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Of the vast array of foods I sampled at the recent Natural Products Expo in Los Angeles, two pistachio dishes captured my attention. The first, a tasty chicken terrine, reminded me of my years in Paris, where pistachio-studded duck pÃ¢tÃ©s were a charcuterie highlight. The second was more unusual, at least to an American - a pistachio ice cream like no other - Mashti Malone's bright yellow Persian-style pistachio ice cream with rosewater and saffron, punctuated with plenty of pistachios.
Native to the Fertile Crescent, pistachios have been prized since the beginning of recorded history. There is evidence they were used as food as early as 7000 BCE. Pistachios are mentioned in Genesis as one of the "best products of the land." Legend relates that they were loved by the queen of Sheba and that the trees were planted in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Later pistachios spread around the Mediterranean and became popular in Italy and France. The classic French dessert, peaches "Ã la sultane," featuring pistachio ice cream and rosewater, pays tribute to their Turkish origins.
Clearly, the Turkish enthusiasm for the "smiling nuts," called thus because of their semi-open shells, is as strong as ever. When I visited Gaziantep, Turkey's gastronomic capital, in the heart of the country's pistachio region, the natives' pride in their delicious, brilliant-green pistachios was evident. "True, your California pistachios are big and beautiful," they conceded, "but ours have by far the best flavor." Gaziantep's renowned pistachio-rich baklava is Turkey's best. I particularly loved the rolled pastries called "stuffed grape leaves," in which the striking hue of the pistachio filling shows through the filo dough, coloring the entire pastry vivid green.
In Aleppo, about an hour's drive from Gaziantep, Syrians feel that their Red Aleppo pistachio variety, which is popular throughout the region, makes their baklava so unique that their pastry deserves an official recognition, like the French appellation controlÃ©e given to noble wines and cheeses. The Israelis acknowledge the primacy of this variety, calling pistachios in Hebrew not simply pistachios but "Aleppo pistachios" (fistuk halabi).
Californians began cultivating pistachios on a commercial basis in the late 1970s from plants developed from Persian seeds. According to Henrich Brunke, a University of California at Davis researcher, pistachios have been called the "most successful crop ever to be introduced to the United States in the last century." The state is usually second in world pistachio production, depending on the year, as the trees bear heavy crops in alternate years. Iran is the world leader; Turkey and Syria are also major producers.
Some American markets carry pistachios from Turkey or Iran, as well as Californian pistachios. Many find the smaller, intensely flavored Middle Eastern pistachios are worth the higher price.
Roasted pistachios in the shell are readily available at the supermarket. Just after the harvest, you might find locally grown pistachios available fresh, with their pale-pink skins still enveloping the nuts. Pistachio oil, good for flavoring green salads and grilled vegetables, is made in France, Turkey, Iran, Australia and California.
In Istanbul I tasted delicious pistachio-stuffed lamb kebabs, in which the nuts were hidden inside the meat, but generally pricey pistachios are used in recipes where they will be seen. I love them in delicate dishes sprinkled over rice pilaf, couscous and salads of all types, from greens to chicken to fruit. They lend richness and beauty to sauces for sole and other fish. Some chefs prepare pistachio-coated chicken or fish, but if your timing isn't perfect, the nutty crust can burn. Pistachios make a splendid embellishment for dark chocolate cakes and a great garnish for creamy puddings.
Pistachios are healthful. In a recent study of 27 nuts and seeds commonly eaten as snack foods in the US, reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, pistachios came out highest in heart-healthy plant sterols. They are a good source of fiber and many other nutrients and are high in beneficial monounsaturated fatty acids.
Store pistachios in an airtight container in a cool, dry place; they will keep longer in the refrigerator (up to three months) or freezer (up to a year). For most recipes, you can leave on the thin, purple-brown skins, but if you want vibrant green nuts, you can peel them.
To do this, the California Pistachio Commission recommends toasting the nuts at 200Âº for four or five minutes, then rubbing off the skins with a towel. An alternative method is blanching: put the nuts in a pan of boiling water, let stand off the heat for one minute, drain them and rub them with a towel; if necessary, dry them in a 150Âº oven.
BAKED SEA BASS WITH PISTACHIO VINAIGRETTE
Pistachios in a savory herb-scented vinaigrette make a simple, beautiful sauce for delicate fish. Serve the fish with lightly cooked, crisp-tender snow peas or green beans and with aromatic rice such as Basmati. Instead of sea bass, you can substitute salmon, sole or any delicate white fish, checking them for doneness after 10 minutes per inch of thickness of the fish.
700 gr. sea bass fillets, about 2.5 cm. thick, rinsed and patted dry
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme or 1â„2 tsp. dried
cayenne pepper to taste
5 to 6 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
salt and freshly ground pepper
11â„2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar, herb vinegar or additional lemon juice
1 Tbsp. chopped chives
1â„4 cup pistachios, natural or roasted, coarsely chopped
Preheat oven to 220Âº. Line a heavy roasting pan with foil for easy clean-up, if you like; lightly oil the foil or the pan. Set fish steaks side by side in pan. In a small bowl combine 1 teaspoon lemon juice, thyme, cayenne and 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil. Sprinkle fish steaks with mixture on both sides and rub it into the fish. Sprinkle fish evenly with salt and pepper.
Make vinaigrette: In a small bowl combine remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil with vinegar, salt and pepper. Whisk until blended.
Bake fish in preheated oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until it is opaque inside when you pierce its thickest part with the point of a thin knife; when you check with a fork, the fish should just begin to flake.
Whisk vinaigrette again and stir in chives and half the pistachios. Taste and adjust seasoning. Spoon sauce over fish, sprinkle with remaining pistachios and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.