Against nature is what it was: fresh peanuts grown in southern New Jersey and for sale in our local farmers market.
“I didn’t know peanuts would grow this far north,” said I.
“Neither did we,” said the woman behind the table.
It was a lark — and how nice it is that such hard-working people can still indulge in a bit of horticultural whimsy.
Now, anyone who has bought fresh (or “green” as they are called) peanuts from a real peanut-growing state such as Georgia will know that when they’re fully mature they are usually boiled for a good couple of hours — much less than that and they can be chalky, I am told. But these were younger, less plump specimens and were firm-tender after only about 25 minutes or half an hour in salty boiling water seasoned with thyme, a whole clove of garlic and a dried chipotle pepper.
What struck this Northerner was how peanutty they tasted.
I’d always assumed that much of that irresistible aroma and flavor was a result of roasting or frying. But no, the flavor is built in: Even boiled, they’re delicious and unmistakable. It also struck me that these are noble beans (as we all learned in grade school, they’re not nuts at all). They deserve to be used not only as a snack but as an element of dinner, as they are in many cuisines around the world.
I could have adapted one of those traditional peanut recipes, but I thought it would be more fun to do something a little more unexpected, because the peanuts themselves had been such a surprise.
At the same market, I bought a couple of biggish Moulard duck legs, which made me think of southwestern France, where Moulards are raised in great numbers for foie gras. And that got me to wondering whether a faux cassoulet, using peanuts instead of regular beans, would be a good idea. I couldn’t see anything wrong with it except that, if used in the quantity that beans are in the traditional dish, the peanuts would be cloying. That was easily dealt with by using more vegetables and fewer peanuts.
I cooked two things a couple of days in advance: the duck and the peanuts. The peanuts I boiled as described above, and cooled them in their cooking liquid before shelling them. With the duck legs (previously refrigerated overnight rubbed with salt, pepper and thyme), I made a sort of confit, using Paula Wolfert’s approach of vacuum-sealing the seasoned duck in a plastic bag with some duck fat and cooking it in a water bath at approximately 180 degrees for five hours (Ms. Wolfert specifies even longer cooking, but for this purpose five hours was fine).
I also could have braised the legs, which would have saved time but wouldn’t have seemed right in a dish even remotely akin to cassoulet. Either method yields tender duck and good juices (for the confit, those accumulate in the bag).
From there, assembly took little effort. I reheated and crisped the duck, skin side down, in a covered skillet over fairly low heat. While that was happening, I briefly sauteed a small onion, a small leek, a carrot, half a rib of celery, a small red pepper, all diced, and a smidgen of minced garlic in duck fat, seasoning it with salt, pepper and thyme.
When the vegetables had just started to color I added the duck juices and an equal amount of chicken stock (vegetable broth would have been fine, too), along with a generous tablespoon of tomato sauce (a little squirt of tomato paste would work). This cooked at a barely bubbling temperature until the vegetables were crisp-tender, then I added about a cup of cooked peanuts and nestled the pair of duck legs (each cut in two at the joint) into the mixture. After a few more minutes, everything had come together nicely; I checked for seasoning and added salt before serving, with grilled bread on the side.
To think of this as a cassoulet would require a vivid imagination; after the initial idea, the dish went another way altogether. The proportion of beans to vegetables was entirely different, and the duck was only briefly in contact with the rest of the ingredients. But the duck juices made up for the lack of melding time, and the higher vegetable quotient made this seem a lot lighter and fresher-tasting than genuine cassoulet.
But, of course, the peanuts were the revelation: They seemed at home with the sweetness of the carrot, onion and leek, and even with all that competition from the duck and the vegetables their flavor was at the forefront.
What next, I wonder. Boston baked peanuts? Hmmm. . . .
Schneider’s Cooking Off the Cuff blogposts appear Fridays in All We Can Eat. Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/TimetoCook.