ted Lee who, along with his brother, Matt, has probably done more than anyone to spread the gospel of the boiled peanut outside the South. Via their Lee Bros. Boiled Peanut Catalogue, they FedEx batches all over the country, especially to ex-pat Southerners longing for their favorite hometown snack.
“Keep the peanuts submerged with a heavy plate,” Ted Lee advises. “Because they want to rise.”
Also, note the water level on the side of the pot when you begin. “You want to keep topping it up,” Lee says. “And maintain the salinity by adding a little salt.”
It should be “like the salinity of ocean water,” he adds. According to their official recipe, which is included in The Lee Bros. Southern Kitchen (2013), the desired ratio is a half cup of salt to each gallon of water.
“We like them South Carolina style, which is really salty,” Ted Lee says. “Salty and soft.”
Robert Stehling, who serves boiled peanuts at Hominy Grill when the green ones are in season, agrees. “I feel to really cook them right they have to be on the verge of falling apart, really creamy and hard to work with out of the shell.”
If you’re using green peanuts, you can get them to that state in just a couple of hours. Semi-dried raw peanuts take a good bit longer — eight hours or more — though you can reduce the cooking time by soaking them overnight.
The best approach is to let your taste buds, not the clock, be your guide. Sample a peanut or two periodically, letting it cool enough so you can hold it, crack the shell, and slurp out the peas inside. When they’re salty and tender enough for your taste, they’re done.
If you’re not up for all that boiling and sampling, there’s no shortage of folks who will cook them for you. You can pick up a bag from Timbo, who sells them from a bright-orange Airstream trailer on Ashley River Road, or from the Peanut Dude, who regularly sets up shop in the GDC parking lot on Coleman Boulevard in Mt. Pleasant. Tony the Peanut Man, a fixture at Charleston RiverDogs games, will toss you a warm bag right up in the stands.
This current generation of peanut sellers continues a South Carolina tradition that dates back almost a century to the guys who hawked them from baskets on the streets of Orangeburg (see “A Brief History of the Boiled Peanut,” p. 7).
Over time, boiled peanuts have made their way into restaurants. For years, patrons have snacked on a basket of peanuts before digging into a platter of fried seafood at Hyman’s downtown and at the Wreck on Shem Creek. Newer places have put them on their menus now, too. At the Alley you can munch on a bowl while you get ready to bowl, while at Fuel you can order “Walhalla Boiled Peanuts” alongside your braised pork tacos or jerk chicken sandwich.
The “Walhalla” part is an homage to the top peanut vendor in the Upstate town where Fuel’s chef and owner Justin Broome grew up. “Everyone in Walhalla knows the Peanut Man,” Broome says. “He lived just up the mountain from Walhalla, and he had a certain spice to his peanuts.”
Broome created as close an approximation as he could, using garlic, chili flakes, paprika, black pepper, and a couple of secret flavors that he isn’t keen on sharing. That infusion of spice alone is enough to make Fuel’s peanuts unique, but for part of the year, at least, there’s an additional twist.
“My family grows peanuts down in Malone, Fla.,” Broome says. “I go down there once a year and bring back as many as I can.” These aren’t just any green peanuts. They’re an unusual jumbo variety that are about three times the size of an ordinary peanut.
On his annual trips, Broome brings back between 100 and 200 bushels of the monster goobers and boils them all over the course of two weeks, which is about as long as the green peanuts will keep under refrigeration before going sour. He freezes the cooked peanuts (boiled peanuts freeze exceptionally well) and serves them at Fuel for as long as the supply holds out, which is usually five or six months. After that, he reverts to regular sized peanuts until it’s harvest time again.
Broome says he’s planning to head down to Malone in a month or so, depending upon how the rains go, so look for those gigantic, Walhalla-spiced peanuts at Fuel in early October.
With local green peanuts now in season, chefs don’t need family connections to jump on the boiled peanut bandwagon. GrowFood Carolina’s Sara Clow reports that over a dozen local restaurants have already placed orders. And, she notes, “We’ll have many more as the season progresses and the harvest picks up.”
Stehling at Hominy Grill is one of them. “We’ve been boiling five bushels a week,” he told me in an email.
When it comes to boiled peanuts, Stehling admits, “I’m a traditionalist … we just peel and eat them.” But other chefs are starting to get a little more experimental, riffing on the standard preparation and starting to transform a classic Southern snack food into a uniquely Southern ingredient.
Early European explorers, encountering the peanut for the first time, invariably compared its texture and taste to that of the chickpea. So, it was probably only a matter of time before boiled peanut hummus started popping up.
It’s served as a bar snack at Proof and with hot pepper relish, pickled okra, and flatbread at Magnolias. At Husk, they pair it with crazy things like ricotta salata and spicy pig-ear crackers. Craig Deihl of Cypress has combined boiled peanuts with another old Southern ingredient, sorghum molasses, to create his own spin on baked beans.
Forrest Parker of the Old Village Post House calls boiled peanuts, “something we keep in our utility belt for specials.” They’ve made baba ghanoush from them and used them to garnish a smoked ham consommé. “Southern flavors for sure,” Parker notes, “but very refined.”
Perhaps the most impressive peanut dish I’ve tasted was Parker’s boiled peanut soup, which he served at last year’s Compass Box whiskey dinner at the Old Village Post House. It tucked whole boiled peanuts into a rich, smoky ham hock broth with a crisp shard of candied ham floating on top.
Seeing such creative license being taken with the beloved snack of their youth can rile up a lot of Southerners, leading to everything from bemused grumbles to fiery declarations like, “That’s not how my granddaddy ate ’em!”
The last thing I want to do is get sideways with anybody’s granddaddy, but I think these fine dining experiments are encouraging, a means of expanding even further the already rich variety of uniquely local flavors.
Can boiled peanuts, like grits and pimento cheese before them, make the leap from a humble but treasured regional snack to one of the defining components of high-end Southern fine dining? If it’s going to happen, the flurry of restaurant activity we’re seeing right now may be just the thing to put them over the top.