Monday, September 23, 2019

Strange flavor peanuts

The name alone for this dish makes me happy. The other plusses are that these are dead simple to make and are absolutely tasty and crunchy, and are wonderful to have on hand, so prepare to make a lot after this first batch.

“Strange flavor” is a Sichuanese term that is applied to quite a few dishes. Usually it means that there is a complex number of seasonings going on in there that will fight for your attention. In this case, the toasted peanuts are covered with a crispy sugar shell spiced with all sorts of good things – namely smoked paprika, chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, black pepper, and cumin – and balanced with a nice jolt of salt to keep things on track.

These are, in a word, bar snacks with an attitude. And for the record, my husband refers to them as weird nuts.

It used to be that this recipe was a whole lot more difficult to prep, because back in the day we didn’t have peanuts with the skins removed. That meant toasting the nuts and then rubbing them in a towel to knock off most of the bitter red skins. Yes, it wasn’t backbreaking work, but this extra step always made me think twice about dedicating the necessary time to pulling the ingredients together.

Nowadays, Chinese shops and organic markets often have these nude peanuts for sale, so buy a couple of packages when you run across them.

A gorgeous load of spices
The basic recipe for this calls for toasting the peanuts in an oven (a toaster oven works nicely here), tossing them over the heat with a barely caramelized sugar syrup that evenly coats each nut, and then sprinkling in the seasonings, as well as a bit of starch to keep things tidy. You end up with a nice pile of expertly flavored peanuts that gain serious crunch as they cool down.

Once you master this basic recipe, think about the other flavors you like and start experimenting accordingly. Five spice powder works well in here, as does a bit of curry powder or powdered ginger or even pumpkin spice. You can 86 the chiles and amp up other seasonings, or make them relatively mild when you have kids ready to pounce on them.

The only caveat would be to not add anything moist, like fresh garlic or ginger or green onions. The seasonings have to be absolutely dry so that the crunchy shell doesn’t melt and goo up.

The basic recipe for toasted peanuts is something you should have in your permanent repertoire. It’s super easy and a whole lot tidier to make than fried nuts. I’ll set it off below the main recipe here so that you can refer to it as needed, and it is also included on page 411 of All Under Heaven.

Strange flavor peanuts
Guàiwèi huāshēng  怪味花生
Makes about 3 cups
Caramelization is underway

1 teaspoon ground toasted cumin
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground chiles
1 tablespoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Spray oil, if using foil for the baking tray
1 cup | 225 g sugar
¾ cup | 180 ml water
1 pound | 450 g toasted skinless peanuts (see recipe below)

1. Combine the spices, salt, and cornstarch in a small work bowl. Have a large, rimmed baking tray ready and line it with Silpat or foil sprayed with oil.

2. Place the sugar and water in a wok and swirl them around a few times to ensure that the sugar is wetted all the way through. Bring the sugar water to a boil over medium heat, swirling it now and then. Cover the pan for about a minute so that the steam will wash down any crystals, and then turn the heat up to medium high. Swirl the pan now and then, rather than stir it, and as soon as it takes on a golden tinge (but is not yet caramel), toss in all of the peanuts.

3. Use a spatula to toss the peanuts in the nuts until they are thoroughly coated. Remove the wok from the heat as you rapidly sprinkle the spice mixture over them, and then return to the heat as you quickly toss them to distribute the seasonings evenly.

4. Remove the wok from the heat and wait about 30 seconds for the sugar coating to start to cool down and harden. Then, scrape the nuts onto the lined baking tray. Scoot the nuts around to separate them as much as possible. Cool the nuts thoroughly and store in a closed container.
The sugars turn golden...

Toasted peanuts
Kăo huāshēng 烤花生
Makes about 3 cups
Toasted skinless peanuts

1 pound | 450 g raw peanuts, with or without the skins

1. Heat the oven or a toaster oven to 275°F | 135°C. Place the peanuts in a baking pan large enough to hold them in a single layer – the bottom of the broiler pan that may have come with your oven works well. Put the peanuts in the oven.

2. Slowly toast the nuts for about 1½ hours. Because the edges of your pan will be hotter than the center, you’ll want to shake the pan once in a while and stir the nuts occasionally. When the peanuts start to smell cooked and begin to split along the center, taste one; if the rawness seems to have disappeared, taste a couple more from different parts of the pan just to be sure. It doesn’t matter if the nuts are crisp yet, as that will happen once they cool down.

3. Pour the peanuts into a wide, heatproof bowl and let them come to room temperature. Store in a sealed container.