Sunday, October 16, 2011

Harvest Ingredient 16: Peanuts

Although called a nut, peanuts are actually a legume and belong to the bean family.  They are legumes with a singularly strange growing pattern!  They are native to the Andes and were probably in cultivation as many as 8,000 years ago, with the oldest specimen, wild or otherwise dating to 7800 BC.  They are self-pollinating; after pollination, the produce as number of bright yellow blossoms, the stems on which these blooms occur continues to grow after flowering until they eventually reach the ground, where they then plunge themselves into the soil and continue to develop under ground.  At maturity the whole plant is pulled up with mature "peanuts" on the end these subterranean  stems resembling roots.

There is no evidence that Christopher Columbus and his posse encountered peanuts in the Caribbean; therefore it is assumed that it was Cortez who became the first European to eat them in what is now Mexico.  He encountered a "nut" that the Aztecs called tlacacahuatl which was quickly corrupted into "cacahuatl," which then gave rise to the French "cacahuete" (again, yet another loan word from Nahuatl!).  

Another Moche Pot, this time in the shape of a peanut, Andes.
From this point on, these strange beans quickly made their way around the globe.  They became a very important food crop in Africa, where they called "ground nuts."  They are also a very important crop in China.  How they got there is a subject of debate.  One source says that they were introduced by Portuguese Christian missionaries--which doesn't make a great deal of sense to me, because other places north of China were also over run by the missionaries at the same time, and they don't show any signs of embraced peanut horticulture.  It seems Koreans would have some pretty serious peanut growing culture if the Portuguese had been responsible for their Chinese introduction.  I would posit that they may have been introduced from the Philippines, after all the Spanish introduced them to Manila very soon after their conquest of Mexico.  That would also explain why they spread like wildfire to Indonesia and Malaysia, since the southern most island in the Filipino archipelago is very, very close to the northern most in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Illustrated Peanut Plant

Whatever the answer as to their Chinese migration, China is now the world's largest grower of peanuts, where they do everything from put them into stir-fry or boil them like we do here in the South; they are numerous industrial uses from various parts of the plant as well.  Many people know the legume as the "Spanish Peanut:" which a little like the idea of "Spanish moss"--which is not Spanish and it's not moss--peanuts like wise are not Spanish and they are not nuts.  But it is easy to see why this name would get stuck.  The Spanish are completely responsible for there introduction into Europe, where they quickly spread to Africa.  With their high fat, high protein quality, they also have the distinction of being one of the only truly important food plants to have been taken to every single continent, including green houses in Antarctica--where they are a very important food for the high calorie burn of living and working in such frigid conditions--also they need little prep for consumption.  

Indigenous preparations are quite varied.  In their native Peru, they have long been blended with Aji (local hot pepper), along with other ingredients as desired as a sauce for potatoes.  In fact Potatoes with Spicy Peanut Sauce is one of the world's oldest for both the tuber and the legume. The same sauce is often served over roasted rabbit or fried guinea pig (that's right, Guinea Pigs are food in the Andes!).  Peanuts, along with scared popcorn also adorned all manner of ceviches, including the all important Potato Ceviche.  In pre-contact Mexico they were used in a variety of ways including simple roasted in the shell and mixed with honey, candied.  After the Spanish introduced sugar cane, Mexicans were actually some of the first to make peanut brittle.  Peanuts were introduced into the southeast from Africa, but quickly became as Native staple (and it is possible that some southern tribes already had one cultivar of peanut from Mexico).  The southern US is famous for it's boiled peanuts, but native also made soup out of them, made them into nut cakes and flours and they were tucked into various type of cornbread.

Of course we know that in modern times we have the lowly peanut to thank for peanut butter, which has so many uses it dizzying!  Aside from adorning toast and providing a quick sandwich filling--with or without jelly, peanut butter can be used to make bread, cookies, fudge, cakes, frosting, and most often mixed with chocolate--candy.  It also occasionally flavors ice cream.  Another very important peanut product is peanut oil.  Peanut oil makes an ideal medium for deep frying; it has a very high smoking temperature.  For native foods, if great for frying hushpuppies, frybread, cornmeal coated fish, batter cakes and chicaronnes, home fries and home cooked potato chips.  In parts of the world that do not have dairy products available, peanut are often made into nut milk, following in the ancient tradition of making milk out of almonds.  Peanuts have been used to success to help combat world malnutrition.  Peanut tops are used for hay, and lower grade peanut are used in some animals food, such a bird feed.  Peanuts also have a wide range of industrial uses as well; and the very first engines invented by Rudolf Diesel were run on peanut oil.

Peanuts, like other "beans" are also highly nutritious.  They one of the highest vegetable sources of niacin; they are also high in folateCQ 10; as high is fish oil gel supplements.

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