Peanut soup is as unpredictable as barbecue or chili, depending on who cooks it and where. A few years ago, we published a recipe for a sweet, exotic variety served at the Rangoon Racket Club in Hollywood, where it is flavored with cream of coconut and served chilled. In country inns of the mid-South, we have tasted peanut soup so luxuriously rich and thickened with cream that it is nearly a meal - or possibly dessert! - all by itself. Other places, like the venerable Surrey House in Surry (no "e"), Va., serve peanut soup as a sprightly appetizer with a pleasant nutty flavor, sweetened by bits of onion, but hardly thicker than chicken broth.
Known to some as "Tuskegee Soup" after the university where George Washington Carver conducted his famous experiments that turned peanuts into everything from tile flooring to peanut butter, peanut soup is a specialty of ham houses and cafes as well as swank restaurants throughout Virginia. It is a dish that can seem sophisticated or plain, and that serves well as the companion for a sandwich at lunch or as the first course of an elaborate dinner. It is especially easy to make; and during the winter months, it can be a handy way to add a course of soothing warmth to any meal.The Southern Kitchen of New Market, Va., is the first place we ever tasted this mostly Southern specialty nearly 20 years ago, and it is still one of the roadside eateries we like best - a casual place catering to locals as well as to families of tourists on their way through the Shenandoah Valley to the Luray Caverns. When you walk into the friendly little cafe on Route 11, there may be no place to hang your coat: All the hooks on the coat rack will be occupied - by hanging country hams for sale. The walls are decorated with deer's heads and old, faded pictures of tourists visiting the Caverns. Placemats are paper, and service, by uniformed waitresses, is speedy and pleasant.
The Southern kitchen is a good place for breakfast: Eggs and a slab of pan-sizzled country ham are a combination hard to resist. Any other time of day, we recommend you start your meal with peanut soup. The Southern Kitchen's version is a luxurious bisque enriched with butter but not thickened with cream, leaving you some appetite to have a meal of ham with raisin sauce, fried chicken or pan-fried trout from the James River. To finish any one of these exemplary western Virginia spreads, have a hefty wedge of apple pie.
Our recipe for peanut soup is based on the kind they serve at the Southern Kitchen: buttery-rich but not creamy. If you want to convert it into a major rib-sticker, stir in a cup of cream or condensed milk at the very end of the cooking process, just before serving. Or, if you want to give it a streak of distinctive luxury, lace each serving with a shot of sherry just before garnishing with peanuts. Now available! Nearly 200 of the most-requested recipes from this column, all in one book, "A Taste of America." It includes Jane and Michael Stern's favorite restaurants, as well as photos from their coast-to-coast eating adventures. Available in paperback, it can be ordered by sending $9.95 plus $1 for postage and handling to Taste of America, in care of the Deseret News, P.O. Box 419150, Kansas City, MO 64141.1991, Jane and Michael Stern
(Universal Press Syndicate)
Virginia Peanut Soup
1/4 cup butter
3/4 cup diced celery
3/4 cup diced onion
6 cups chicken stock or broth
4 teaspoons flour
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
6 tablespoons chopped, salted peanuts as garnish Melt butter in saucepan over low heat. Add celery and onions. Cook until tender but not brown. Stir in chicken broth. Bring to boil for one minute. Strain. Return to saucepan. Cool to room temperature.
Mix flour with just enough cool water to form paste. Stir into broth. Blend in peanut butter. Simmer slowly 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a cup of cream if desired just before removing soup from heat.
Serve hot. Garnish each serving with a tablespoon of chopped salted peanuts.