Nicole Spiridakis lives in San Francisco and writes about food, travel and her native state on her cooking blog, cucinanicolina.com. When she's not in her (tiny) kitchen working on a new dish, she writes a column about apartment living for the San Francisco Chronicle's Home and Garden section.
My favorite post-run snack is a banana smeared with peanut butter. Just banana, just peanut butter. Occasionally I'll swap in an apple, but the peanut butter is what I'm really after — and I prefer it very cold and straight from fridge to fruit to mouth. Actually, sometimes I'll just skip the fruit altogether and go right to the jar; peanut butter licked from a spoon is one of my guilty pleasures.
When some peanut butter-containing products were recalled earlier this year, I was sad — could my beloved peanut butter be the source of such worry? Fortunately, with a bit of research (and a modicum of effort) it was easy for me to still indulge in my near-daily treat.
Peanut butter seems quintessentially American, though peanuts actually originated in South America and were later brought to Africa by Spanish and Portuguese explorers and put to good use there. Most of us probably grew up on peanut butter sandwiches, mostly with jam, sometimes with honey, maybe just plain. If I tallied up the amount of peanut butter I ate as a kid — always Jif, always creamy — I'd probably come up with pounds and pounds of peanuts consumed over my lifetime.
A spoonful of peanut butter is full of protein, but it's also full of memories — my dad's day-old pancakes topped with a bit of peanut butter and strawberry jam, eaten on the deck in summer under the walnut tree. I horrified my family members with it: pouring myself a glass of milk, folding over a piece of bread with peanut butter to make a sort of half-sandwich, then dunking — cookielike and delicious.
I gulped it down with lukewarm water in between school and soccer practice for a kick of energy. I stole swipes of my brother's favorite chocolate peanut butter ice cream, which I never ordered myself but always wished I had. Peanut butter is silky-smooth (or crunchy, if you prefer) comfort, familiarity — and childhood. And it tastes good, too.
Peanut butter is also that elusive combination of the sweet-salty, the search for which I swear I'd happily undertake for the rest of my life if it resulted in such delicacies as peanut butter cookies with a dusting of sea salt or tofu swathed in a citrus-laced, peanuty sauce. It's amenable to being swirled into stews or even soups, slicked on noodles, tucked into cupcakes topped with a cap of bittersweet chocolate. It's also rich in vitamin E, niacin, folate, protein, manganese and antioxidants. Eating peanut butter always makes me feel quite virtuous, even when I incorporate it into those more decadent baked goods.
Though it's true that I rarely eat a proper PB&J sandwich these days, peanut butter still is an enduring staple in my diet.
Every so often, I'll forgo my standard morning bowl of oats for a piece of whole wheat toast laden liberally with peanut butter and just a tiny smear of blackberry jam. Or I will whip up a chocolate cake to be frosted with a peanut-butter-chocolate icing. (I must admit, I love the combination of peanut butter and chocolate above almost all else.)
In recent years I've moved on to buying mostly the organic, "all-natural" stuff that is usually just peanuts and salt, and lately I've moved even further away from the oversweetened processed brand of my youth to making it myself.
I was prompted to go beyond the jar because of this year's peanut butter product recall. My standard jarred brand was not affected, but I was intrigued by the idea of making peanut butter from scratch anyway. I'd never tried it, and I'm usually up for a challenge.
The first thing I realized when making my own peanut butter is that it's so easy — almost laughably so — and tastes just as good as the purchased stuff. Pretty much all you have to do is put peanuts in a food processor with a pinch of salt and give them a whirl for about five minutes.
The possibilities become endless: Shall I make my peanut butter from salted or unsalted peanuts? With a drip of peanut oil? Perhaps even from honey roasted peanuts?
Essentially, the recipe for about one cup of freshly made peanut butter goes like this: mix 2 cups of unsalted, dry-roasted peanuts with a pinch of salt in the bowl of a food processor. Process the peanuts until they form a thick, smooth paste, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Salt — I'd use sea salt — may be adjusted according to taste, and the recipe is easily doubled or tripled depending on how much you want. If you find your peanut butter is too dry, have 1 teaspoon of peanut oil on hand. Process the nuts to a paste, add half the oil, pulse for another minute, then add oil in small drips until the butter reaches your desired consistency. For crunchy peanut butter, process 1 1/2 cups peanuts and coarsely chop the remaining 1/2 cup peanuts, adding them at the end. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a month.
Making peanut butter from scratch is obviously more time-consuming than simply buying a jar, but it can be more economical, especially if you're buying peanuts from the bulk bin. Other nuts may be substituted — such as walnuts or almonds — or even combined with the peanuts for a more complex flavor. It works just beautifully in all sorts of dishes, savory or sweet.
Some days I might go a little overboard with all this peanut butter consumption: a piece of toast at breakfast, smeared thickly with homemade peanut butter and a bit of honey; baked tofu marinated in a lemony peanut sauce for lunch; a crisp apple spread with peanut butter for an afternoon snack. But it's hard to deny the peanut's powerful pull.
Not to mention, if I'm putting peanut butter in stuff, it deters me from standing in front of the fridge after a run, spoon in hand, devouring every last bit from the jar — banana not required.
This has become my favorite ice cream. It's dark, complex and completely addictive.
Makes 1 pint
1/2 vanilla bean
11 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 3/4 cups half-and-half
3 large eggs
Scant 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
Halve vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape seeds into a 3-quart heavy saucepan. Add chocolate and half-and-half and bring to a boil over moderate heat, whisking. Remove from heat.
Lightly beat eggs with salt in a bowl, then add hot chocolate mixture in a slow stream, whisking. Transfer custard to cleaned saucepan and cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard registers 175 degrees on a candy thermometer, 1 to 5 minutes. Immediately pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a metal bowl. Put bowl in a larger bowl of ice and cold water and cool, stirring occasionally.
Stir in the peanut butter and transfer to an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer's instructions. Put ice cream in an airtight container and freeze until hardened, about 1 hour.
For true peanut butter addicts, you may add even more peanut butter. These would be nice with a bit of melted chocolate on top — either milk or bittersweet — or even a light smear of jam. I like to add a sprinkle of sea salt just before putting in the oven to contrast with the cookies' innate sweetness.
Makes 2 dozen cookies
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup creamy or crunchy peanut butter, plus a few tablespoons
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Sprinkle of sugar or sea salt (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Grease two baking sheets with vegetable oil.
Sift together flour, salt and baking powder and set aside. Cream butter, peanut butter and sugar. Beat in vanilla and egg. Stir in flour mixture, blending well. Shape mixture into 3/4-inch balls and place on greased baking sheets.
Flatten each cookie with the tines of a fork, sprinkle with coarse sugar or sea salt if desired., and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until cookies are lightly browned.
You could serve this with baked tofu or add some chili powder to increase the heat a bit. But as-is, it's a perfect — and packable — lunch that's filling without being too heavy.
Makes 2 servings
1/4 pound pasta such as whole wheat spaghetti or soba noodles
Juice of one lime
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons soy sauce
5 red radishes, thinly sliced
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
1/2 cup peanuts
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 carrot, peeled
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Make the pasta, drain and set aside in a large bowl.
In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, peanut butter, garlic and soy sauce. Whisk well to combine, adding a little water if the sauce is too thick.
Add the sauce to the pasta and mix well to combine, making sure the noodles are well coated. Toss in the radishes, cucumber, peanuts and salt and pepper, and mix well. Using a vegetable peeler, shave the carrot in long ribbons onto the noodles. Stir in the cilantro. Add salt and pepper to taste.