“Virginia” peanut soup, traditionally made with cream, is not something I grew up eating or knowing about. If I did eat it at an event somewhere down the line while growing up in Richmond, Virginia, it didn’t register. Frankly, I’m pretty sure it didn’t become the soup featured so prominently on the menus of high end restaurants throughout Virginia and beyond until the past several decades.
Once I did finally try it at the Jefferson Hotel’s Lemaire restaurant in the early 90s, I was smitten! Definitely decadent, it wasn’t the kind of soup I would make at home, but for special meals out, if it was on the menu, I would order it. Often I would even choose it above my well loved she crab soup, which in my memory was a much more traditional soup course on refined southern menus.
The peanut is most likely native to Peru and Brazil and was brought to America through the slave trade via West Africa. Its high protein content and low cost made it a dietary staple for slaves on the long trans Atlantic journey from West Africa to America. Although peanut soup is featured on the current menu at Colonial Williamsburg’s Kings Tavern, it is unlikely that it was actually consumed by the colonists during this time period.
As I am both dairy challenged (and it’s too easy to forget this when cooking and mixing stuff together) and always looking for healthier ways to prepare favorite dishes, I recently made a version of the Colonial Williamsburg recipe for peanut soup where I substituted coconut milk for the cream. The use of the coconut milk and lime gave the dish more of a West African/Asian flair.
(For more peanut history than you may want to know, I’ve written more after the recipe.)
Recipe for Virginia Peanut Soup with Coconut Milk
- 2 T unsalted butter
- 2 celery ribs, chopped
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup creamy, natural peanut butter
- Pinch cayenne pepper
- 2 cups of chicken broth (I used organic, low-salt)
- (1) 13 oz can of unsweetened regular or reduced-fat coconut milk (I used whole fat coconut milk this first time out)
- 1 teaspoon grey sea salt
- 3 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice
- Lime wedge and chopped salted peanuts, for garnish (optional)
Melt the butter in a soup pot over medium heat and add celery and onion. Cook for 6 – 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables have softened. Mix one cup of chicken broth with flour, peanut butter, and a pinch of cayenne pepper, and then transfer to a blender. Add remaining chicken broth and puree until smooth. Return the mixture to the pot. Addcoconut milk and the salt. Increase the heat to medium-high, bringing just to a boil. Stir in fresh lime juice and adjust seasoning. Serve immediately garnished with lime slice and chopped salted peanuts. Makes 4 servings.
The peanut in history
Thomas Jefferson, peanut farmer
Thomas Jefferson’s role as “Virginia’s first foodie” understandably is overshadowed by his other accomplishments. From grapes for wine making, to specialized lettuces and vegetables and legumes, Jefferson farmed many things in his terraced gardens at Monticello, including the peanut. The contents of his gardens were influenced by his travels, immense curiosity, and last but not least, the influx of new traditions and crops from West Africa that came with slavery. Although no recipes using the peanut from Monticello survive, an okra soup recipe, made from another then rare crop from West Africa, was left by Jefferson’s daughter, Martha.
George Washington Carver, the peanut and botany
It wasn’t until several decades after the Civil War that the peanut became one of the leading crops in America. In the early 1900s George Washington Carver’s work led to the peanut’s widespread cultivation that ultimately freed the South from its dependance on cotton.
The botanist from Missouri discovered that peanut cultivation was good for depleted soil. He also found many derivative uses for the peanut, including cheese, flour, dye, plastics, and wood stains. Peanut butter was first introduced at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904.
The two kinds of peanuts cultivated in the United States today are the “Runner,” which is grown mainly in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Texas and Oklahoma, and the “Virginia,” which is grown in southeastern Virginia into northeastern North Carolina. Virginia peanuts are distinct for their larger kernels and milder taste.
If you ever want to try authentic Virginia peanuts, my favorite kind is Hubs.