I FIRST TASTED boiled peanuts in the days when I cut across a peanut field to get to school, and for me, they’ll always be associated with that little town on the outskirts of the Great Dismal Swamp.
They’re eaten all over the world, though, perhaps because there’s no more soothing salty snack. Neither sticky like peanut butter nor crunchy like the ballpark standard, boiled peanuts offered tender and cozy peanut simplicity. I’ve snacked on them throughout the South, and shared their home-cooked variants with friends whose roots connect to China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Boiled peanuts seem more obvious than roasted, when you consider that they’re a legume, like beans, and boiled beans are perhaps the most globally widespread cooking staple. They begin with raw peanuts dried in their shells, like dried beans sold in their pods. (Yakima’s Alvarez Organic Farms sells raw, fresh-out-of-the-ground peanuts at farmers markets in early fall; at the Columbia City Farmers Market, that small supply draws quite a crowd.) I prefer to pop them out of their shells to eat like edamame, but the shells are edible (and about 60% insoluble fiber).
Shelton Stile eats those shells, and says he always has. He moved to the Seattle area from Sanford, Florida, in 2017, and started selling his South2West peanuts in 2018 at the farmers market in Concrete, Skagit County, scaling up to four locations last year. Instagram is the best source for his current schedule, as dates and times fluctuate; he also ships vacuum-packed, frozen boiled peanuts (south2westboiledpeanuts.com).
Stile’s business partner, Daniel Lewis III, says that in his experience, about 40% of their customers have never tasted boiled peanuts before. Stile explains that he has made a few recipe adjustments to adapt it to the Seattle palate — much less salt, a little less cooking, for a slightly firmer peanut — and said that now when he eats the peanuts he grew up on, “It’s kind of sad. They seem really salty, and a little mushy, you know?”
The team is planning a host of new flavors to roll out in 2021 — basically, if you’ve ever seen it on a chip bag, it’s coming to boiled peanuts. The salted “Rite Trite” matches my simple Tidewater memories, but his smoky-sweet teriyaki was downright dreamy.
Alison Odowski, co-owner of Good Day Donuts in White Center, grew up eating Cajun-spiced boiled peanuts from roadside stands in the Tampa area, and they’ve been a staple at her shop since it opened in 2018. Her version is richly seasoned with bay, salt and “maybe some garlic,” and pressure-cooked to perfect creaminess. Odowski says they’re even more popular with vegans than they are with transplanted Southerners. (They also offer exceptional vegan raised doughnuts on Thursdays and Sundays.)
April Dickinson makes her version at home. A lifelong Washingtonian and zero-waster mom of two, Dickinson was delighted to find everything for her zhǔ huāshēng (a literal translation of boiled peanuts) in the bulk department. Her mom, Han Yujung, was born in Taiwan (though her family is from China’s Liaoning province), and says boiled peanuts were a common street snack, and she doesn’t even remember how she learned to make them.
They’re so simple that a formal recipe almost feels like overkill; consider the proportions of salt and spice as something to customize to your own palate. Of all the seasonings I’ve now tasted with boiled peanuts, this Taiwanese star anise might be my favorite.
Zhǔ huāshēng (boiled peanuts)
3 cups (6 ounces) raw peanuts in shells
2½ teaspoons salt
3 whole star anise
1. Rinse peanuts thoroughly. In a medium bowl, cover the peanuts with water, and place a plate on top of the peanuts to submerge them. Soak for 30 minutes, and drain.
2. Pinch the pointy end of each peanut to gently split the shell, so the seasoning will saturate peanuts while cooking. Place peanuts in a medium pot. Add 6 cups water, salt and star anise. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to maintain a low boil for 90 minutes.
3. With a slotted spoon, remove one and let it cool enough to handle, then taste for doneness. The goal is like a fully cooked kidney bean: soft without being mushy. Continue cooking in 5-minute increments if necessary. Serve warm.
— Recipe courtesy April Dickinson