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NUTTIN' BETTER THAN PEANUT BUTTER FOR VARIETY

For those who have not cruised the peanut butter shelves in the supermarket for some time, the present array of choices can be mind-boggling. Now you can get creamy, crunchy, regular, natural, low-sodium, unsalted and reduced-fat varieties.

"Regular" is peanut butter solids and peanut oil emulsified with hydrogenated vegetable oil, usually with a sweetener. "Natural" is just ground peanuts and sometimes salt.Peanut butter is thought to have been invented by a physician who touted it as a health food at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. According to the Peanut Advisory Board, a trade group in Tifton, Ga., half of this country's annual peanut crop is now emulsified and put into jars, and by the time an American child has graduated from high school, he or she will have consumed, on average, 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Peanut butters are evaluated in the September issue of Consumer Reports. Why were Jif, Peter Pan, Skippy and Arrowhead Mills judged best in the "creamy" category? The magazine says it is because the testers, trained by sensory experts, were able to detect a variety of nuances in those peanut butters that the untrained person might miss. The testers were taught to recognize raw or burnt peanut flavor, stale oil and grittiness and to identify desirable sweetness and peanut flavor (and perhaps to plead for grape jelly).

The crunchy peanut butters were led by Jif, Skippy, Peter Pan, Reese's and organic Arrowhead Mills and Laura Scudder's. The testers were not impressed with reduced-fat brands, which had the same number of calories as the regular variety. They were described as gritty or excessively sweet.

A judicious amount of peanut butter is a terrific cooking ingredient. It blends ingredients, thickens and adds a deep essence of peanut flavor. Southerners know this well. The traditional peanut soup of Virginia - like a cream soup but without cream - appears often in Georgia, too.

Peanut sauces wend through almost every African cuisine. And the secret ingredient in cold sesame noodles should come as no surprise; the Chinese were growing peanuts hundreds of years before the United States was born.

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Recipes

OLD DOMINION PEANUT SOUP

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup chopped tender celery ribs

5 to 6 cups vegetable or chicken broth

1 cup creamy peanut butter, preferably sugar-free

1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup chopped celery leaves or fresh herbs like chervil, coriander or chives

Low-fat yogurt (optional).

In a large, heavy pan, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Stir in the chopped onion, garlic and celery. Cook until softened, about 7 minutes.

Add 4 cups of the stock and, stirring, bring to a simmer.

In a medium bowl, mix the peanut butter and 1 cup of stock together with a whisk, until smooth. Gradually add to soup.

Add 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes and, stirring frequently, simmer the soup for about 15 minutes, until it is rich and thick.

Puree soup in a food processor or with an immersion blender. If too thick, add up to 1 cup of stock. Adjust the seasoning with red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.

To serve hot: transfer to soup bowls and shower each portion with herbs. To serve cold: cool, then cover and chill. When ready to serve, top with a spoonful of yogurt, if desired, and sprinkle with the celery leaves or herbs.

Yield: 8 servings.

- Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 230 calories, 20 grams fat, 105 milligrams cholesterol, 455 milligrams sodium, 10 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrate.

COLD SESAME NOODLES

1/2 pound Chinese egg noodles, vermicelli or angel hair pasta

Dressing:

2 scallions, trimmed and chopped, including green

1/3 cup vegetable or chicken broth

1/4 cup smooth peanut butter, preferably sugar- and salt-free

1/4 cup cider vinegar or rice wine vinegar

1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce

2 teaspoons dark (roasted) sesame oil

And some or all of the following:

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into small pieces

1 cup sliced red radishes

1 bunch scallions, trimmed and cut in thin rounds, including most of the green

1 cup bean sprouts

1 carrot, shredded

1 cup snow peas

1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh coriander

1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the noodles and boil for 3 to 4 minutes, until tender. Drain in a colander, then cool under running cold water. Shake noodles dry and transfer to a large, shallow bowl.

Blend all the dressing ingredients in a blender or food pro-ces-sor. Pour over the noodles, turn-ing until completely mixed.

Add any or all of the remaining ingredients, mix well and serve. Or cover and chill and mix in the additions right before serving.

Yield: 6 servings.

- Approximate nutritional analysis per serving: 285 calories, 11 grams fat, 65 milligrams cholesterol, 780 milligrams sodium, 13 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrate.