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Peanuts play a key role in the modern American diet—they're the base for our beloved peanut butter, after all! But they've been a principal ingredient in Southern cooking since the 19th century: Cooks have used them as a base for cakes, stews, and healthy snacks.
In the coastal Carolinas, the simple, salty boiled peanut reigns supreme. It’s one of the first things Carolinians seek out when we come home and what we beg friends to mail us when we’re away too long. Driving through eastern North Carolina, roadside stands sell boiled peanuts on any given route to the beach. They are best enjoyed when you can sit back and enjoy a nice long visit with old friends—cracking open the shells and slurping up the juicy nuggets inside. And, if there are leftovers, shell and puree them into a divine peanut hummus. (Peanut butter is made from roasted ground peanuts.)
Boiled peanuts are not the prettiest treat. But once nervous newcomers try a salty handful, they become lifelong members of the boiled peanut club. But a long drive to Wrightsville Beach isn’t the only way to get a paper bagful—they are incredibly easy to make at home.
I like to use Valencia peanuts or heirloom African Runner Peanuts because they have a higher oil content and richer flavor, but you can use any Virginia-style peanut. Boiled peanuts can be made with either fresh or dried peanuts—fresh peanuts cook quickly, but dried ones take much longer. Fresh peanuts usually have to be bought directly from a farmer because they need to be boiled within a day or two of harvesting to prevent mold, but dried peanuts can be bought from most grocery stores or online from Bertie County Peanuts.
Whatever you do, do not use roasted peanuts, as you will end up with a soggy mess. Crack a shell open and taste as you go along and cook until the peanuts are as tender as you want them. I cook mine to the same consistency I cook my black beans, soft but with enough firmness that you still need to chew them. Make a big pot—these are addicting.
- 2 pounds fresh raw "green" peanuts, in shell
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 4 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
Jamie DeMent was raised in Eastern North Carolina. As she saw family farms disappearing and industrialized farming taking over, she searched for ways to revive the simplicity of eating healthy, locally grown food, eventually joining Richard Holcomb at Coon Rock Farm. Jamie spends her days writing about food, farming, and planting, as well as selling products from her farm. Her latest cookbook, The Farmhouse Chef: Recipes and Stories from my Carolina Farm, was published by UNC Press.
The introduction to this article has been revised.