The joy of cooking with peanut butter: 6 recipes that show off its versatility

Published April 4 2018
Updated April 4 2018

Peanut butter is my religion. George Washington Carver is my prophet.

I think we can all agree that peanut butter is the most perfect food ever invented. It is the ultimate expression of man’s genius, a spreadable utopia that covers our sins, brings happiness to all and goes as well with jam as it does with jelly.

Though peanut butter is the nectar of the gods, we mortals can enjoy it, too. And it doesn’t have to be in a sandwich. Surrounded by chocolate, it is one of two great tastes that taste great together. It is an excellent choice in a cookie. Few things go as well with apples, and nothing tastes as good on a banana. And if you haven’t had a peanut butter pie, now is the time to try it.

But what about using peanut butter in dishes that are not sweet? Can peanut butter be used in savory dishes, too?

Of course it can. It’s peanut butter. It can do anything.

Instead of my usual three or four dishes for a story, I decided to use peanut butter to make six recipes. (I really like peanut butter. Perhaps I wasn’t clear about that.)

I’ll get to the recipes in a minute, but first I want to talk about the peanut butter that I used. I used the natural peanut butter that has to be stirred the first time you open the jar, not the more familiar, homogenized type. The more popular peanut butters are sweet, and I wanted my dishes to be completely savory.

But if you make them, feel fry to use whichever peanut butter you choose. Nobody will complain, and I mean nobody. It’s peanut butter; it will be fine.

I began with the best version I know of the first dish I ever had to make savory use of peanut butter: Cold Noodles With Chicken and Peanuts. The dish comes from Beijing, where cold noodles are something of an obsession. Unlike some, this recipe is neither too dry nor too oily.

It’s all about balance in cooking, and Chinese cooking in particular. This dish, which is an appetizer, mixes a fairly large amount of noodles with a relatively small amount (but just the right quantity) of sauce: peanut butter, peanut oil, red rice or wine vinegar, soy sauce and water, flavored with a bit of sugar and sesame oil. Add cooked chicken, chopped peanuts, a sprinkling of sesame seeds and an all-important dash of green onions, and you have a savory dish that instantly expands your peanut-butter horizons.

I next turned to hummus, despite loud protests from the peanut (butter) gallery insisting that true hummus can only be made with tahini.

Tahini is made of crushed sesame seeds. Peanut butter is made of crushed peanuts. The flavors are different but complementary. So complementary, in fact, that hummus made with peanut butter tastes every bit as great as hummus made with tahini. A bit of garlic, a hint of cumin and a healthy dose of lemon juice put it absolutely over the top.

The peanut gallery would have concurred, but her mouth was stuffed too full of hummus made with peanut butter.

My next dish brought the peanut back to its roots, so to speak. Though peanuts are apparently native to South America, they are closely related to the Bambara groundnut of West Africa. So they were a natural in an African Sweet Potato Peanut Stew.

This is a hearty, vegetarian stew that masterfully blends the flavors of sweet potatoes, peanut butter and chickpeas, which are also called garbanzo beans. These ingredients are lightly simmered together for hours in a slow cooker, along with cumin and cinnamon — because nothing goes better with sweet potatoes than cumin and cinnamon — and a bit of cayenne pepper for heat.

Green beans are added at the end for the perfect fresh counterpoint that binds the flavors together.

I next turned my attention to Peanut Butter Tofu Stir-Fry because it’s peanut butter tofu stir-fry. Right?

Why more stir-fries are not made with a combination of soy sauce, peanut butter and sesame oil, I do not know. Now that I’ve had it, I can say that it’s a natural.

This version is vegetarian — hence the tofu — but you could easily make it with chicken or pork, or even scallops, as we shall see. All you need is some onion, a yellow pepper for color and flavor, a bit of red cabbage (which may turn unnervingly purple) and a couple of heads of baby bok choy, and you have a delicious Asian treat.

Yes, Asian. The biggest producer of peanuts in the world is China.

I was a little hesitant to make my next dish, but I’m glad I did. The cauliflower part of Cauliflower Lime Curry made perfect sense to me; even before trying it I could imagine the successful blending of cauliflower, curry, coconut milk and peanut butter. These are ingredients that were born to co-exist.

But lime? Where would the lime fit in?

As it turns out, lime is the ingredient that is essential to elevating this dish into the culinary stratosphere. It cuts through the umami headiness of the other flavors and makes them soar. The best part is actually the lime rice that you serve it on. It’s just lime zest mixed into rice, but it is essential. It takes a great dish and makes it even better.

My final dish came from chef Grant Achatz, and his name was the only reason I would make something called Scallops With Snow Peas, Cauliflower and Peanut Panade.

Achatz, of Chicago’s famed Alinea and other restaurants, is often called the best chef in America. So if he says that peanut butter goes on top of scallops, then peanut butter goes on top of scallops.

And boy, does peanut butter ever go on top of scallops. When mixed with crunchy fried bread crumbs, chopped peanuts and a bit of oil flavored with curry, peanut butter brings out the best in scallops. It shows hidden depths; it reveals flavors that are usually masked; it makes scallops more scallopy.

Considering the Grant Achatz pedigree, the dish is not even particularly hard to make. And it is as spectacular as it is unexpected.

Author’s note: Yes, I know that peanut butter was invented not by George Washington Carver but by John Harvey Kellogg, the cereal guy. But Kellogg was a definite weirdo (a little research yields a wealth of bizarre beliefs that do not belong in a family newspaper), and Carver did so much to promote the peanut and other foods. So Carver is still my prophet.