Monday, June 17, 2024

Cashews: not just for snacking

The first time I had a chicken curry with cashews, I didn’t expect to like them — I hate nuts in ice cream, for example — and was leery of what the mouthfeel would be after they’d been cooked and simmered.

It was an unexpected and completely delicious revelation, though; swimming in a coconut milk broth with spinach, carrots, onion and chicken, with a touch of fresh basil, chiles and a few spices, the tender crunchiness and slightly sweet, nutty flavor of the cashews was just marvelous.

Come to find out cashews play a big part in vegan diets and are the secret to replacing dairy in a myriad of recipes, from savory and sweet sauces and creams to curries, soups and salad dressings, to cheeses and ice creams, dairy-free fettucine Alfredo and butternut squash soup. cashew butter (recipe below) is delicious, high in protein and healthy fats and easy to make.

I can hear some of you protesting: but they’re so expensive! There’s good reason for that, though.

cashews on the tree
Why are cashews so expensive? Each “fruit” on the cashew tree produces only one nut!

Each cashew fruit — called a drupe — produces only one cashew seed, or nut. It takes two to three months for that to happen. The tree itself is slow-growing too and, depending on the variety, takes three to eight years before the first harvest. To make things even more difficult, the shell around the nut contains a toxic oil — the same as in poison ivy — that causes skin and respiratory irritation. Sorting and processing cashews is hazardous and labor intensive.

And then there’s their popularity: with an impressive array of beneficial effects and nutritional values, international demand exceeds their availability.

Cashews have been shown to help boost the immune system, lower harmful cholesterol, boost HDL and fortify muscles and nerves. They’re full of antioxidants and fiber, unsaturated fats and plant proteins and act as a preventative factor against the development of type 2 diabetes.

The good thing is that just a handful of cashews goes a long way!

I buy one of those tiny cellophane bags of roasted, salted cashews in the mercado to have on hand to throw into that favorite curry, a salad, to make nut butter or just for snacking. (Would it be better to buy raw ones and roast them myself? Probably. We do what we can.)

Creamy Coconut Chicken with Rice

  • 1½ lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, each cut into 2 equal-size pieces
  • ¼ cup coconut, olive or neutral oil (safflower, canola)
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp. minced fresh ginger
  • 1 Tbsp. minced garlic
  • 1½ cups Basmati or short-grain white rice, rinsed until water runs clear
  • 1¾ cups chicken/veggie broth
  • 1 (13.5-ounce) can full-fat coconut milk
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
  • ½ cup roasted cashews, coarsely chopped
  • ½-1 medium white onion, minced
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro
  • 1½ cups chopped bok choy, spinach or other mild green leafy veggie

Heat oven to 375 F (190 C). Drizzle chicken with 1 Tbsp. oil. Season with salt and pepper.

In large Dutch oven, heat 2 Tbsp. oil over medium. Brown chicken, turning halfway, until no longer pink, around 10 minutes. Transfer to paper-towel-lined plate.

Add remaining 1 Tbsp. oil, ginger and garlic to empty pot; cook and stir 30 seconds. Stir in rice to coat with oil.

Add broth, coconut milk, bell pepper, cashews, onions, 1 tsp. salt and ¼ tsp. pepper. Stir to get browned bits from bottom of pot. Arrange chicken on top; bring to a boil over high.

Turn off heat, cover and bake until all liquid is absorbed, rice is tender and chicken is cooked through, 25 minutes. Scatter greens over top of pot; cover and let sit for 10–15 minutes till tender-crisp. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.

cashew butter
Cashew butter: easy to make and very spreadable!

 Easy Roasted Cashew Butter

  • 1 lb. raw cashews (about 3 cups)
  • Salt (optional)

Heat oven to 350 F (177 C). Spread nuts evenly on rimmed baking sheet. Bake until golden and toasted, about 20 minutes, stirring halfway through.

Remove from oven; cool completely.

In a food processor, purée nuts until smooth, scraping sides and bottom as needed (mixture may clump, but will eventually become creamy). Season with salt, if desired.

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to three weeks. Yield: 1¾ cups

Cashew “Whipped Cream”

  • 2 cups whole raw cashews
  • 1 cup apple or white grape juice
  • ½ tsp. vanilla
  • Pinch salt

Rinse cashews in cold water; drain. Place all ingredients in blender or food processor. Pulse until mixture gets creamy and a bit fluffy, 6–8 minutes. Refrigerate at least one hour. Serve atop your favorite dessert.

Cashew Romesco Sauce

Great over grilled chicken and veggies!

  • ¼ cup roasted unsalted cashews
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 jarred roasted red peppers, drained
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • ½ tsp. ground coriander
  • ½ tsp. cumin
  • 1 Tbsp. sherry vinegar, plus more to taste
  • Salt to taste

In food processor, pulse cashews and garlic until finely chopped. Add red peppers, paprika, coriander, cumin, vinegar and ½ tsp. salt; pulse to mix. With motor running, drizzle in oil. Turn off and taste; add more salt and vinegar if necessary. Sauce should be thick but spreadable.

Cashew-Chipotle Sauce

  • 4 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup cashews
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • ½ tsp. cumin
  • ½ cup vegetable/chicken stock
  • 3 whole chipotles in adobo sauce, chopped
  • 1 tsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • Salt and pepper

Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in small saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add cashews and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and cumin and cook another 30 seconds, stirring constantly, until fragrant.

Add stock, chipotles, vinegar and sugar; bring to a simmer. Transfer to blender and process on high speed until smooth, about 2 minutes Season with salt and pepper. Serve atop grilled veggies, chicken or fish or with stuffed poblano peppers.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expatsfeatured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Facebook.

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