Every first day of school, I expected two things in my brown-bagged lunch. The first was a note from my mom (yes, even in high school), and the second was a peanut butter sandwich. Luckily, the notes stopped after the first day – sparing me the embarrassment – but I still got a peanut butter sandwich in my lunch for the rest of the year. Like most children in America my school lunch from kindergarten through senior year of high school consisted of a peanut butter sandwich. Aside from the occasional bagel or the even more rare school-bought lunch, I am not exaggerating when I say that I ate a plain peanut butter sandwich every weekday for 13 years. Yes, plain – sans jelly. But I’m not complaining.
On the contrary, I love peanut butter, and I’m not alone. Peanut butter is consumed in more than 90 percent of U.S. households, smeared on slices of toast, paired with apples or celery sticks, and used in classic desserts. Each year Americans eat enough peanut butter to make more than 10 billion sandwiches. But peanut butter has so much more potential. Many other cultures have been using peanuts as a star component of many staple dishes. From Asian noodles coated in peanut sauces to African peanut stews, peanuts have proven themselves to be a worthy ingredient. So why does it get stuck as a humdrum sandwich spread or dip in the country that invented peanut butter? With this notion in mind, and a more mature palate, as well as, a kitchen of my own, I was ready to put the bread away and get cooking.
An important note should be made about my peanut butter, though. As a peanut butter connoisseur for more than 16 years, I only buy all-natural peanut butters. Although they might cost a little more than the heavily commercialized big name brands, it’s worth the cost of paying for more peanuts in your peanut butter rather than hydrogenated vegetable oils, palm oil, or sugar. Not only will this give a better, richer flavor when cooking, but it will also prevent the butter from burning from the added sugars, or your dish becoming greasy from the added oils. That’s why the peanut butters I buy contain only one ingredient: peanuts.
One of my personal favorite peanut butter recipes is for salad dressing. I usually prefer plain lemon juice over goopy dressings, but this thick and pleasant topping is a clear exception. Combining creamy peanut butter with sriracha and soy sauce, this dressing hits all the right senses. It’s salty, creamy, nutty, salty, and spicy. With some grated ginger, the dressing is also refreshing and bright.
This dressing is also the source for one of my new favorite quick dinners. Thickened with some additional peanut butter and tossed with buckwheat soba and veggies, the result turns peanut butter from a familiar spread into a palate-pleasing sauce. And thanks to the wholesome noodles, along with protein-packed edamame and a generous amount of carrots, this bowl is filling and nutritious.
My final peanut butter recipe is a bold one: peanut butter chicken mole. A little edgier than the previous recipes, this dish isn’t for the cowardly. Mole is already a little unconventional for most, using chocolate in a savory sauce. So it seemed natural that peanut butter should be added to the mix as well. Braising chicken drumsticks in a blend of tomatoes, chicken stock, chili powder, cumin, cocoa, and peanut butter results in a seriously flavorful dish. Although the peanut butter may be a bit more subdued next to the strong spice and chocolate flavors, it still adds a distinct nuttiness to the dish, as well as a thicker texture.
Who knew peanut butter could push the boundaries from a zip-locked sandwich baggy to the dinner table? Cooking with peanut butter has now become a regular occurrence for me. If a dish needs a depth in flavor, I add in peanut butter. It also acts as a quick thickening agent for soups, stews, or sauces. Although it may come from a plastic tub, when combined with the right spices it really can be transformed into a sophisticated ingredient. So my fellow Americans, and fellow peanut-butter-loving non-Americans alike, I hope this story inspires you to take your love for peanut butter farther. As for jelly – well, maybe another time.
Thai-Style Peanut Butter Dressing
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon peanut butter
Juice of ½ lime
½ teaspoon freshly grated ginger
¼ teaspoon sriracha
Combine all ingredients in a jar. Close the lid on the jar and shake well until everything is combined. If dressing is too thick, add an additional tablespoon of water.
Buckwheat Soba Noodles in Peanut Sauce with Edamame and Carrot
For the sauce:
1 recipe Thai-Style Peanut Butter Dressing (above)
1 tablespoon peanut butter
For the salad:
8 ounces buckwheat soba noodles
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 cup shelled edamame
1 cup shaved carrots
Whisk together the salad dressing and the additional tablespoon of peanut butter until smooth. Set aside. In a pot, boil water in a sauce pot. Add soba noodles and cook for 2 minutes, or until tender. Immediately drain and rinse with cold water.
In a large sauté pan, heat sesame oil over medium heat. Add garlic. Once garlic is lightly sautéed, add edamame and carrot. Cook for one minute. Add the sauce to the sauté pan with the edamame and carrot. Cook for an additional two minutes or just until the edamame and carrot are cooked through. Add the noodles to the pan and quickly toss to coat the noodles.
Serve immediately topped with toasted, chopped peanuts if desired.
Peanut Butter Chicken Mole
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium white onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 cups crushed canned plum tomatoes
2 cups low sodium chicken broth plus more if necessary
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons Ancho chili powder
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
½ cup peanut butter
1 tablespoon honey
Kosher salt and black pepper
2 pounds chicken drumsticks
1 bay leaf
Flour tortillas or rice, for serving
Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook just until fragrant, about 3 minutes.
Stir in the tomato, chicken broth, espresso, cinnamon, cocoa, cumin, peanut butter, and honey. Whisk until all the ingredients are evenly distributed. Season with kosher salt and black pepper, and bring to a gentle simmer.
Add the chicken, arranging in the pot so they don’t overlap. Add the bay leaf and additional chicken broth if necessary so that the sauce covers the chicken. Cover and reduce heat to low. Let braise for 30 minutes, or until the chicken is fully cooked and tender, and the sauce is thick.
Adjust seasoning to taste and serve either over rice or in a burrito.
Adapted from Peanut Butter & Co.
Photos by Rachel Wisniewski