The sublime joy of cooking with peanut butter

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 breadcrumbs, 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.

Cold Noodles with Chicken and Peanuts

Yield: 6 appetizer servings

1/4 cup water

3 tablespoons peanut butter

3 tablespoons peanut oil

3 tablespoons red rice vinegar or red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

3 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 tablespoon Asian (toasted) sesame oil

1 pound fresh egg noodles, cooked and chilled 2 hours

1 cup cooked, shredded chicken

1/2 cup roasted peanuts, chopped

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

1/4 cup minced green onion or chives

Combine water, peanut butter, peanut oil, vinegar, sugar, soy sauce and sesame oil; blend well and set aside. Place chilled noodles on serving dish or bowl and top with chicken, peanuts, sesame seeds and green onions or chives. Drizzle with dressing and serve.

Per serving: 434 calories; 29 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 23 mg cholesterol; 18 g protein; 29 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 605 mg sodium; 31 mg calcium

Recipe from “Regional Cooking of China,” by Maggie Gin

Peanut Butter Hummus

Yield: 4 servings

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained

3 tablespoons creamy peanut butter, preferably natural

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1 clove garlic, mashed

1/3 cup warm water

1/4 teaspoon salt

Combine chickpeas, peanut butter, lemon juice, olive oil, cumin and garlic in a food processor. Add water and salt, and process until smooth.

Per serving: 227 calories; 11 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 10 g protein; 25 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 7 g fiber; 365 mg sodium; 45 mg calcium

Adapted from Men’s Health

African Sweet Potato-Peanut Stew

Yield: 6 servings

3 cloves garlic

2 cups fresh cilantro leaves and stems

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes

1/2 cup peanut butter (creamy or chunky)

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup water

3 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed

1 (15.5-ounce) can chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans)

1/2 pound green beans, trimmed

1. In blender or food processor, blend garlic, cilantro, tomatoes with their juice, peanut butter, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and salt until puréed. Pour into a slow cooker and stir in water. Add sweet potatoes and chickpeas; stir to combine. Cover and cook as manufacturer directs on low setting for 8 to 10 hours or on high for 4 to 5 hours, until potatoes are very tender.

2. About 10 minutes before sweet potatoes are done, pour just enough water to cover green beans into a skillet or pot; add a pinch or two of salt if desired. Heat to a boil and add the green beans; cook until crisp-tender, about 4 to 5 minutes. Drain, and stir into the sweet potato mixture before serving.

Per serving: 370 calories; 13 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 14 g protein; 54 g carbohydrate; 13 g sugar; 12 g fiber; 653 mg sodium; 125 mg calcium

Adapted from

Peanut Butter-Tofu Stir Fry

Yield: 4 servings

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

1 pound tofu, drained, cut into cubes

Cornstarch, for tossing tofu

1 yellow onion, sliced

1 yellow bell pepper, sliced

1/4 head red cabbage, thinly sliced

2 heads baby bok choy, roughly chopped

1/4 cup peanut butter

3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Toss cubed tofu in cornstarch to lightly coat. Cook tofu until golden and crispy, about 5 minutes, then transfer to a plate.

2. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in skillet and add onion, pepper and cabbage. Cook until soft, 6 to 8 minutes. Add bok choy and cook until wilted but still crisp-tender, 2 minutes. Return tofu to skillet.

3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together peanut butter, soy sauce and sesame oil. Pour into skillet until completely coated.

Per serving: 384 calories; 28 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 21 g protein; 21 g carbohydrate; 8 g sugar; 7 g fiber; 1,004 mg sodium; 687 mg calcium

Recipe from

Cauliflower-Lime Curry

Yield: 4 servings

1 cup uncooked basmati rice

2 limes

1 can light coconut milk, divided

1 medium onion

1 teaspoon curry powder


1/4 cup chunky peanut butter

1/4 cup water

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets

1 (15.5-ounce) can chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans)

1. Prepare rice according to directions. Finely grate lime peels into a small bowl. Squeeze 2 tablespoons lime juice into another small bowl.

2. In a 5- to 6-quart pot, heat 1/2 cup of the coconut milk on medium-high until bubbling. Add onion, curry powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook 5 to 6 minutes or until pot is almost dry and onions begin to soften, stirring frequently.

3. Into pot with onion, whisk peanut butter, water and remaining coconut milk. Heat to boiling on high. Reduce heat to medium. Add cauliflower and chickpeas; cover and cook 10 minutes or until cauliflower is tender, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Stir in reserved lime juice and 1/4 teaspoon salt.

4. When rice is cooked, fluff with fork; gently fold in reserved lime zest. Serve curry with rice.

Per serving: 489 calories; 14 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 18 g protein; 78 g carbohydrate; 13 g sugar; 12 g fiber; 341 mg sodium; 304 mg calcium

Recipe from

Scallops with Snow Peas, Cauliflower and Peanut Panade

Yield: 4 servings

2 teaspoons madras curry powder

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil, divided

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Salt and pepper

1/2 pound cauliflower florets

4 ounces snow peas

11/2 tablespoons salted peanuts, coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons creamy peanut butter

2 tablespoons dry bread crumbs

16 large sea scallops

Cilantro sprigs

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. In a small bowl, stir the curry powder into 1/4 cup of the oil and let stand for 15 minutes. Let the spices settle, then pour the oil into another small bowl, stopping before you reach the solids. Whisk the lime juice into the curry oil and season this vinaigrette with salt and pepper.

2. In a small baking dish, toss the cauliflower with 2 tablespoons of the oil and season with salt. Roast on the top rack of the oven, stirring once, until the cauliflower is tender and lightly browned in spots, about 18 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the snow peas and cook for 1 minute, until crisp-tender and bright green. Drain, cool under water and pat dry.

4. In a skillet, toast the bread crumbs in 1 tablespoon of the oil until golden, 1 minute. Transfer the bread crumbs to a small bowl and let cool. Stir in the peanuts and peanut butter and season this panade with salt.

5. Preheat the broiler. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large, ovenproof skillet until nearly smoking. Season the scallops with salt and pepper, add them to the pan and cook over high heat until well-browned and crusty on the bottom, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip the scallops and continue to cook 1 minute while you spoon a dollop of the peanut panade onto each one. Broil for 10 seconds, until the panade is heated through.

6. Transfer the scallops to plates and arrange the cauliflower and snow peas around them. Drizzle the curry vinaigrette all around, garnish with cilantro sprigs, and serve.

Per serving: 454 calories; 40 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 12 mg cholesterol; 13 g protein; 14 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 361 mg sodium; 54 mg calcium

Adapted from a recipe by Grant Achatz

About the Author