Thursday, January 5, 2012

Northern style stewed peanuts

Peanuts may have originated in the New World, but they have become so beloved throughout China that they seem to have always been a part of the cuisine.

No matter where you travel in China -- from the extreme north to the most tropical south, in everything from street foods to the most refined banquet -- peanuts are a vital part of the local offerings. And with little wonder: they are delicious in just about every dish, savory or sweet.

We're all familiar with fried and roasted peanuts, but here you will find another treatment of these little guys that acknowledges their innate bean nature: boiling. Cooking peanuts in liquid is a revelation. The taste, texture, and aroma take on characteristics different from anything else.

And nobody does it better than in North China.

Slowly stewed in a classic broth of soy sauce and aromatics with just a touch of sweetness, this is sheer perfection. Not only that, but it is one of the simplest dishes you can toss together, requiring only that you put everything in a pan and simmer away until the peanuts are just barely soft and full of flavor.

Once you have tried this, you'll be tempted to make larger batches. Give in to this temptation. Stored in the refrigerator in a glass jar, they will keep for many days, thanks to the salt in the soy sauce. 

Do note that peeled peanuts are called for, meaning that the thin red skin has been removed. You can, of course, use regular peanuts with their skins on, but they will not help the dish in any way. Rather, they turn into bitter little rags that detract from rather than help the flavors. So, seek out ones that are naked and white.

Shandong's peeled peanuts
The only real requirement is that the peanuts be fresh. Stale peanuts will never taste good, no matter how delicious the sauce is. Health food stores sometimes offer peeled peanuts in their bulk bins, and this gives you the opportunity to smell them before you buy them. 

Another good choice is a busy Chinese market, since this helps with fast turnover. I've used the brand on the right, which is pretty good, as it hails from peanut-obsessed Shandong, China. 

However, the best peanuts I've ever tasted are from Penghu (The Pescadores Islands) off of Taiwan. Something about the rocky soil and sea air make these nuts absolute perfection. They are small in size, big in flavor, and the skins are dark red; if you only find them unpeeled, get them anyway and make Fried Peanuts. Served with beer, these are the best cocktail snacks ever.


Northern style stewed peanuts 
Beifangshi lu huasheng 北方式滷花生  
Northern China
Makes around 2 cups

12 ounces skinned peanuts
¼ cup regular soy sauce
¼ cup rice wine
2 tablespoon sugar
3 whole star anise
¼ stick cinnamon
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
3 slices ginger
Filtered water 
Roasted sesame oil, optional

1. Rinse the peanuts and place them in a saucepan with the soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, star anise, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, and ginger. Add enough water to cover the peanuts by about half an inch.

2. Bring the pan to a boil over high heat and then lower the heat to medium. Simmer the peanuts for about 10 minutes, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. 

3. Lower the heat to medium-low, so that the pan is barely simmering. Cook the peanuts slowly, adding water as needed to cover the peanuts. After about 45 minutes, start testing the peanuts every 5 minutes to see whether they are done. Bite into one; it should have no raw taste and ought to rumble easily without any crunch, but don't overcook them into mushiness. 

4. Quickly raise the heat to high and boil down the liquid until only about ¼ cup of liquid remains. Cool the peanuts to room temperature and either serve with a little dribble of sesame oil, if you wish, or refrigerate in a covered container.

Tips

Use peeled peanuts, rather than ones with their skins on.

Freshness is key here, so buy your peanuts from a health food store or a busy Chinese market.

Vary the seasonings as you like, adding or omitting spices, using green onions or garlic, and tossing the cooked peanuts in flavored "bright oils."

Keep an eye on the amount of liquid in the pan, as the peanuts will burn if the water boils off.

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