Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Ode to the Pistachio: What’s nut to love?

If pistachios had a voice, it would undoubtedly be the warm and captivating timbres of Gian Gomeshi, host of CBC Radio’s weekday morning show “Q.” 

Sounding like the name of a mischievous zodiac sign and rhyming with mustachio, I dare you to say Pistachios without smiling! No wonder in Iran, they’re known as the “smiling” nut, in China as the “happy” nut and in my kitchen, as the friendly “go-to” nut; performing cheerfully in salads, vegetarian strudels, fish marinades, pesto, crumb toppings, cheese stuffings for meat dishes or best of all…with bananas in ice cream!

Aside from being one of the most delicious and colourful little characters in the culinary nut circuit, pistachios are highly nutritious, huge on fiber and fat friendly too! They are an excellent source of copper, manganese, vitamin B6 and a good source of phosphorus and thiamin. A 30 g serving of about 49 pistachio nuts contains the same amount of fiber as one serving of oatmeal and almost 90% of the fat in pistachios is the healthy mono-and polyunsaturated fats. If you enjoy snacking on the little morsels, why not re-enact Prove the Pistachio Principle? This experiment concluded that participants ate at a slower pace when they snacked on pistachios contained in-shells. Removing the shells slowed down their snacking tempo and they ate 41% less than those who snacked on the naked, ready-to-eat versions. Take it a step further and keep the leftover shells in sight for your next pistachio snack-sitting and you are very likely to eat even fewer pistachios than before.

According to archeologists and historians, we humans have been nutty for pistachios for over 9,000 years, with the earliest evidence of this dating back to 6750 BC at a dig site at Jarmo in North-Eastern Iraq.  Emperor Vitellius piqued the tastebuds of Rome in the first century A.D. when he introduced to pistachios to Apicius—a famous Jamie Oliver-style chef at the time—who included the nuts in recipes recorded on tablets in his classic, ancient cookbooks. Word has it; Queen Sheba was quite piggish for pistachios and insisted that the entire pistachio harvest for the region be reserved for just her. Due to pistachios high nutritional value and long storage life, early traders, explorers and travelers carried pistachios to snack on while traversing the ancient Silk Road that connected China to the West.  Pistachios also carry the distinction of being one of only three nuts mentioned in the Bible, with walnuts and almonds being the other two. In Genesis 43:11, father Jacob recommends that his sons “Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift—a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.” All of these items were products of trees which could still grow and provide produce in spite of food famines.

The pistachio as we know it today was first grown in Western Asia. It is related to the mango fruit and the spice sumac and was originally grown in cooler parts of Iran and Iraq. By way of Iran from Syria, their cultivation spread throughout the Mediterranean region. Today, pistachios grow in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Tunisia, Pakistan, Egypt, Italy, and Afghanistan and also in the state of California in the US, where there is a Pistachio Commission dedicated to preserving, protecting and growing her preciousness!
I like to keep shell-removed whole and chopped pistachios in a Ziploc bag in my refrigerator freezer ready to add to a variety of recipes. Tip: The Bulk Barn carries shell-on and shell-removed pistachios.
Here are a few ideas and recipes to help win you over to my Happy Nut society!

Add chopped pistachios to:
·       bread crumb coatings for chicken
·       goat cheese and chopped apricots for a pork tenderloin stuffing
·       oatmeal fruit crisp toppings (like apple crisp)
·       to your favourite fruit pie recipe
·       salads (toasted) with cranberries and feta cheese, drizzled with a maple-raspberry vinaigrette
·       quinoa or couscous with currants or raisins and a pinch of cinnamon
·       pasta dishes, toasted and sprinkled on top as a garnish-instead of pine nuts
·       vegetarian dishes such as Mediterranean strudels or lasagnas
·       pesto or any recipe that calls for pine nuts
·       your hot oatmeal porridge in the morning!

Salmon with Maple-Nut Crust

1 large tail piece of salmon
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 cup chopped shelled and chopped pistachios or almonds or pecans.
Line a rimmed cookie sheet with tin foil. Wash and dry salmon with paper towel and place skin side down on the sheet. Sprinkle salmon with salt and pepper. Mix together syrup, curry and mustard. Chop up or crush nuts. Preheat oven to 425F. Spoon half of maple syrup mixture over fillets then sprinkle with nuts. Spoon remaining maple mixture over nuts. Cover the areas of the sheet that don't have fish on them with tin foil pieces. This keeps the oil from splattering and burning. Bake in centre of oven at 425F for 35 min.

Maple Syrup-Pistachio Baklava
(Note: have everything prepared before you unwrap the phyllo pastry from the pkg)
1 1/2 cups pistachios or walnuts, finely chopped
1/4 c sugar
1 tsp t cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves
1 pkg phyllo dough (in pastry section of frozen foods) thawed
1 c melted butter

2 1/4 c pure maple syrup, heated
¼ cup water
1 ½ tsp lemon juice
1 ½ tsp lemon or orange rind grated
2 tbsp chopped nuts

Combine nuts, sugar, and spices. Brush a 9x13" baking pan with butter.  Lay thawed pastry on table or large, work surface. Cover sheets to be worked with a plastic bag and damp towel until you’re ready to use them.  Cut all sheets from the pkg in half width wise. Set aside 10 to work with and cover remaining pastry. Brush a sheet of pastry with butter and then layer in pan, do this with 10 sheets.  Sprinkle with 1/3 of the nut mixture.  Butter and layer 7 more sheets in pan, top with 1/3 nut mixture.  Butter and layer 7 more sheets and rest of nuts.  Top with 16 more buttered phyllo sheets and brush with remaining butter. Important: With a very sharp, serrated knife, score and cut through the layers of pastry into 1 1/2" squares.  (It will crumble to pieces if you cut it after it’s baked.) Bake at 350F for 15 min, then 325F for another 30-35 min, or until a rich golden brown. (Keep an eye on the edges for burning.)  During the last 20 minutes of baking, in a saucepan mix together syrup, water, lemon and rind. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat and let simmer for 10-15 min, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. When baklava is done, immediately pour the very warm syrup mixture evenly over top.  Sprinkle 2 tbsp chopped nuts overtop.  Cool in the pan for at least 4 hours and enjoy! 

This is one of my favourite Shortbread recipes which I adapted from a recipe I found in a very old cookbook in the amazing Vancouver Public Library--where they have a whole section devoted to cookbooks Yes, I was in heaven! I think the orange zest and pistachio combination in this recipe gives these Shortbreads a little mystery zing.

Pistachio Shortbread
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp butter 
  • 1 egg
  • 1 2/3 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tbsp orange zest
  • 1/2 cup chopped pistachios
  • (1/4 cup dark chocolate chopped-optional)
  • egg yolk (lightly beaten) for glazing before baking
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until smooth.  Add the egg, vanilla, orange zest and mix well. Stir in flour and knead by hand until dough comes together. Add in pistachios by hand, with chocolate (if using chocolate). Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Roll dough into 1/2 inch thickness and cut with cookie cutters. Alternatively, you may roll the dough into inch balls, then flatten with a fork to create a criss-cross, plaid pattern. Brush with a little egg yolk and sprinkle with granulated sugar. 
Bake 8-12 minutes on a parchment lined flat baking sheet on the middle rack in the oven preheated to 350F. Watch carefully and DO NOT let them brown. Allow to cool on rack. 
Other optional additions include: blanched almonds, dried cranberries, dark chocolate chips or chocolate mint chips.

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