- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Of the vast array of foods I sampled at the recent Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, Calif., two pistachio creations captured my attention. The first, a tasty chicken terrine, reminded me of my years in Paris, where pistachio-studded duck pates were a charcuterie highlight.

The second was more unusual, at least to an American. It was a pistachio ice cream like no other: Mashti Malone’s bright yellow Persian-style pistachio ice cream with rose water and saffron, punctuated with plenty of pistachios.

Native to the area that is now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel, pistachios have been prized since the beginning of recorded history. 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 pistachio trees were planted in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Later, pistachios spread throughout the Mediterranean and became popular in Italy and France. The classic French dessert peaches a la sultane, featuring pistachio ice cream and rose water, pays tribute to its Turkish origin.

Clearly, the Turkish enthusiasm for pistachios is as strong as ever. When I visited Gaziantep, Turkey’s gastronomic capital in the heart of the country’s pistachio region, the local pride in the delicious, brilliant green pistachios was evident. Gaziantep’s renowned pistachio baklava is said to be 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 phyllo dough, coloring the entire pastry a vivid green. In Aleppo, about an hour’s drive from Gaziantep, Syrians tout their red Aleppo pistachios, which are popular throughout the region and make their baklava unique.

Californians began cultivating pistachios on a commercial basis in the late 1970s with plants developed from Persian seeds. According to Henrich Brunke, a researcher at the University of California at Davis, pistachios are considered by some to be the most successful crop introduced to the United States in the past century.

California usually is second in world pistachio production. Iran is the world leader, and Turkey and Syria also are major producers.

Some American markets carry Turkish pistachios. My Los Angeles neighborhood grocery, Woodland Hills Market, which has a large Persian clientele, carries pistachios from California and from Iran, and many shoppers find the intensely flavored Middle Eastern pistachios are worth the higher price.

Roasted pistachios in the shell are readily available at the supermarket. At specialty markets, you can find shelled pistachio nutmeats, which are convenient for cooking and baking.

In Middle Eastern markets in September, just after the harvest, California pistachios are 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 and Australia and soon will be produced by La Tourangelle in Woodland, Calif.

In Istanbul, I tasted delicious pistachio-stuffed lamb kebabs that contained nuts hidden inside the meat. However, pricey pistachios are more often found in recipes where they will be seen. I love them in delicate dishes, such as sprinkled over rice pilaf, couscous and salads. 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 United States, as 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 they 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 3 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 must peel them. To do this, the California Pistachio Commission recommends toasting the nuts at 400 degrees for 4 or 5 minutes, then rubbing off the skins with a towel.

An alternative method is to blanch. Do this by putting the nuts in a pan of boiling water, let them stand off the heat for 1 minute, drain and rub them with a towel. If necessary, dry them in a 300-degree oven.

Creamy pistachio pudding with rose water and raspberries

Pudding shops in Turkey make sweet, smooth desserts like this in many variations, flavored with fruit, nuts, rose water or cinnamon. For a festive presentation, the dessert might be topped with toasted pistachios, fresh fruit and whipped cream.

4 to 5 tablespoons toasted unsalted pistachios, divided

1 vanilla bean, optional

3 cups milk, divided

1/4 cup cornstarch

4 to 5 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons rose water, orange-flower water or vanilla

1½ to 2 cups raspberries

Grind 2 tablespoons of the pistachios very fine in a food processor. Set aside. (A mini food processor or coffee grinder works best for this.) Coarsely chop remaining pistachios. Set these aside separate from finely ground pistachios.

If using vanilla bean, heat it in 2½ cups milk in a heavy saucepan to a boil. Cover and let stand off heat 20 minutes. Remove vanilla bean.

Mix cornstarch with ½ cup cold milk to a smooth paste. Add sugar to taste to remaining milk (vanilla-infused or plain) and bring to a simmer, stirring. Stir cornstarch mixture again until smooth and pour it gradually into the simmering milk, whisking rapidly.

Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook for 5 minutes, or until mixture becomes a thick, smooth pudding. Stir in ground pistachios.

Remove from heat and cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. Stir in rose water.

Transfer to shallow dessert dishes and refrigerate. Sprinkle chopped pistachios in the center of each one and surround nuts with raspberries. Serve any remaining raspberries separately.

Makes 4 servings.

Pistachio cookies with dried cherries

If you like, replace 3/4 cup of the pistachios with an equal amount of dark or white chocolate chips. You can substitute dried cranberries for the cherries.

Butter for greasing pan

1 cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

½ cup unsalted butter, slightly softened

½ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cup dried cherries

1½ cups shelled unsalted pistachios, coarsely chopped

Lightly grease 2 baking sheets. Set aside. Sift flour, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl. Cream butter in a medium bowl. Add brown and granulated sugars and beat until smooth and fluffy. Add egg and beat until smooth. Add vanilla and beat until blended. Stir in flour mixture until blended. Stir in cherries and pistachios.

Push a rounded teaspoon of batter from one teaspoon with a second teaspoon onto greased baking sheets, using about 1 tablespoon batter for each cookie and spacing them about 2 inches apart.

Bake about 10 minutes on center rack of preheated 350-degree oven, or until browned around edges and nearly set but still soft to touch in the center. Using a metal spatula, carefully transfer cookies to racks to cool completely. Cool baking sheets; clean off any crumbs and grease sheets again.

Bake remaining cookies. Makes about 48 cookies.

Baked sea bass with pistachio vinaigrette

Instead of sea bass, you can substitute salmon or sole, checking to see if it’s done after 10 minutes per inch of thickness of the fish.

Oil for greasing pan

1½ pounds sea bass fillets, about 1 inch thick, rinsed and patted dry

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried cayenne pepper

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1½ tablespoons white wine vinegar, herb vinegar or additional lemon juice

1 tablespoon chopped chives

1/4 cup pistachios, natural or roasted, coarsely chopped

Line a heavy roasting pan with foil for easy cleanup. Lightly oil the foil. Set fish steaks side by side in pan. In a small bowl combine 1 teaspoon lemon juice, thyme, cayenne to taste and 2 tablespoons oil. Sprinkle fish steaks with mixture on both sides and rub it into fish. Sprinkle fish evenly with salt and pepper.

To begin vinaigrette, in a small bowl combine remaining oil with vinegar or lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Whisk until blended.

Bake fish in preheated 425-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until it is opaque inside when thickest part is pierced with the point of a 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 vinaigrette over fish, sprinkle with remaining pistachios, and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

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