Cashews (Recipe: Muhammara, a pomegranate, pepper and nut spread)
Sometimes you feel like a nut.
Sometimes you don't.
Sometimes you feel like a peanut, walnut, pine nut, or even an almond, but sometimes you feel like a cashew, and nothing else will do.
Even though it's not a nut.
One of the world's healthiest foods, cashews actually are the seeds of the cashew apple, which is the fruit of the cashew tree native to northeastern Brazil. Portuguese traders in the 15th Century carried the seeds to Africa; today, India, Brazil, Mozambique, Tanzania and Nigeria are major producers.
Botanically cashews belong to the same family as mangoes, pistachios -- and poison ivy. Culinarily, they're happy to be called nuts, so that's what I call them.
Cashews are more expensive than other nuts, not because they're more difficult to harvest, but because they have to be roasted twice before they can be eaten.
You never see cashews in their shells in the market. Between the outer and inner shells covering the nut, there's a caustic oil that has to be burned off; the first roasting removes the outer shell and the oil. The kernels are boiled or roasted a second time to remove the inner shell. None of this harms the cashew seed inside, but it's a time-consuming, necessary and costly process.
Buy cashews either raw, or roasted but unsalted, depending on your recipe. Use raw cashews to make cashew milk, peaches and cream pie, cashew chicken, or cashew-carrot payasam. For quinoa with coconut, chocolate cashew brittle, Thai pineapple fried rice, or mango ginger chicken, get roasted cashews. Salted cashews can be extremely salty, so it's best to buy the unsalted, and add salt to recipes if needed.
To avoid rancidity, store cashews in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator for up to six months, or in the freezer for a year.
And go ahead... call them nuts. They won't mind.
Muhammara (pomegranate, pepper and nut spread)
Adapted from Mezze by Beverly LeBlanc, this version of muhammara is a Lebanese twist on the traditional walnut-only spread. Serves 6-8, with pita wedges for dipping.
2 Tbsp walnut pieces
2 Tbsp pine nuts
2 Tbsp cashews
8 oz roasted red pepper strips
1/3 cup olive oil, divided
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 tsp ground cumin
2 Tbsp fresh bread crumbs
1/4 tsp Aleppo pepper, or more to taste
1/2 tsp pomegranate molasses
1-2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
Kosher salt, to taste
1-2 Tbsp pomegranate seeds, for garnish
In a dry nonstick frying pan over medium heat, toast the nuts until they are slightly fragrant and just starting to color. Add to a food processor along with the red pepper strips. In the frying pan, heat the olive oil, and add the onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes, then add the cumin and cook for an additional 2 minutes, until the onion is soft.
Add the onion and any oil in the pan to the food processor, along with the bread crumbs, Aleppo pepper, pomegranate molasses and lemon juice. Process until the mixture is a thick paste. Then, with the motor running, drizzle in the remaining olive oil. Taste, and add extra lemon juice or salt, to taste.
Transfer to a serving bowl. If you're not serving immediately, cover with plastic wrap pressed down on the surface of the muhammara and refrigerate. (Can be made up to 3 days in advance.) Garnish with pomegranate seeds when you serve.
Thanks to Cousin Martin for his photo of the cashew fruits.