Pistachio-crusted quail

Pistachio-crusted quail (Wally Skalij / LAT)

I used to buy pistachios just for parties, as a little luxury. For cooking, they seemed too pricey and too tempting — you have to buy twice what you need for a recipe when you know you'll be shelling one for the cook and one for the bowl.

But a funny thing happened while I was chopping walnuts: Pistachios went mainstream.

These days they almost seem like the white truffle oil of the nut world: once an extravagance, now inescapable. In the last few weeks alone, I've had them in restaurants as a filling in ravioli, a crust on seared duck breast and lamb and an essential element of several salads; they even turn up in everything from soup to mole. And that's not even counting all the ways they surface in desserts.

But every bite makes me realize there's a big difference between truffle oil and pistachios. The little green kernels are the real deal. They look and taste exotic, and those attributes come naturally.

They will always have the power to dazzle, whether simply set out with cheese and wine or baked into some elaborate torte, but these days they're not just accessible but affordable. They're even sold shelled.

My impression of pistachios was formed in my childhood back in the last century, when the only ones you could buy were runty and red and were sold about three to a packet. Those mostly came from far off in the Middle East, where they were dyed to cover the discolorations in the shell from the dusky red husks that encased them. They were good, but they were a lot of work and a lot of mess for the money.

California has been growing them since 1880 or so, but it was not until 1976 that the first commercial crop came onto the market and changed cooks' lives forever. In the last five years alone the harvest has doubled, to more than 300 million pounds. That is one huge mountain of nuts, and it's a big reason you can find pistachios just about anywhere for as little as $3.99 a pound. The last pecans I bought were twice that.

California pistachios, a variety called Kerman, also are much more appealing than the kind I grew up eating. They're uniformly fat and meaty, they're fresh-tasting, and they're never a stain hazard for hands because they are processed fast, before the shells can deteriorate.

Middle Eastern pistachios have improved as well — more and more stores are selling undyed Iranian and Turkish varieties, which are skinnier and crunchier and have a duskier flavor. Unfortunately, they are two to three times as expensive. In Harrods Food Hall in London last fall, I was even able to buy fresh pistachios, still in their soft and colorful husks. Their texture was less crunchy, and the flavor was a revelation, like pine nuts right out of the shell.

Pistachios have undeniably benefited from California throwing its substantial marketing muscle behind them, pushing the nuts as a health food, a snob food, a snack food and a convenience food. The Internet home page of the state's pistachio commission looks as if it wandered in from a particularly dreamy women's magazine. You have to read carefully to understand that it's not about fashion but about food.

The go-anywhere nut

Luckily, pistachios are an increasingly easy sell as Americans have gotten away from seeing fat as the villain on the plate. All tree nuts happen to be high in protein as well, and the nutrients in them balance out the relatively high calories. (Researchers willing to prove any thesis if underwriting is provided are also jumping onto the pistachio bandwagon to tout their healthful properties — but then someone even recently proved that hot chocolate has antioxidant properties, so that's no surprise.)

Cookbooks have been slow to catch up to all the great advances in pistachios, but maybe that's because these colorful nuts can go anywhere an almond or a hazelnut can go. No one needs to write new recipes, only substitute freely. In every case, pistachios will look better and taste more dramatic than almost any nuts but macadamias.

A few chopped fine make a crunchy garnish for a bowl of soup, whether hot squash or cold cucumber. A lot more can jazz up a spinach salad or take pesto into another dimension. Pistachios are also the most seductive partner for hard-sell vegetables such as cauliflower and turnips; that little flash of green makes a big difference.

Some of the most impressive ways to serve pistachios are the most direct. I once had an unforgettable dish of pennette in Venice that was nothing more complicated than cream, Gorgonzola and lots of crunchy pistachios, the sum much more than the parts. (It's so rich, though, that it's best served the way the Italians do: as a small course before a light fish.)

Pistachios work better than other nuts as a crust for fish or chicken, or even quail. They aren't as unctuous and oily, and they don't burn or ooze when you press them into skin or flesh to be seared. With their vibrant color, the inspiration for countless paint companies, they also look more tantalizing than the usual burnt brown nuts.

Pistachios really come into their own in desserts, though. No wonder chefs are busily turning them into puddings and tarts and crème brûlée, or baking them into biscotti and brownies. They give even carrot cake a wake-up call when you substitute them for pecans or walnuts. And they make an exceptional alternative to peanuts in brittle.

Not surprisingly, given their origins in the Middle East at least 7,000 years ago, pistachios have a true affinity for couscous and lamb. (They and almonds are the only nuts mentioned in the Old Testament.) Dried fruits also go exceptionally well with them: apricots, of course, but also cherries and especially cranberries.

Pistachios seem like such natural additions to everything we eat that it's almost funny to read one of the greatest food writers who ever lived and realize he got them all wrong. Waverley Root, in his encyclopedic "Food," insisted the nuts' underlying appeal was their color alone.