How to CookTex-Mex

Why Cashews are the MVP Vegan Ingredient

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Taste this vegan queso sauce and you'll understand why cashews are the most valuable vegan ingredient.

If you were to randomly enter my apartment, there is a 60% chance that you would find a cup of cashews soaking in water on my counter or in my fridge.

This might seem puzzling until I tell you that blended cashews are my secret to just about any dish with creamy texture: soup, sauce, you name it. As a vegan, dairy’s off limits, and while most non-dairy milks (almond, soy, rice, hemp) are great for coffee and oatmeal and baking, they don’t always cut it when it comes to a recipe like vegan Alfredo or vegan whipped cream.

For really rich, creamy vegan sauces, you need something thicker and fattier than soy or almond milk. A lot of vegan recipes call for coconut milk, which certainly has the requisite richness, but I have to admit that it’s not my favorite ingredient to work with for savory dishes (there are exceptions, of course, like curries and certain kinds of soups). If a recipe isn’t not supposed to taste like coconut, the hint of tropical flavor bugs me, and I find that coconut milk coats the palate a little too much. Cashew cream is a perfect solution: plenty of richness, but a neutral taste and no coating mouthfeel. 

Of course, cashew cream isn’t the only thing that cashews have to offer. My love of cashews and the degree to which I rely on them is so strong that it has become a running joke at Food52 HQ. My editors have affectionately nicknamed last January, February, and March—the months in which we did photo shoots for the Vegan cookbook—“The Winter of The Cashews.” They weren’t kidding. When I’m not using cashews for cream sauces or dressings, I’m often whipping them into things like homemade cashew cheese or raw cheesecake. (And yes, you’ll find both of those recipes in the book.)

Here’s another reason to love cashews: They can create the most wonderful creamy dressings. Salad dressings are not usually an area in which vegans are challenged—most vinaigrettes are vegan as written. But for creamy sauces, like ranch or Caesar, cashews once again come to the rescue. Soak them, blend them, and allow them to coat your greens in creamy bliss.

The following cashew queso recipe falls someplace in between dressing and sauce. It’s versatile enough that you won’t only want to use it on nachos or tortillas or fajitas (though it works beautifully in all of those dishes). Try it in a Tex-Mex salad with romaine, black beans, corn, and barbecue tempeh, or drizzle it onto a baked potato or steamed broccoli. I love the smoky hints of chili and tomato here, which brighten up the otherwise sweet notes of the soaked cashews.

Best of all? The sauce freezes well, which means you can double the recipe and save some for a quick weeknight dinner. 

Need more ideas for using up your soaking cashews?

Truly Amazing Vegan Queso Sauce

Makes 1 1/2 to 2 cups

1 cup raw cashews, cashews, soaked for at least 3 hours, drained, and rinsed
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/3 cup nutritional yeast
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

First two photos by James Ransom; last photo by Bobbi Lin 

Tags: Sauce, Condiment, Cheese, Vegetable, Vegetarian, Vegan