Cotton and Peanuts (Recipe: Parched Peanuts)
In the early 1900s, Alabama was a major cotton producer. Cotton mills, spread throughout small towns, converted cotton bolls to fabric and they were the epicenter of the town’s economy. Alabama was centrally located in the Cotton Belt and was called the Cotton State. Then in 1910, an event occurred that shaped the landscape of Alabama and changed the lives of many. Mr. Boll Weevil made an appearance….all the way from Mexico. The 1910 to 1915 Alabama cotton crops were destroyed by the pesky boll weevil. Families and towns were devastated.
As if a prayer had been answered, Dr. George Washington Carver published in 1916 “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption.” Not only did the publication teach farmers different ways of using the crop as food both for humans and livestock, it explained the benefit of crop rotation and how the peanut replenished the soil. Dr. Carver and his wisdom concerning peanuts, saved the economy of the South.
Peanuts are still plentiful throughout the South. As soon as the season is right for me to get my hands on some green peanuts, I’ll teach you how to boil them properly. For now, we can still find dry peanuts at roadside produce stands. Dry peanuts are good for eating raw and parching. “Parching?”, you ask in a quizzical and somewhat skeptical tone. Yep. Parching. We parch peanuts. You may know them by another name: roasted.
Roasting became a verb in my world only in fairly recent history. Growing up, roast was a noun. We ate roasts but we didn’t roast things in the oven. We baked, broiled or just plain ol’ cooked them. We didn’t even roast roasts. Some vintage Southern cook books give instructions on roasting. However, for some unknown reason, my family never got the memo that roast is a verb and not just a noun. Cooking peanuts in the oven was called parching .
Parched peanuts in the shell were a favorite throughout the South. People could conveniently carry them in their pockets for snacks throughout the day. School children carried them in their lunches. They were an absolute necessity to get through watching a good SEC football game.
Don’t expect parched peanuts to taste the same as commercially roasted peanuts. The difference is about as stark as fresh salmon versus canned salmon. While commercially roasted peanuts have a richer flavor than raw, parching them takes them to a whole new dimension of deep peanut taste.
There’s no science to parching peanuts. Too many variables affect the cooking time. Different ovens will produce different cooking times. The moisture content of the peanuts is a big variable. Of course, individual taste preferences must be taken into account, also. The cooking time can be anywhere from 20 minutes to 50 minutes in a 350 degree oven. I wouldn’t recommend cooking the peanuts on a higher temperature because once they start heating up good, they can cook very fast and scorch easily. There’s not many kitchen disasters worse than a scorched peanut. Not only does the smell seem to last for days, you can’t hardly get the taste out of your mouth. Sometimes we just can’t listen to our nose when it’s trying to tell us the peanuts are scorched. We have to taste them in spite of ourselves.
Place unshelled dried peanuts in a single layer on a shallow baking pan in a 350 degree oven. Test the peanuts periodically for doneness which means you shell one and eat the meat. That’s the only way to test it. The amount of cooking time may vary batch to batch. There’s just no way to get around testing the peanuts. After you shell the tester peanut, if the meat isn’t hot enough to burn your little fingers, it’s not done. You’ll need to keep testing until one tastes right to you. This batch took me 50 minutes. It usually doesn’t take that long which means these peanuts had a good bit of moisture in them.
They will continue to cook a little from residual heat after you’ve taken them out of the oven. They need to cool before you get really serious about eating a bunch of them. Those little suckers hold heat and will burn the stew out of your mouth.
Y’all come see us!