By SUE VIGNOLA
What’s green and beige, slightly salty and half-opened ready for eating? The answer can only be… pistachios! And what an interesting and unusual nut the pistachio is. That inviting slightly-split shell and the sound the empty shells make when you shake a handful of them together make the pistachio a fun nut to eat. Like many people, my first exposure to pistachios was with the traditional red variety commonly thought of as natural (wow, these nuts grow bright red!). Now it is generally known that red dye was used to disguise imperfections and also to attract attention to this formerly little-known tree fruit.
Until the mid-1970s, the majority of pistachios were imported from the Middle East and were long regarded as an integral part of Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. While it’s taken North Americans a bit longer to latch on to this tasty nut, pistachios are now one of California’s major crops and have gained enormous popularity as a tasty, addictive snack. A healthy addiction, as it turns out, despite the consistent myth surrounding nuts and fat. Like all nuts, pistachios are composed primarily of monounsaturated fat (the good kind) and have absolutely no cholesterol (see below: Pistachios, Nutrition and Weight Loss
Pistachios trees take from seven to ten years to start producing nuts. The trees which comprise the majority of California's crop are, at 20 years, considered relatively young since many pistachio trees in the Middle East have reached the ripe old age of 200 years! A relative of both the cashew and the mango, the pistachio tree is both deciduous (dropping its leaves each year), and comes in both sexes. The trees are wind-pollinated, with the male trees bearing pollen and the female trees bearing the nuts. The resulting tree fruit is comprised of kernel, shell and hull. When the kernel ripens to maturity during mid-summer, the kernel expands causing a natural splitting of the shell. The shell is protected by the hull but at maturity the hull starts to break away from the shell and is easily removed at the processing plant and very promptly as they cause staining if left longer than 24 hours after harvesting. Some growers we have visited in California store huge piles of the removed hulls, allowing them to decompose and then selling them as "green manure" to other growers. A whiff of the odour produced by the decomposing hulls makes the term manure very appropriate indeed!
Why are some pistachios red? The first pistachios available to consumers were imported from the Middle East. American importers dyed the shells red, both to disguise staining from antiquated harvesting methods and to make pistachios stand out among other nuts in vending machines.
Until the 1970s, there was no domestic pistachio industry in the United States. California harvested its first commercial crop in 1976. The entry of California pistachios into the marketplace made available nuts with clean, naturally tan shells. California’s Kerman variety is also larger in size with a more vibrant green nut colour. A small percentage of California’s crop is dyed red, not by necessity, but to meet the needs of those consumers who prefer the colourful shell.
How can I open slightly split or nonsplit pistachios? As the pistachio kernel grows, it naturally expands within the shell until it splits open. Nonsplit shells usually contain immature kernels and should be discarded. Tip: slightly-split shells can be opened using one half of the shell from an already-opened pistachio. Wedge the tip of a half shell into the split and turn it until you can retrieve the kernel.
How does the pistachio kernel get its green colour? Plants make a variety of pigments which contribute colour to plant parts such as the flowers, leaves and fruit. The green in the pistachio nut is the result of chlorophyll, the same pigment that makes the leaves green.
How long do pistachio trees live? How long do they produce? The pistachio trees planted in California are still fairly young, but there are pistachio trees in the Middle East that are over 200 years old and are still producing!
Where in California are pistachios grown? Approximately 98% of the pistachios produced in the U.S. are from California. Pistachios are grown as far north as Shasta County and as far south as Riverside County. Because of their desert-like climate and soil, the San Joaquin Valley counties of Kern, Madera, Kings, Fresno and Tulare are the major producers.
Best storage method for pistachios? Pistachios stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator have a shelf life of one year; in the freezer, they have a shelf life of two years.
Restoring pistachios. To restore pistachios that have lost their crispness toast the nutmeats at 200°F for 10 to 15 minutes.
Pistachios, nutrition and weight loss. In addition to their great taste, a one-ounce serving of pistachios (47 kernels according to the USDA) is crammed with nutrients, containing more than 10 percent of the Daily Value for key nutrients like dietary fibre, vitamin B-6, thiamin, magnesium, phosphorus and copper. A serving of pistachios contains 170 calories and is low in saturated fat, containing primarily monounsaturated fat, and is cholesterol-free.
The October 2001 issue of the U.S. International Journal of Obesity found that people who followed a Mediterranean-style diet that incorporated moderate amounts of monounsaturated fat from sources such as pistachios and other nuts not only lost weight but were able to maintain their weight loss much longer than people who followed a traditional low-fat diet.
Many nutritionists consider a one-ounce serving of pistachios and other nuts to be a wise snacking choice since they are literally “nutrition in a nutshell.” In any comparison of nuts to other snacking foods such as chips and ice cream which are literally loaded with saturated fats not to mention many undesirable chemical additives, pistachios and their siblings come out on top nutritionally.
In further support of pistachios as a healthy snack food choice, the USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference recently updated (November 1999) the comprehensive list of nutrients found in pistachios. While a one-ounce serving (47 kernels) of pistachios contains 160 calories and is low in saturated fat and cholesterol-free, they are also an excellent source of critical nutrients like vitamin B6 (25% daily value) and copper (20% daily value). Vitamin B6 helps produce other body chemicals, including insulin, hemoglobin and antibodies that fight infection; copper also helps the body make hemoglobin and serves as part of many enzymes that produce energy for cells in the body.
Pistachios in the kitchen. Yes, you do have to shell them first, but do it ahead of time and get some help. Just make sure you account for the ones that don’t make it to the mixing bowl! Two cups of in-shell pistachios will yield about a cup of kernels and take about 15 minutes to shell.
FRITTATA with CALIFORNIA PISTACHIOS
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
One-half red bell pepper, seeded and sliced
1/2-lb. zucchini, sliced
1 tomato, sliced
1/4-teaspoon black pepper
Fresh herbs (such as thyme, basil, sage), chopped
1/2-cup natural California pistachios, coarsely chopped
Preheat oven to 350˚F. Beat eggs and set aside. Oil a 9-inch quiche pan or round shallow baking dish. Arrange bell pepper, zucchini and tomato in dish. Bake uncovered in 350 degrees F. oven for 9 minutes. Sprinkle with black pepper and a handful of herbs. Pour eggs over and sprinkle with pistachios. Reduce oven to 300˚F. Return pie to oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes longer or until centre is set and sides are puffy and golden. Cover loosely with foil if it starts to get too dark before it is done. Cool slightly, then cut into wedges. Serve with fresh fruit for brunch or for light supper accompanied by a green salad.
Makes 6 servings.
BRIE and PISTACHIOS
This one is so simple you'll wonder why you never thought of it yourself!
8 ounces softened Brie (Camembert cheese can also be used)
1/2-cup coarsely chopped, roasted/salted California pistachios
1 loaf French bread baguette, sliced
Makes 6 servings.
Generously spread softened Brie cheese on wedge-shaped slices of French bread baguette. Top with chopped California pistachios for an elegant, yet simple, appetizer.
GARDEN VEGETABLE PISTACHIO POTATO SALAD
2 lbs. new red potatoes
1 cup petite frozen peas, defrosted (see note)
1 large carrot, pared, sliced (1 cup)
1 cup fresh corn kernels (2 ears)
1 cup broccoli flowerettes, cut into small pieces
1/4-cup sliced green onion
1/2-cup natural California pistachios
3/4-cup plain nonfat yogurt
3/4-cup fat-free mayonnaise
1 teaspoon dill weed
1/2-teaspoon black pepper
Cook whole potatoes in boiling water about 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender; drain. Cool, then slice potatoes 1/4-inch thick. Combine potatoes with peas, carrot, corn, broccoli, green onion and pistachios in large bowl. Stir yogurt with mayonnaise, dill and pepper; combine with vegetables and toss gently.
Note: To thaw peas, pour hot water from cooking potatoes over peas in sieve.
Makes 12 servings.
DATE NUT BREAD with PISTACHIOS
1 cup dates, chopped
1 cup boiling water
1-1/4 cups flour
1/2-cup natural California pistachios, chopped
1 teaspoon each baking powder and baking soda
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
1 teaspoon each vanilla and grated orange peel
Soak dates in water; cool (do not drain). Combine flour, pistachios, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Combine dates with water, eggs, butter, vanilla and orange peel; add to flour mixture. Mix only until moistened. Spoon into 8-1/2 x 4-1/2 x 2-1/2-inch greased loaf pan. Bake at 350˚F. 45 to 50 minutes or until wooden pick inserted near centre comes out clean.
Makes one loaf.
1/2-cup soft butter or margarine
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons rum
1-1/4 cups flour
1/2-cup ground California pistachios
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2-teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2-teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2-teaspoon grated lemon peel
1/2-cup chopped California pistachios
Preheat oven to 350˚F. Beat butter with sugar and vanilla until creamy and light-coloured. Beat in eggs, l at a time. Beat in milk and rum. In a separate bowl, mix flour, ground pistachios, baking powder, salt, spices and lemon peel. Add this mixture to the butter-sugar mixture just until blended (don't overmix). Lightly fold in 1/4-cup chopped pistachios. Grease 12 muffin cups or line cups with muffin papers. Evenly portion batter into cups. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4-cup chopped pistachios. Bake for 30 minutes or until done.
Makes 12 muffins.
Tip: Pulse pistachios in a food processor until coarsely ground.