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PISTACHIO

Times Food Editor

Most of us think of pistachio nuts as exotic, red-dyed snacks imported from Mediterranean countries at great expense. Long classed as gourmet (i.e. costly) tidbits, they have been too expensive to consider for use in foods that ordinarily call for more popularly priced and readily available nuts such as almonds, pecans or walnuts.

That premise seems due for a change, however, if California pistachio growers have their way.

A visit to the lower San Joaquin Valley, where the growing and processing of pistachio nuts is rapidly becoming big business, can be a real eye opener. Since 1977, when the first commercially grown California pistachios were harvested, California plantings have increased to the extent that in just 10 years the state has moved from also-ran to second in worldwide production of these delicate green-tinged nuts. (Iran is the largest producer of the nuts, and other countries such as Turkey, Syria, Greece and Italy provide most of the rest of the world production.)

At present, 50,000 acres of pistachios are under cultivation in California and 35,000 acres are in production. It takes from seven to 10 years

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for a pistachio tree to mature and about 20 years for one to become fully productive. As the acreage planted in pistachios increases and the trees mature, consumer prices should fall to reflect the increased availability.

Currently, most of California’s pistachio production is coming from Kern County west of Bakersfield. When water became available to the area through the State Water Project in the late 1960s, pistachios were among the experimental crops planted. And it soon became apparent that it was a good choice as a cash crop.

But because of the number of years it takes for a pistachio tree to produce sufficient nuts to harvest commercially, it was not until 1977 that the industry really began to come into its own. Since then, however, it’s another story. American ingenuity and production methods have produced high-quality pistachios that have been welcomed by both consumers and the food industry.

A recent harvest-time visit to the Blackwell Corners area in the Central Valley indicated how extensive the production of this glamour nut is. Driving along the macadam road, one is impressed by the pistachio and almond orchards that extend for miles through the flat, scruffy terrain. To one unfamiliar with how pistachios grow, it’s a surprise to see the bushy trees laden with grape-like clusters of peach-tinged yellow nuts. What not too long ago was barren, unproductive land populated only with occasional bowing oil pumps is likely to eventually be covered with grove after grove of orchards and vineyards.

Ron Khachigian, chairman of the California Pistachio Commission and senior vice president of Blackwell Land Co. Inc., which has extensive plantings of pistachios in Kern County, explained that California pistachio trees are cyclical in production, bearing heavily one year and producing a lighter crop the next. The bearing trees, all female, bloom in March and April and are wind-pollinated from male trees planted nearby. Blackwell plants one male tree for every 12 female trees; however, other growers may plant a single male tree for up to 30 female trees. Small pistachios form from the spring blossoms and expand during the growing season into sizable clusters by harvest time in the fall.

When ready to harvest, the inner hard shells of the nuts will split the leaf-like outer hulls and pop open to expose the kernels. That’s the point at which huge harvesting machines roll down the long orchard rows to shake the nut clusters from the trees and send the nuts off to the processors.

Timing is crucial from the moment of harvest until the nuts have made it as far as dryer/silos, where they can be held for future processing. The delicate outer hulls must be removed within 24 hours or they will lower the value of the harvested nuts by staining the hard inner shells. Once this is done and the in-shell nuts are washed and run through a preliminary drying process to remove surface water, it is important that the moisture content of the nuts be reduced to a 6% to 8% level within the next 24 hours. After the initial processing, the nuts (which are still classed as raw nuts at this stage) can be held indefinitely until other processors who do the roasting and packaging are ready for them.

If you have ever wondered why some pistachios are dyed red, you are not alone. For years the myth has existed that Middle Eastern pistachio growers dyed the nut shells red to hide unattractive blemishes before exporting them abroad. But, according to the California Pistachio Commission, that idea is just a bit of erroneous legend that persists. Foreign imports are not dyed. Only in America are the nuts colored.

The real story dates back almost a century to the grandfather of Edgar and Albert Zaloom, currently the principals in the pistachio nut processing firm, Zaloom Bros., in Kern County. The senior Zaloom was a street vendor who sold pistachios in Brooklyn, where he faced considerable competition for customers.

Looking for a way to outdo his fellow vendors, Zaloom, so the story goes, began to offer not only natural pistachios but also some that were salt-encrusted. Needless to say, other vendors also began to search for ways to make their pistachios different, and one hit upon the idea of dying them red. For some reason the dyed nuts developed a following and throughout the years became better known in this country than the natural, beige-colored nuts.

Times Are Changing

To this day, red pistachios are still more popular in the East than the natural ones, but times are changing and that may not be true for long. In the last six years, the market for the red pistachios has dropped from 85% to a low of 15%. So it would seem the days of red pistachios are waning rapidly.

This year’s crop of pistachios is expected to reach 70 million pounds, most of which (50 million pounds) will be sold in-shell, mainly to the consumer market. Seven to 10 million pounds of the harvest will be sold in the form of shelled nutmeats, mostly to food processors and the food service industry, who will use them in ice creams, candies and other prepared foods. Within a few years the California Pistachio Commission expects the shelled (and more convenient) nutmeats to be readily available for consumer use.

Since in-shell California pistachios are marketed already split, shelling them is rarely difficult. If you plan to use them for cooking, figure that it will take about eight ounces of in-shell nuts to make two cups of nutmeats. As they tend to absorb moisture from the air, all pistachios should be kept in airtight containers and refrigerated or frozen for long-term storage.

For those who would like to expand their use of these delicious nuts, here are some suggestions for making the most of both their delicate green tint and their excellent flavor.

PISTACHIO AND CREAM CHEESE-STUFFED CHICKEN LEG

2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup whole pistachios

1/4 cup diced dried apricots or other dried fruit

4 to 6 large chicken legs

Salt, pepper

Melted butter

Strawberry Sauce

Chopped pistachios, optional

Combine cream cheese, pistachios and dried fruit. Mix well.

Cut down 1 side of each chicken leg and remove bones by scraping down meat with sharp knife. Place each boned leg flat on board, skin side down. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Divide cream cheese mixture into 4 portions. Shape each into log and place down center of each chicken leg. Roll up chicken. Wrap in foil.

Place foil-wrapped chicken legs on baking pan and bake at 350 degrees 20 minutes. Unwrap chicken and brush with butter. Continue baking until golden brown, about 20 to 30 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes.

Cut into 1/2-inch slices and serve with Strawberry Sauce. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: Foil-wrapped chicken legs may be frozen before baking.

Strawberry Sauce

6 tablespoons currant jelly

1 tablespoon lemon juice or balsamic vinegar

3/4 pound fresh or frozen strawberries or raspberries

Heat currant jelly and lemon juice in saucepan until melted. Puree berries in blender or food processor. Place through sieve to remove seeds, if desired. Add puree to saucepan. Heat through.

PISTACHIO-CHICKEN MOUSSE

4 boneless chicken breasts, skinned and cubed

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

Dash white pepper

Dash hot pepper sauce

1/2 cup whipping cream

1 tablespoon minced shallots

2 tablespoons minced sweet red pepper

1 tablespoon butter or margarine

1/2 cup chopped pistachios

Avocado Sauce

Red Pepper Sauce

Puree chicken using steel blade of food processor. Add eggs, one at time, processing until smooth. Add salt, white pepper and hot pepper sauce. Slowly add whipping cream with processor running until mixture is smooth. Transfer mixture to bowl.

Saute shallots and red pepper in butter until tender. Stir into chicken mixture along with pistachios. Place 16-inch-long piece plastic wrap on counter and spoon chicken mixture down center. Shape mixture into 12-inch-long roll and wrap tightly in plastic wrap, twisting ends to seal. Place roll on 16-inch-long piece foil, seal and twist ends.

Place roll in roasting pan large enough to hold easily, cover with simmering water and cook about 45 minutes or until roll is cooked through. Remove from water, drain and chill. To serve, cut into thin slices. Serve with Avocado Sauce and Red Pepper Sauce. Makes 12 to 16 appetizer servings.

Avocado Sauce

3 small or 1 large avocado, peeled and pitted

1/4 cup cilantro leaves

1/4 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons lime juice

Dash hot pepper sauce

Dash salt

Dash white pepper

Peel and pit avocado. Puree with cilantro, mayonnaise, lime juice, hot pepper sauce, salt and white pepper. If sauce is too thick, thin with water. Makes about 1 cup.

Red Pepper Sauce

2 sweet red peppers

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

1/8 teaspoon minced garlic

Dash salt

Dash white pepper

Place peppers on rack of broiler pan. Broil about 5 inches from heating unit, turning until charred on all sides. Remove, place at once in paper bag and close tightly. Let stand 10 minutes.

Peel and seed peppers. Puree in food processor or blender with vinegar, sugar, garlic, salt and pepper. Chill. Makes about 3/4 cup.

LEMON TARTS

2 cups flour

1/3 cup sugar

Dash salt

1/2 cup finely chopped pistachios

1/2 cup butter or margarine

1 egg, beaten

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Lemon Filling

Whole pistachios, optional

Stir together flour, sugar, salt and 1/4 cup pistachios in mixing bowl. Cut in butter until blended. Combine egg and vanilla. Blend into flour mixture. Divide dough in half, wrap in plastic wrap and chill.

When well chilled, divide each half into 4 portions. Pat each portion evenly onto bottom and up sides of 8 (2 1/2-inch) square tart pans sprayed with non-stick spray. Place pans on baking sheet.

Bake at 400 degrees 10 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool. Pipe Lemon Filling into tart shells. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup chopped pistachios around outside edges. Garnish each tart with whole pistachios. Makes 8 servings.

Lemon Filling

2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened

1 cup sour cream

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons grated lemon peel

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

Beat cream cheese until light and fluffy. Beat in sour cream, sugar, lemon peel, lemon juice and vanilla. Chill well. Makes about 3 cups.

PISTACHIO-CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 1/2 teaspoons honey

3/8 cup olive oil

1/4 cup Champagne vinegar

3 ounces pistachios, finely ground

Salt

White pepper

2 to 4 tablespoons Champagne

Salad greens

5 ounces pistachios, coarsely ground

Whisk together mustard and honey. Alternately add oil and vinegar, few drops at a time. Add finely ground pistachios and season to taste with salt and white pepper.

Whisk in Champagne just before tossing with greens. Sprinkle with coarsely chopped pistachios. Makes about 6 servings.

SPICY PISTACHIO-SHRIMP FRITTERS

3/4 pound shrimp

1 green onion, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon crushed dried hot chile flakes

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup flour

1 cup water

1 1/3 cups coarsely chopped pistachios

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

3 to 4 cups oil

1 egg white

Pistachio Mayonnaise

Cilantro Mustard

Shell and coarsely chop shrimp. Place green onion, cilantro, chile flakes and salt in food processor and process until finely chopped. Scrape down sides of bowl and add flour. With machine running, drizzle in water to form batter.

Pour batter into bowl and fold in pistachios, white pepper and shrimp. Refrigerate until ready to use, up to 24 hours.

Heat oil to 365 degrees. Beat egg white until stiff and fold into batter. Drop batter by tablespoons into oil. Fritter will drop to bottom and should rise in 10 to 15 seconds. Cook until golden brown, turning once. Remove and drain on paper towels. Makes about 4 dozen fritters. Serve with Pistachio Mayonnaise and Cilantro Mustard.

Pistachio Mayonnaise

3 egg yolks

Juice of 1 lemon

2 cups olive or corn oil

Salt

White pepper

1/2 cup finely chopped pistachios

Place egg yolks with lemon juice in food processor container. With machine running, drizzle in oil until mayonnaise forms. Remove from bowl and season to taste with salt and white pepper. Add finely chopped pistachios. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Cilantro Mustard

8 ounces Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons dry Sherry

1 bunch cilantro

Place mustard, salt, vinegar, Sherry and cilantro in food processor container and process 2 minutes. Refrigerate, covered, and store up to 1 week. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

PISTACHIO PESTO

6 ounces parsley leaves

6 ounces pistachios, finely ground

1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive or corn oil

Combine parsley, pistachios, Parmesan and salt in food processor container. Add olive oil and process to form pesto. Store, covered, in refrigerator several days or freeze for longer storage. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

PISTACHIO-ANGEL FOOD ROULADE

1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 teaspoon almond extract

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Peel of 1 lemon, grated

1 1/2 teaspoons orange juice

Peel of 1 orange, grated

1 1/4 cups sifted cake flour

2/3 cup granulated sugar

1 1/3 cups egg whites

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 cup superfine sugar

1/2 cup powdered sugar

Lemon-Pistachio Filling

Apricot jam

Coarsely chopped pistachios

Combine vanilla, almond extract, lemon juice, lemon peel, orange juice and orange peel. Set aside. Mix flour and granulated sugar. Set aside.

Bring egg whites to room temperature. Beat whites with salt and cream of tartar until barely holding shape. Gradually add superfine sugar, continuing to beat until medium-firm peaks form.

Fold in powdered sugar. Sprinkle reserved vanilla mixture over top. Fold in with reserved flour mixture. Spread evenly in 17x10-inch pan lined with buttered foil. Bake at 325 degrees 35 to 45 minutes.

Remove from oven and immediately cover with second pan or towel to retain pliability. Remove from pan within 10 minutes and spread with Lemon-Pistachio Filling. Roll up jellyroll fashion from long side. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate. Just before serving, spread cake with apricot jam and sprinkle with coarsely chopped pistachios. Makes about 20 servings.

Lemon-Pistachio Filling

1/2 pound unsalted butter or margarine

Peel of 6 lemons

1 1/3 cups lemon juice

1 1/2 cups sugar

6 eggs

7 egg yolks

2 cups whipping cream

2 cups finely ground pistachios

Combine butter, lemon peel, lemon juice and sugar in saucepan and heat until sugar dissolves. Combine eggs and egg yolks in bowl. Stir in small amount of warm lemon juice mixture, then add remaining to saucepan, return to heat and cook until thick enough to coat spoon (160 degrees).

Pour mixture through fine sieve to remove peel. Refrigerate until cool. Just before serving, whip cream to firm peaks. Fold cream and pistachios in filling.

PISTACHIO CREAM PASTA

2 cups sliced mushrooms

1/3 cup butter or margarine

1/2 cup whipping cream

1/2 teaspoon crushed basil

8 ounces pasta, cooked and drained

1 cup spinach, torn in bite-size pieces, packed

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup shredded Swiss cheese

1/2 cup chopped pistachios

Salt, pepper

Saute mushrooms in butter in skillet. Add cream and basil and heat through.

Pour sauce over hot pasta and mix thoroughly. Add spinach, Parmesan and Swiss cheeses, pistachios and season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss to mix well. Makes 4 servings.


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