Alimentary, My Dear
Don't Eschew Cashews!
October 20, 2009
By Tamia Nelson
Peanuts get the headlines. Almost everyone likes them. (Everyone who doesn't have a peanut allergy, that is.) That's one reason they're included in recipes for everything from gorp to gateau. Another reason? They're inexpensive. And the upshot? In one guise or another — cocktail peanuts, peanuts in the shell, Spanish peanuts, peanut oil — you'll find them on the shelves of every HyperMart and crossroads convenience store. But you won't see them on many school cafeteria menus, where the peanut‑butter‑and‑jelly sandwich, that one‑time lunchroom staple, is now conspicuous by its absence. In fact, some schools have recently declared themselves to be peanut‑free zones. So it's a good thing my classroom days are behind me. Peanut butter was the cornerstone of my school lunches when I was a kid, and that wasn't all. My grandfather would often bring home big brown‑paper bags of peanuts in the shell as a special after‑school or weekend treat. His wife immediately shooed him outside to the picnic table whenever he did, though. My grandmother said she didn't like the smell of roasted peanuts, but I think she just didn't want to have to vacuum up hundreds of bits of shell. In any event, as soon as Gramps settled himself down at the picnic table and opened his brown‑paper parcel, he'd be surrounded by us kids. We found the smell of fresh‑roasted peanuts irresistible. And so did every squirrel in the county.
Later on, when I started earning a little money of my own, I bought large cans of cocktail peanuts for myself. I stashed these under the floorboards in my bedroom, where they were handy for midnight snacks — besides being safe from the prying eyes of my brothers and sisters. I didn't succeed in keeping my stash a secret from the farmhouse mice for long, of course. But at least the mice ate less than my brothers. (The mice had better table manners, too.) By the time I was in my twenties, however, my infatuation with peanuts had begun to wane. Their place was now taken by another nut:
Cashews originated in Brazil, but they're not Brazil nuts. In fact, they're not nuts at all, strictly speaking. (Neither are peanuts, come to that.) But they're a worthy addition to any paddler's pantry just the same. While they're more expensive than peanuts, the difference in cost usually isn't prohibitive. Moreover, cashews' crunchy texture and light, sweet flavor conspire to make them great fun to eat out of hand. And that's how I first ate them — right out of the can. Unlike peanuts, cashews didn't leave me feeling as if I'd swallowed a lead sinker whole. Better yet, the fat‑fueled energy boost that followed a cashew snack was a great pick‑me‑up, on the water or on the trail. In fact, I still carry a plastic bag of cashews in my pocket when I'm kicking around in the backcountry. In other words, good old cranberries and cashews have replaced good old raisins and peanuts (aka gorp) as my preferred snack‑on‑the‑go.
But there's a lot more to cashews than this. They often make their first appearance of the day mixed into my breakfast oatmeal or other hot cereal. Or chopped and stirred into stewed fruit. On rest days in camp, I've even been known to roll up crushed cashews and strawberry jam in hot crêpes, not to mention sprinkling them on pancakes and French toast. Cashew sprinkles are very good with camp ice cream, too.
What about dinner? Done and dusted. Cashews regularly show up in my main meals, tossed into stir‑fries and used as a garnish with freshly caught trout. I've also incorporated them in rasta, rice, and couscous pilafs. Stirred them into skillet pasta with garlic oil. And added them to canned stews for a lightning‑fast one‑pot meal. In short, I've found I can use cashews anywhere I'd use peanuts. And that's not all. Recently, while working up stories on meatless and dairy‑free meals, I stumbled across a unique role for cashews, and it's a natural for backcountry cooks. If, like me, you love creamy pasta sauces and yearn for them in camp, you've probably discovered that you have to fall back on prepackaged mixes after the first couple of days away from the put‑in. Cream — cow cream, that is — doesn't travel well, even if you somehow manage to keep it cold. So it's a prepackaged mix or nothing. Or so I thought. Then I learned of a way to make deliciously creamy pasta in camp, without mixes and without any help from the dairy case at the HyperMart. How, you ask? By making…
Creamy Cashew Sauce
I love fettuccine Alfredo, beef stroganoff (and its meatless counterpart), and macaroni and cheese, but I gave up on them for camp fare long ago. Now they're back on the menu. All it takes is a little easy prep work in the kitchen at home. You'll need a blender or food processor, but you don't have to have a commercial‑grade appliance. I use a coffee‑grinder‑sized food processor, and it works fine. The list of ingredients is wonderfully short, too: one and one‑quarter (1¼) cups of cashews ("raw" or roasted, salted or not — it's your choice) and between one‑half and one (½‑1) cup of water. This will make enough sauce for as many as six servings of pasta — even more if used only as a condiment.
Begin by putting the cashews into a large plastic bag and closing the open end. I reuse the vegetable bags I bring home from the HyperMart, but any reasonably sturdy bag will do, so long as it's dry and clean and roomy.
Next, crush your nuts — don't take this personally, fellas! — with a rolling pin or water‑filled wine bottle, breaking them down into pieces no bigger than pea‑sized.
Now transfer the crushed cashews to the waiting blender or food processor. Pulse the nuts, stopping occasionally to scrape the slurry from the sides of the container and push it back within reach of the blades. Once the nuts have been reduced to a near‑paste, it's time to add water. The picture below shows the consistency of the ground cashews at this stage:
As you can see, the slurry is still granular, but if you've overshot the mark a bit, don't worry. Just carry on, adding a scant half cup of water and blending until the paste has the texture of a thick sauce. You can add more water if you want — up to a full cup — but don't overdo it. After all, you'll be adding water later during cooking, and runny sauce isn't very saucy.
Here's my idea of the optimal consistency:
Taste the sauce at this point, adding more salt if you want. That's it. You're done. Store in a sturdy plastic container with a tight‑fitting lid, one that will withstand the rigors of the trail. I've kept cashew‑cream for a week without refrigeration in cool temperatures, but if it's too warm you'll have less leeway. Of course, you could make a rustic cashew‑cream right in camp. Just pack in whole nuts, crush them using a plastic bag and a suitable rock, and then grind them to a coarse paste with an improvised mortar and pestle before adding water. (Be sure it's clean water!) The resulting cream won't be as smooth as that made in a blender or food processor, but it will be just as delicious.
OK. We've made our cashew‑cream. Now let's get cooking, beginning with…
Hearty Meatless Stroganoff This recipe could be made with fresh beef if you want to go to the trouble of keeping it cool and safe, but I prefer the simplicity of meatless stroganoff. If you do, too, you'll need fresh, dried, or canned mushrooms. Pick the kind you like. I prefer fresh portobellos. Their hearty texture and rich flavor are a good substitute for beef, and their thick caps and stalks (yes, I eat the stalks) hold up well under the rough and tumble of life in a food bag. Pack them in a rigid container and eat them within a week.
Use a skillet if you have one, though a large pot will also work. The good news? This is a one‑skillet (or one‑pot) meal. Clean‑up should be easy. Cut your mushrooms into bite‑sized chunks first. Then sauté a chopped, fresh onion in two to three tablespoons of olive oil. (If you don't have fresh onions, simply stir a small handful of dehydrated chopped onion into the oil.) While the onions are still heating, add the cut‑up mushrooms, covering the skillet and letting the mushrooms cook for a couple of minutes. Now lift the lid and layer dried egg noodles evenly over the mushrooms and onions. (If you're using a pot, make the noodle stratum deeper.) Next, add enough water to just cover the noodles, replace the lid on the skillet, and simmer for eight minutes, or until the noodles are tender. Finally, remove the skillet from the heat and stir in your cashew‑cream sauce, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Enjoy! If you use a 10‑inch skillet or three‑quart pot and add one mushroom per serving, your stroganoff should satisfy four hungry paddlers.
Creamy Cashew Mac and Cheese Pack in a block of Cheddar cheese and a bag of macaroni noodles, as well as your cashew‑cream. In camp, slice thin curls from the cheese while bringing a large pot of water to a boil. Cook the macaroni in the usual way, then remove the pot from the heat and dip out a cup of the pasta water to set aside, being sure to keep it warm. Now drain the rest of the cooking water before adding the shredded cheese and cashew‑cream and stirring in just enough of the set‑aside pasta water to make a thick sauce. Delicious.
Cashew Fettuccine Alfredo You'll need fettuccine and cashew‑cream as well as some grated Parmesan cheese. To simplify packing, break the long strands of fettuccine in half. Once in camp, cook the pasta and drain, remembering to set aside a cup of the cooking water. Now stir in cashew‑cream, adding cooking water as needed to yield the proper texture. Finish the dish off by adding the cheese. (Add more water to maintain a creamy consistency.) Season with salt and pepper to taste. Dinner is served.
Don't be fooled. You might think that cashew‑cream would be too strongly flavored for use as a dairy‑cream substitute. It isn't. The flavor, while not at all dairy‑like, has a subtle, nutty savor all its own. It complements other ingredients rather than overwhelming them. Nor have we exhausted the possibilities. You can drizzle cashew‑cream over satays, stir it into pilaf, and heat it with a bit of cheese to make a fondue, or you can use it like ketchup on burgers, whether beef or mushroom. Try it on pancakes at breakfast, or — if you're an ambitious backcountry baker — use it as a sauce for brownies and pies. Experiment. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
Are you tired of peanuts? Then give cashews a try, instead. They're as delicious as they are nutritious, and they can be used in as many ways as peanuts can. If anything, they're even more versatile. Yes, they do cost a little more, but I think they're worth it. In any case, if you're nuts about nuts but glutted on goober peas, it's time for a change. Take my advice: Don't eschew cashews!
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