The demand for fresh, raw peanuts in the shell used to come largely from displaced southerners from both the U.S. and Vietnam, where boiled peanuts (or dau phon) are a treasured snack. East of the Mississippi, the annual peanut harvests prompt celebrations similar to Ventura's strawberries and Gilroy's garlic. They haven't been a major crop in California, but with the right amount of water and heat, the plants do well here, and with last year's peanut butter salmonella outbreak, more people are looking for local sources of their favorite legume, or nut, depending on who you ask. The Peanut Institute in Georgia acknowledges its beany heritage but lumps it with walnuts and almonds when ranking it #1 among U.S. favorites. Their main season is autumn, but you can find them in large juicy piles at the markets now.
Raw peanuts in the shell are both soft and crunchy, reminiscent of water chestnuts, but with a hint of bitterness. Cooking mellows their flavor into a more nutty sweetness. Boiling them in the shell in salted water is the most common (and pretty scrumptious) way of eating them. If speed is of the essence, shell them and put the nuts in a hot pan with a little broth or water, replenishing it as it reduces. Season liberally with salt and add chile and lime juice, or a little balsamic vinegar with honey and cinnamon. Raw peanuts also pickle very well both in and out of the shell.
Selecting raw peanuts isn't terribly tricky. Look for unblemished shells, of course. But also give them a little pinch: you should be able to feel the size of the peanut through the soft shell. If the shell squishes, the peanut is too young and won't have a mature nut inside. To shell them for cooking, pinch the seamed end (opposite of the stem end which has a little star pattern) until you pop the shell and the twist slightly. Discard any peanuts that are blackened or molded. Raw peanuts will be in the markets until late November.