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Most of the photo shoots for Food52’s vegan cookbook went off without a hitch. A quintessential nervous cookbook author, I kept clinging to my phone, nervously waiting for texts about baking disasters or catastrophically mistaken ratios of ingredients, but the recipes held up, and the photos turned out beautifully.
Surprisingly, the recipe that proved to be most mischievous was not something I consider to be particularly complex or challenging. It is, in fact, one of the recipes I put in the book’s “Basics” chapter, and it’s one I make all the time at home—almost weekly, I’d say.
It’s cashew cheese: the vegan solution to a tart, flavorful, and authentic dairy-free replacement for soft cheeses.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that the cashew cheese-making process created a hilarious string of texts between my editor and me, including photographs taken to verify proper texture and consistency.
When you make a recipe time and time again, you start to take it for granted that the process is not as intuitive for everyone else as it is for you. One of the important lessons I learned while writing Vegan is that you can never be too precise or descriptive with a recipe and that you can never assume that the process is straightforward.
The making of Vegan, from book map to catalog.
In fact, cashew cheese is a little tricky—a fact that I came to realize as I was trying to describe exactly what the texture should look like. Something in between goat cheese and a thick hummus? Basically smooth, but still sort of granular?
Even harder to articulate was the fact that cashew cheese consistency is one of those “you know it when you see it” things—you know when you’ve nailed it, because it looks perfectly appetizing. And, since adjusting the amount of water you add can create a “cheese” that’s either thinner and more spreadable or thicker and rougher (perfect for crumbling into salads), there’s plenty of room for variation. All of which makes cashew cheese a versatile standby for those who know and love it, but a little complicated for newbies.
In the end, a perfect texture was achieved. Weeks later, Kristen told me that the French Lentil and Arugula Salad with Herbed Cashew Cheese had become a beloved and oft-requested Food52 H.Q. favorite.
It’s a happy vote of confidence for my favorite condiment, and good reason for you to stick with cashew cheese, even if it means a few uncertain stares into the bowl of your food processor. Once the recipe feels intuitive, you’ll be grateful to have it as a flavorful, homemade topping for salads, grains, wraps, roasted vegetables, and pastas—not to mention a perfect appetizer with which to delight any guest (and especially one who happens to be dairy-free).
For the salad:
1/3 cup olive oil
1 small shallot, minced
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 1/2 cups cooked Le Puy green lentils, drained well
2 cups firmly packed baby arugula leaves
1 cup thinly sliced radishes
1 cup chopped endive
1 cup sliced cucumber
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
1/3 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1/4 cup herbed cashew cheese (below)
For the herbed cashew cheese:
1 1/2 cups cashew pieces or a combination of cashews and pine nuts, soaked for at least 3 hours and drained
2 tablespoons large flake nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons herbes de Provence
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
4 tablespoons water, divided