In Praise of Cashews

by nomeatbarefeet

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Very often raw cashews are considered the bland, specter of the nut mix; they stare ominously back at you in the bulk section, an expensive price tag hanging below them; but, they were also used as currency by pirate kings in the Caribbean. (Ok, the last one isn’t true). But for any vegan, however, cashews are certainly worth their weight in gold. While you might think the only way to use them is to eat them whole, cashews are surprisingly versatile—especially once they have been blended…

Nutritional nerdery Who would spend 2 hours researching cashews? This guy. Par example: in just 1 oz., which is just about a 1/4 of a cup, you get 155 calories. Even better are the high levels of copper, manganese, tryptophan, magnesium and phosphorus. While cashews contain no cholesterol they are high in good fats—75% is unsaturated—and of the saturated fat 75% contains oleic acid, which is the same monosaturated fat found in olive oil.

So what are these micronutrients and why are they good for you? (The % found in 1 oz. of cashews is marked in bold.)

  • Copper: plays an essential role in the utilization of iron; helps with proper enzymatic reactions and the development of bone and connective tissue; shown to help eliminate free radicals. 37.5% DV
  • Manganese:  beneficial to healthy bone structure, bone metabolism, and helping to create essential enzymes for building bones; a coenzyme that facilitates metabolic processes in the body; helpful in the thyroid function, bone formation, sex hormone function, calcium absorption and immune function (among other things). 28.4% DV
  • Magnesium: helps to balance calcium levels, as well as regulate nerve and muscle tone; has been shown to help with blood pressure and maintain a steady heart rhythm. 25% DV
  • Tryptophan: an essential amonio acid; converted to niacin (B3) in the liver; necessary for the production of serotonin, which helps the body regulate appetite, sleep, and moods. 28.1% DV

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The real magic of the cashew occurs, I believe, once they have been thrown in the blender. Then cashews can be used as a substitute for just about any dairy product including: cream cheese, ricotta, heavy cream, or plain milk. Their lack of a disctinct flavor makes them perfect for taking on the taste of whatever seasoning you put in them. Now, it does help to have a high-speed blender like a Vita-Mix—that was tops on last year’s Christmas list—but if you are lacking in this department you can use the soaking method (longer the better) or the boiling method (10-20 minutes is enough). The goal is to get them soft enough be able to blend them such that the resulting liquid is creamy and devoid of solid pieces of cashews.

“But are cashews really worth so much praise?” I hear you ask. Wait, just let me explain.

When I first became a vegan I had no idea that I would be able to replicate many of the dishes that I had loved, specifically those that used dairy. In fact, not only did I discover that I could sub cashew cream into just about any dish, but very often there was no lose of flavor—serving a stroganoff with cashew cream to a family of omnivores still yield a chorus of happy, monosyllabic responses of contentment. If that weren’t enough, dishes which use cashew cream are no where near as unhealthy as those that use dairy ingredients such as heavy cream or cream cheese. I felt as though I had discovered a magical elixir. Culinarily speaking, I believe cashews are totally worth the praise I am heaping on them.

Of course, like anything else you shouldn’t eat just one of anything for too long. Even eating the same un-diverse set of vegetables everyday can result in deficiencies, but who wants to eat the same thing day-in and day-out anyways?! The point is you probably don’t want to go making cashew cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dishes that use it will tend to be heavy—think fettuccine, stroganoff, or pie—so while it is always a good idea to have a stock of cashew cream setup in the fridge you might want to try and limit yourself to using it only a couple times a week.

You should also only use cashews a couple times a week because they are freakin’ expensive. (This means make a batch that can be used for a couple dishes.) What is interesting is that while cashews are just as costly as almonds they are must more labor intensive. But this lends the questions: why? I will answer with another questions: why do you never see cashews with their shells on? Hmm.

A Bit of Cashew History Well the cashew “nut” comes from the cashew fruit which grows on anacardium occidentale tree. The name “anacardium” actually refers to the shape of the fruit which looks like an inverted heart (ana means “upwards” and cardium means “heart”). The trees were first grown in northeastern Brazil but sometime between 1560 and 1565 they spread to tropical climates across the globe, primarily to Southeast Asia and Africa.

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Strictly speaking the cashew is only a nut in the culinary sense; botanically it is a seed. While some people may be allergic to cashew nuts such allergies are much less frequent than those with nuts. This uncovers the answer behind why we don’t see cashews-in-shell in stores: the shell of a raw cashew nut contain anacardi acid which is similar to the allergenic oil urushiol found in poison ivy and poison sumac. When you properly roast the nut you can destroy the toxin, but any roasting can result in smoke that contains droplets of the toxin which can cause severe, sometimes life-threatening irritation of the lungs. So de-shelling your own cashew nuts might not be such a wise choice, which helps to further explain the higher cost of cashews: to ensure quality cashews are shelled by hand, and very often by some of the poorest people in some of the poorest countries. (For more on the real cost of the cashew trade check out The Guardian’s fascinating interactive article here.)

Basically, cashews are expensive because they require a lot of labor intensive work to get those allergenic shells off. I love cashews. But now I appreciate why they cost as much as they do—a lot of individual human work when into producing the cashew cream I have grown to love. In using cashew cream I have a new appreciation for the human factor that contributed to them being in my cupoboard.

Below I have listed links to some of our favorite recipes that use cashew cream. The best thing to do when making cashew cream is to experiment: add different flavors and seasonings and varying the amount of liquid. The limit to cashew cream’s versatility is the limit of your imagination.

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