If you spot a handwritten “BOILED P-NUTS” sign, hit the breaks for this roadside snack. They are best eaten hot from a roadside stand. Cajun or regular? Skip those and ask for a scoop of “green.” They are a seasonal treat.
By Marta Madigan
You come across all sorts of delicacies cruising down country roads outside of Orlando, from crab fingers to frog legs, swamp cabbage to gator tail. On a Floridian pioneer’s plate, this local fare occupies an intriguing place, but something soft, salty and wet rates much higher. Hot boiled peanuts.
Boiled peanuts are as Southern as they come. And local purists say green peanuts are so good that even Yankees acquire a taste. While raw dried peanuts bubble year-round in murky brines, farm-fresh green peanuts are available only during the growing season. “We start harvesting them in June all the way through football season,” says Andy Seiler of Seiler Farms. On 500 acres of sandy soil just north of Ocala, this fourth generation of green peanut growers cultivates Valencia and Jumbo Virginia peanuts.
Of the two varieties, the Valencia peanut is smaller, sweeter and more delicate in taste. And green Valencias capture that deliciousness best. At Seiler Farms they hand-pick the plants when they are still green and alive, then quickly wash them, cut off the stems and hand-grade pods good from bad. These unshelled and undried quality peanuts are tops for boiling.
Like a newborn, green peanuts need special care. Unlike their toughened (dried and roasted) siblings, these peanuts are highly perishable. Farmers refrigerate them immediately after pulling them from the dirt. “We keep them at 40 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Seiler, who sells his fresh peanuts to chains like Winn-Dixie, Walmart and Kroger. So don’t look for them in a “dried fruit and nut” aisle in the store; go straight to the fresh produce shelves.
Peanuts belong to the legume family, so technically they aren’t nuts but beans, so boiling makes good sense. When peanuts are green, they don’t require presoaking, and it takes about two hours to cook to al dente perfection.
Dried peanuts are another story. “They are edible, if you are really hungry,” laughs Roger Lott, who grew up with his brother Larry on a small farm in Williston. “Dried peanuts are cheaper, but they don’t have the texture and flavor of green peanuts,” Larry explains. “They need to be soaked for hours to rehydrate, and then they need a longer cooking time to soften.” And perhaps because they lack the subtleness of fresh peanuts, there’s often spicy heat added to the broth.
When the Lott brothers were making pocket money selling boiled peanuts for a dime a cup in the 1950s, no one had even heard of Cajun “goobers.” Their grandfather and their father boiled the Spanish variety in water and salt. Lots of salt. Rock salt, table salt, sea salt, any salt. “All redneck Florida natives prefer just a salted boiled peanut,” Roger says.
The soft, younger peanuts, called “pops,” absorb salt better than mature pods, but these immature little shells are rare. So you could grow your own, or take a drive to Baggs Produce in Sanford.
At this cult-status roadside market, four kinds of boiled peanuts steam from electric metal tubs. If you want to know the difference between “green” and dried, classic and spiced, Baggs might be the best place to try. Next to the traditional, salty flavor; “mild” with just cayenne and “super hot” with onion, cayenne, habanero and jalapeño peppers entice with lingering aromas. Baggs’ green peanuts come from Seiler Farms. “I get 10 bushels [about 400 pounds]a week,” says Keith Baggs, who has run the business since 1955. “About four bushels get boiled, and six we sell fresh.”
Before you pick out a 2-pound bag from the cooler, you can snack on some hot green boiled peanuts for a buck a scoop. Put a shell in your mouth and feel for the seam. Bite it. Pop it open with your teeth. Hands-free, suck up the peanut with all the juice and spit out the little shell. After eating a few of these “pops,” you just may not be able to stop.
Cajun Boiled Peanuts
Makes 2½ pounds
The peanuts only soak up the flavor of the water as they cool, so we recommend cooling the peanuts in the liquid completely (overnight is best) before digging in.
2½ pound raw peanuts
1 small white onion, peeled and cut in half
1 green bell pepper, halved and seeded
2 tablespoons granulated garlic
1 tablespoons red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
2 to 3 jalapeno peppers, fresh or pickled
2 tablespoons rock salt
2 tablespoons spicy crab boil, such as Tony Chachere’s or Zatarain’s
1 lemon, sliced
Combine all ingredients in a large stockpot. Add enough cold water to come about 3 inches above ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce until vigorously simmering. Simmer for 3 hours, or until peanuts are soft. Cool completely. Re-warm before serving, if desired.