The Secret Life of Cashews

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Photo by Daniel Panev/Flickr CC


I've learned a fair bit about food over the last 30 years or so. But one of the great things is that there's so incredibly much more to learn--in the scheme of all there is to know about food I know really next to nothing. Take cashews. I've been eating them off and on for most of my adult life. But in honesty other than the fact that they taste good, come from tropical countries, and they form the basis of one of our tastiest confections, I actually have known next to nothing about 'em.

Which brings me to the things I now know about cashews that I didn't know a few weeks ago:

a) How good cashews in general are for you
b) How particularly good the new cashews are that we're getting in at the Deli

Ok, first off cashews in general. I haven't been to visit cashew country yet so I'm hardly sharing any big culinary revelations here. But since I didn't know most of this, I figured I should share my learning. Cashews are indeed a tropical fruit. They probably originated in Brazil. The name of the fruit in Tupi, the language of the native people, is acaju. The Portuguese converted that into caju and we ended up here with the English cashew.

You can check the nutrition sites on line before you radically alter all of your eating routines, but from what I know it sounds like you might want to craft cashews into your daily diet.

Although we don't eat it here and I've never (YET!) had it, they say the cashew fruit is actually quite tasty, which makes good sense to me, since the same is true of the fruit of the coffee cherry and the cacao pod, both of which I have eaten in their native settings. The nuts (which are of course inside the fruit) were brought out of Brazil by the Portuguese and then taken to other compatible climates in their colonial realm, like Goa and Guinea, and from there they've successfully spread all over the tropical world.

You might realize that you've probably never seen one of these nuts still in its shell, which is not a bad thing since there are poisons in the cashew's natural casing. The good news is that once the outer coating has been removed the fruit and the nut inside it are perfectly safe to eat. And happily so, since the cashew's nutritional resume is really pretty amazing. If even half of what people say about it is true, the cashew could well be the next wonder food.

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Photo by Vic Lic/FlickrCC

You can check the nutrition sites on line before you radically alter all of your eating routines, but from what I know it sounds like you might want to craft cashews into your daily diet. They're high in copper and calcium and they're a good source of monounsaturated fats. Supposedly eating a lot of them helps you avoid both weight gain and cardiovascular disease. They're also high in magnesium, which is a big thing for the cardiovascular health. And they're also high in protein and fiber.

Ok, enough about nutrition. Now for the particular cashews we've got coming in. In the same way that the cashew itself sounds like nearly the perfect food, so too the nuts we're now getting seem to be a nearly ideal product for us from pretty much every angle you could look at them. Above and beyond all else they taste really good--better than any cashew I've ever had. In terms of the story behind the nut, these cashews come from Cholteca, a very poor part of Honduras where both the people and the environment have been badly in need of help for a long time. It's an area that's been known primarily for its high poverty rates, high deforestation, and high soil erosion, all topped off of late by hurricanes and droughts.

Cashews came to the region about 40 years ago, planted in order to contribute positively to people's diets and lead the way in reforestation and reducing rates of soil erosion. While the trees did do all three of those, the cashew planting failed to really contribute much change to the average income because most of the nuts were sold to middle men and the farmers who grew them actually added very little to their income.

These cashews, however, come from a series of democratically run coops through which the growers are actually getting a good rate for their crops.The farmers also get paid close to half in advance to help them through the off-season's annual cash flow challenges (as in you only harvest once a year but you have to live the rest of the year while you're waiting for the next harvest). The nuts are grown without artificial pesticides, which is helping the environment and the health of the growers; organic certification is in the works.

Roasted in the shell in adobe ovens, then cracked with a wooden hammer so that the nut can be removed. We get them unsalted. As Frank said when we got the samples, "It's the first time I've tried an unsalted cashew that actually tasted really good on its own." I agree totally. They're great to eat just as they are. Put 'em on salads, pasta, garnish for soups..they'd be great chopped on autumn squash dishes and although I haven't done it yet probably could be really good with fish - either dredging to make a crust after pan frying or coarsely chopped and tossed into a sauté pan with say scallops and maybe...a bit of brown butter or a touch of citrus? Definitely a nice touch for any number of curries, and they'd be great with yogurt and honey. And of course, you could just eat them out of hand for a snack, especially given that long list of healthy things to do with them.

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Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.
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