If you think you’ve had the most amazing peanut dish ever, think again. Chef Ian Boden caught our attention with some curious peanut creations at his restaurant, The Shack. He is a 2013 James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef, and his aptly-named 24-seat restaurant in small-town Staunton, Virginia has been featured in Garden & Gun, Esquire, and The Local Palate. We met up with him to find out more about his culinary credentials, and how he’s serving up some mouth-watering peanut dishes.
How did you begin your career as a chef?
I’m not like your average chef who talks about how they grew up cooking at their grandmother’s apron strings. At the same time, food did play an important role in my family. My folks started eating at this restaurant, and they asked the chef if it was cool if their young son came and hung out in the kitchen on a slow night, and he said, “Absolutely not. If he’s going to come, he comes on a Saturday night when we’re in the [thick of it]“. I worked for him all the way through high school. Then he sent me to the New England Culinary Institute. Then from culinary school, I moved to New York and cooked in New York for a good 10 years.
Your nightly menus feature some interesting flavor combinations. How would you define the cuisine at The Shack?
I think defining the cuisine has gotten trickier and trickier. You know, the blanket statement for years was “It’s New American, or New Southern, or Contemporary American.” It’s the dreaded fusion, to be brutally honest. I think all chefs are in the same boat. We’re all using ingredients from all different cultures, incorporating into what we do regionally. We really just don’t fall into a category. Yes, there is Southeast Asian influence on our food. Yes, I am in Appalachia and I cook with Appalachian ingredients. Yes, it is Southern. Yes, I am Jewish, so there’s a lot of Jewish influence and Eastern European influence in my food. You know what I mean? It’s really hard to define.
Peanuts may not be a typical Appalachian ingredient, but they are definitely Southern and Virginian staples. How do you incorporate them into your cooking?
I think the way I incorporate peanuts is pretty atypical. I try to get classic peanut flavors and organize them differently. For instance, I did a take on a molé. A molé bolognese, basically, so I incorporated the idea of an Italian bolognese and a Spanish molé. It’s got this really deep, rich, complex flavor. We finish it with chocolate so it’s really rich. There’s traditionally some kind of nut product in a mole, so instead of adding the nuts to the mole itself, we got peanut flour from Byrd Mill in Southern Virginia, and incorporated that into our pasta. See what I’m saying? I really try to bring in the peanuts from a different aspect of the dish. That’s how I look at ingredients, in general. How can I bring something that you’d expect in there, but bring it in a different way?
A “molégnese” with peanut noodles sounds amazing! How else do you prepare and use peanuts as an ingredient?
I’m a big fan of boiled peanuts. We’ve used them as garnishes and elements, and used them as beans on dishes before. I love doing that. I just got a big batch of green peanuts from the last of the harvest. I always buy raw. If I want to roast them, I roast them. I’m a big fan of doing a shallow fry. I’ll take canola oil, get it super hot in the pan, and throw them in and just toast them as quickly as possible, and then salt them afterwards. It’s probably my favorite straight forward peanut preparation.
You’re also setting new culinary trends by incorporating pickled peanuts in some of your dishes. How did you come up with that concept?
It’s not like a pickle, at all. Ever had ramen with soy pickled mushrooms? It’s the same concept, but applied to a peanut. We’ll boil the peanuts in a mixture of soy and vinegar and ginger and dashi, and stuff like that. Just simmer it until they’re cooked through, so we get some texture. That acid just permeates them. They make a really nice garnish.
But really, pickled peanuts? How would you describe the taste and texture?
It sounds horrible, but it’s sort of like an under-cooked bean. It’s got that texture. You know, when you bite into it, the peanut splits in half. It’s got some give, but it still has some crunch. Flavor wise, there’s a decent amount of sugar in the recipe. It’s really well balanced between sugar, salt, and sweet. We’ve used it on tartars, I’ve made it spicy … You name it. You can do anything with it.
What would you say is probably the most popular peanut dish at the Shack?
A peanut blancmange. Traditionally, you use almonds with it. We reworked it, and I use that as a peanut milk custard now, instead of an almond milk custard. That’s one of my favorite dishes, by far. It’s great in the summer. We get local dairy, local milk and cream, and make it with Virginia peanuts. It’s really delicious.
So would you say that you prefer sweet, or savory recipes with peanuts?
I prefer peanuts in their place. As long as they’re where they’re supposed to be in a dish, flavor wise, then it’s good. I want the peanuts to come through. I’m not one of those people who puts things in dishes just because. I don’t do it just for texture, and I don’t do it just for color. There’s a place in the flavor profile for it. It’s important to me that each ingredient we put in a dish shines. I don’t care if it’s sweet or savory, as long as the peanut shines in its best light.