It was with no small amusement that I read recently of the drop in demand for low-carb products. If obesity weren't such a problem in this country, it'd be comical how lemming-like people run from one diet to the next.
I took my own stab at a low-carb life for a few days at the beginning of the year, not because I really wanted to "do Atkins," but because I knew I'd gotten too hooked on sugar. After reading Atkins, I tried to follow a version of his diet, with no carbohydrates but those few from veggies, in the hopes that going cold-turkey off sugar would cut the cravings.
Besides the bad breath, the problem with Atkins came clear to me after just a few days: no crunch! Aside from some salad greens, nothing crunched. No wonder so many people gain all the weight back.
We've already become a nation of soft-food eaters (despite food columns that so constantly call for "crusty bread" as a go-with that it's become a joke among copy editors). We adore pasta, fluffy white bread, applesauce, custards. Should we be surprised at how tiramisu took us by storm? What a perfect combination of squishy cake, custard, and a touch of alcohol. Now, unless you go for a chewy steak, low-carb diets could send you to that scary place where you barely need teeth.
(I also learned from Atkins that everything in the entire world will soon contain corn syrup. I base this on my reading of labels for smoked sausage, to check for hidden sugar. Why, pray tell, does smoked sausage need corn syrup? Apparently, to keep the price down--I had to spend about 75 cents more for the one without corn syrup. I already knew how insidious this stuff was, but still, to find it here?)
But back to crunch. My version of Atkins did what I needed, stopping the sugar cravings cold in just a few days. Thank heavens, because I couldn't have taken it much longer. I knew I didn't want to start eating crackers or some glorious crusty bread, or I'd risk revving the cravings back up. But my teeth needed a workout, and nuts worked perfectly.
Almonds are the hot nut these days, especially Marcona almonds from Spain ($16.99 a pound at Whole Foods!), but cashews win my heart. Creamy, buttery, slightly sweet, salty cashews satisfy nearly all my cravings.
Simply roasted and salted, they're great on salads in place of croutons, or sprinkled over pimento cheese-stuffed tomatoes (or, to be precious, cherry tomatoes). Use them in pesto in place of pine nuts. Glaze some sautéed carrot coins with orange juice, sprinkle with tarragon, and top with chopped cashews for a quick but snazzy side. Or put a pat of compound butter over simply roasted fish fillets. Make it by creaming unsalted butter with minced thyme leaves and chopped, salted cashews, plus orange juice and zest. This butter would also be good over roasted green beans or asparagus, or to add some interest to peas.
But I have to confess, despite my sugar bust, that I most like cashews' saltiness mixed with sweet. The easiest way to get that, and still feel fairly virtuous, is to caramelize them. Candied cashews are great on salads, and they're perfect with a glass of wine before dinner or with a dessert wine.
Better still, cashews make wonderful sweets. Ignoring Atkins, I'm back to a "moderation in all things" plan, meaning I can still indulge in dessert, rationalizing it a bit by remembering how heart-healthy nuts are.
Lacking the bite of other nuts (especially walnuts), cashews slide in effortlessly where others have gone before. Take a basic peanut brittle recipe, for example, and substitute cashews, adding a bare pinch of cayenne. Put them in chocolate chip cookies, or spread the same caramelized cashews you made to top a salad onto a cashew-crusted chocolate cheesecake. Put them in a pie in place of pecans. Take a shortbread recipe, add some orange zest, and blend in chopped cashews; to up the flavor further, toss in a bit of minced rosemary leaves. Add them to popcorn balls. Instead of walnut bread, try cashews. As with orange, cashews go well with lemon. How about a carrot cake spread with a lemony cream cheese frosting, its sides coated with chopped cashews? Or try them in cinnamon oatmeal cookies, or in apple-sage muffins, or in a Northern-style, slightly sweet cornbread. So easy, and your teeth will thank you.
Cook's notes: After trying for years to like my food processor as a nut grinder, I'm back to what my mother brought me up on: the simple, $4 nut mill (see one at thekitchenstore.com). With a hand crank below a hopper to hold the nuts, and a glass jar for chopped nuts to fall into, this decidedly un-techie gadget works the best at chopping nuts evenly and without creating a lot of nut dust. ... Candied cashews are quick and easy; just be sure to stir so they don't burn. They taste wonderful in a salad with pears and goat cheese, or with dried cranberries or apricots. ... These macaroons are child's play to put together; you can surely find fancier recipes, but for a quick treat, these do just fine. Dress them up with a ganache dip if you like, or sandwich them together with some ganache (in which case you'll want to flatten the balls a bit before baking). To make ganache, heat 3/4 cup heavy cream until it just simmers; off heat, whisk in 8 ounces chopped bittersweet or semisweet chocolate. This makes about 1 1/2 cups, more than you'll need for the cookies, but it refrigerates and freezes well, and is wonderful to have on hand for use as an ice cream sauce, cake glaze, or filling for other cookies. I prefer the contrast of salted cashews with sweet coconut (and especially if I use ganache), but you may use unsalted. ... For the pie, I also suggest salted nuts, but unsalted will do. Chop them just a bit to better distribute the nuts in the filling. This pie is so easy to throw together, you have no excuse for not making a homemade crust. As a lifelong crust-lover, I beg you, please don't use those nasty refrigerated crusts! If you absolutely can't bring yourself to make one (come on, get over that fear; pie crust is easy), buy a good-quality frozen one, such as those sold at Whole Foods.
Chocolate Cashew Rum Pie
Makes 1 9-inch pie, serving 8 to 10
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 1/3 cups barely chopped roasted cashews (salted or unsalted)
1 9-inch, unbaked pie shell
3 large eggs
3/4 cup light corn syrup
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons (4 1/2 teaspoons) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons rum (bourbon also works well)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread the chocolate chips, then the cashews, in the pie shell.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, corn syrup and butter. Whisk in granulated sugar, dark brown sugar, flour, vanilla and rum. Pour into pie shell, moving the cashews around a bit if needed to distribute them evenly.
Bake for about 50 minutes, until center is just set when pie is gently shaken. It will firm up a bit more as it cools. If crust begins to get too dark, cover it loosely with foil. Cool on a wire rack; serve warm or at room temperature. Loosely cover any leftover pie.
Cashew Coconut Macaroons
Makes 3 dozen
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 egg whites from large eggs
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cup sweetened coconut flakes
1/2 cup chopped roasted cashews, salted or unsalted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, thoroughly whisk together sugar and egg whites. Whisk in flour, vanilla and salt. With a spatula, fold in coconut and cashews.
Drop batter by heaping teaspoons (I use a small cookie scoop) onto a parchment paper-lined or greased baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, until light golden; cool on baking sheets set over a wire rack.