Whew. I almost forgot: March is National Peanut Month.
If it weren't for George Washington Carver, we wouldn't have a peanut month; in fact, we probably wouldn't have a peanut industry in the United States.
Peanuts originated in South America, where Spanish and Portuguese explorers discovered these legumes and brought them on trade voyages to Africa. With favorable climate conditions, peanuts grew well in Africa and became important in many local cuisines, and so they came back across the ocean to North America with the slave trade.
In the 19th century, Dr. Carver, an agricultural chemist, suggested that farmers in the South plant peanuts to replace their cotton fields that were destroyed by the boll weevil infestation following the Civil War. He invented more than 300 uses for peanuts, including peanut butter, cooking oil, margarine, peanut sausage and peanut punch, as well as linoleum, laxatives, scalp pomade and vanishing cream.
Today, in addition to the US, the leading producers of peanuts are India, China, Nigeria and Indonesia. And the cuisines of those countries reflect the peanut's popularity in recipes for chutney, cookies, stew and gado-gado.
Peanuts, which are more closely related to lentils than to nuts, are packed with heart-healthy monosaturated fats, as well as vitamin E, niacin and manganese. They are high in antioxidants, too. Peanuts do turn rancid if not stored properly. Once shelled, they should be kept in airtight containers in the refrigerator or freezer.
Baseball season opens on Monday, so stock up on peanuts and Cracker Jacks, and root root root for the home team — which, though I live in Red Sox Nation, in my family means the New York Yankees.
Oh, I can hear the groans from the peanut gallery ....
Tofu with peanut sauce
When our World Cuisines Cooking Group "traveled" to Indonesia, this main course salad, adapted slightly from Savoring Southeast Asia, was a big hit. Serves 8.
Vegetable oil, for deep frying (we used rice bran oil)
1 lb extra-firm tofu
2 cups total of roughly chopped lettuce, tomato and/or cucumber
For the peanut sauce:
4 serrano chiles, seeded and chopped
2 shallots, quartered
2 cloves garlic
1/4 tsp salt
4 Tbsp brown sugar
2/3 cup tamarind water
2 Tbsp sweet soy (kecap manis)
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
8 Tbsp unsalted dry roasted peanuts, crushed
6-8 Tbsp water
1 English cucumber, finely shredded
1 carrot, finely shredded
Pour 2 inches of oil in a wok and heat. Meanwhile, pat the tofu dry, and cut into several large rectangles. When the oil is hot, lower the tofu, one piece at a time, into the oil, and deep fry, turning once, until golden brown, 4-5 minutes. Using a bamboo skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer the tofu to paper towels to drain. Repeat until all cooked, then cut into 1-inch cubes and set aside.
To make the sauce, in a blender combine chiles, shallot, garlic and salt, and blend to a paste. Add a tiny bit of water if necessary. Add the brown sugar, tamarind water, kecap manis, lemon juice, and 2 Tbsp of peanuts, and process to a coarse paste. Transfer to a bowl and stir in remaining peanuts, plus water as needed to dilute to the consistency of light cream. Taste and adjust seasonings.
To assemble, scatter lettuce/tomato/cucumber on a platter, top with grated cucumber and carrot, then the tofu, and top with peanut sauce. Serve at room temperature.
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