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GARDEN FRESH

The Shell Game : Peanuts and Kids Go Together Like Baseball and Hot Dogs

November 02, 1995|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Peanuts in the shell are childhood. They're baseball games, the circus and elephants at the zoo. Peanuts in the shell are like marshmallows and M&Ms. They don't come from somewhere, they just are . Tell a kid that peanuts grow underground and he'll look at you as though he knew it all along: You really are weird.

Except that peanuts are a great crop for kids to grow. In fact, if you don't have a child on the premises, borrow one for your peanut crop. It helps them understand that each peanut is a seed. Although sowing the seeds takes attention (it's important to keep the skin intact), peanuts practically raise themselves. Oh, you have to weed the patch, but then you can sing silly songs together. And you need to spread straw for mulch, but straw smells good and pulling apart the flakes and laying heaps on the soil is lovely messy work.

When the yellow flowers turn their faces toward the ground, it's time to pull the straw out of the way. That's because the flowers dive head first into the soil, a growth pattern both mysterious and lunatic. Where they land, a cluster of peanuts forms underground. This is usually pretty close to the surface so put the straw mulch back. Peanuts hate crust on their soil.

In the border, the plants are a delight. They're a legume, but even so I was astonished to find they look like clover. Each plant makes a tidy bouquet about a foot and a half tall and a little wider.

Peanuts need full sun. Although sandy soil is best, you can grow peanuts even in clay if you loosen it at least a foot deep and dig in plenty of compost. Peanut plants are drought-tolerant, but they must have ample water after the buds have set and just after the pegs have gone into the soil. Irrigate rather than water from overhead. Stop watering altogether a month after the peg stage.

If you don't want to devote room in the garden to peanuts, at least give yourself and your favorite child the fun of growing peanuts in a pot. The container must be broad enough so the pegs can find a spot to dive: one plant in an eight-inch pot or several in a five-gallon container.

Peanuts are sown in spring when the soil has thoroughly warmed, but you can send for the seeds any time; they stay viable for several years. The one drawback for children who grow peanuts is that plants are slow to gain momentum: No instant gratification here. To reach the point at which the flowers peg takes about 2 1/2 months. After that, it will be a month and a half before it's time to check the shells.

A garden teaches patience, but when the child can reach down into the soil and feel the peanut husks, wow!

Harvesting peanuts is wonderfully gratifying for a child's "I wonder what that looks like--let's pull it up and see!" instinct. You use a big digging fork and ask the child to gently lift up the plant while you loosen the soil, then the kid gets to shake the soil off the peanuts and turn the plants upside down so the sun can dry the shells. Drying takes a couple of weeks. Then the child can help brush off the earth--splendidly dirty work.

The sweet earthy flavor of peanuts lends itself to particular combinations. It's a rare kid who isn't crazy about peanut butter and grape jelly. Although home economics cookbooks from our past offer recipes for sandwiches of peanut butter with figs and raisins or orange marmalade or bananas or pickles or onions or even baked beans, I love peanut butter creamed with honey. In the days when I had a Sunday night production line to make the children's lunches, I discovered that sandwiches filled with creamed peanut butter and honey froze beautifully and tasted as fresh thawed as they did the moment they were fixed.

My great-grandmother loved topping mashed potatoes with chopped peanuts. Odd. But why, then, do I love peanuts sprinkled over baked winter squash? I guess I think peanuts have a greater affinity for flavors that are sweet rather than those that are savory.

A way of combining sweet and savory is in peanut soup. You can thin freshly made peanut butter with chicken or vegetable broth, but in the South, they use a cream sauce base. I love a thin peanut soup started with curry powder toasted in butter, then enriched with sour cream and topped with chopped green onions and red apples.

A great peanut butter icebox cookie is well up there with those made with chocolate chips. Peanut custard pie is as divine as pecan any day. And speaking of creamy, I have to say that my peanut butter cake with scrumptious chocolate-peanut butter frosting puts everyone away.

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