Editors' Note: After receiving a barrage of hits by people wanting to know the nut family that included pistachios, we realized we had neglected to mention that pistachios belonged to the Anacardiaceae or Cashew Family. The other members of the unusual family are cashew, mango, poison oak, poison ivy, and poson sumac. R & Z 8/25/02
What happens when you put a male pistachio tree together with a female pistachio tree? Of course, little baby pistachios. Ain't nature great? It may be surprising to learn that sex does enter into the life of the pistachio--not sex as humans know it, but certainly pistachio style sex.
Pistachios trees are dioecious in nature, meaning that the sex of some trees is male and some female, and that both are needed for complete pollination. The female trees produce the nuts while the male produces the pollen. Hmm, that seems not too unfamiliar from human procreation. One male tree is needed for every six female trees, a fact that could spark some interesting parallels, but, don't worry, we won't. Male and female pistachio trees are often grafted together to bring about pollination. The farmer also relies on the wind to aid in pollination in order for fruit to "set," or begin to develop.
Waverly Root, in his book, Food, expounds, almost with adoration, on the distinctive green color of the pistachio being responsible for its popularity throughout the centuries. Referring to food in general, he explains that, "It can please the palate without pleasing the eye, but if it also pleases the eye, it will please the palate even more. Taste is a mysterious phenomenon, to which psychological factors contribute largely; one of those factors is color. It is probably most potent at the beginning of a meal and at its end. Color in hors d'oeuvres stimulates the appetite, color in desserts harmonizes with their gay, festive nature. One light-hearted color is lacking for desserts: green." The pistachio certainly fills the gap and lends its warm green hues to many desserts, especially pistachio ice cream, a long-time American favorite.
If you've never experienced the delightful tastes and textures of pistachios, begin with purchasing the fresh, raw nuts in the shell. Then simply pull apart the half-opened shell and enjoy. A hint of sweetness comes through the rich nutty flavor. The texture, if they're truly fresh, will have a distinct crispness. We, too, have to agree with Waverly Root that the pistachio's rich, slightly yellow-green color presents a pleasing invitation and beckons one to reach for another nut.
The pistachio tree bears a resemblance to an apple tree with its appealing round shape and a trunk that may be singular or multiple. Rather unique among nut bearing trees, pistachios grow in clusters like grapes, each nut enclosed in its own reddish-green hull instead of each nut growing singularly.
The female nut most commonly grown in California and revered for its large size is the Kerman, whose seed originally came from Iran. Its male counterpart, the Peters (pistacia terebinthus) originated in Fresno, California by a grower named A.B. Peters.
Archeologists have found evidence in a dig site at Jarmo, near northeastern Iraq, that pistachio nuts were a common food as early as 6750 BCE. Then, for unknown reasons, these nuts fell into obscurity until 2000 BCE when the Near East sprouted in population and less common foods such as pistachios were rediscovered and even cultivated. The hanging gardens of Babylon were said to have contained pistachio trees during the reign of King Merodach-baladan about 700 BCE.
Along with almonds, pistachios enjoy a rare mention in the Old Testament as the only two nuts found in the bible. "So their father, Jacob, finally said to them, 'If it must be, then do this: put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as gifts--a little balm, a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.'" (Genesis 43:11)
In the rocky hills of Palestine and Lebanon, pistachio trees grew wild, their treasured fruits picked and eaten raw or brought home and fried with salt and pepper. Not much went to waste in ancient times. Even the oil from the pistachio was pressed and used for cooking as well as for flavoring desserts.
The delightful green nutmeats had prominence in tasty, historical desserts such as Baklava, Nougat, and Turkish Delight where they served as a major ingredient. In biblical times chopped pistachios were added to fruit compotes, puddings, and stuffings, while the nuts in their ground-up form added body and flavor to many savory sauces. Today, pistachios are a familiar American snack, while in Iranian cooking, the nuts are often added to rice dishes along with raisins or currants, herbs and saffron.
In the first century AD the pistachio made its debut in Rome via the Emperor Vitellius. Apicius, Rome's Julia Child of the period, mentions pistachios in his classical cook book but denies us any of the recipes in which he includes them. The nuts traveled from Syria to Italy in the first century AD and spread throughout the Mediterranean from there.
The Persians used the pistachio abundantly, not only for desserts, but also in ground-up form to thicken and enhance sauces. The Arabs learned a few culinary secrets from the Persians and included pistachios in their dessert delicacies such as Baklava, a rich treat made from buttered filo dough alternately layered with nuts and bathed in a sweet syrup after baking. Pistachios were willing travelers and held up well on distant journeys, trekking from Persia to China via the Silk Route.
When the Arabs settled in the southern part of Spain, known as Andalusia, and in Sicily during medieval times, they introduced many foods from their native lands. Because pistachios were one of the foods the Arabs longed for, they transported either seeds or pistachio trees to these regions. The pistachios grown in Italy took on a very deep green color, were highly prized, and brought the best prices.
By the time pistachios were imported into Europe on a regular basis during the Middle Ages, they were quite expensive and not everyone could afford them. However, in spite of their high cost, merchants of France had an ample supply for anyone willing to splurge on the green wonders. During the 16th century pistachios arrived in England where they were not a raging gastronomic success.
California encountered the pistachio in 1854 when Charles Mason, a seed distributor for experimental plantings, brought the pistachio to this country. Several years later, in 1875, a few small pistachio trees imported from France were planted in Sonoma, California. In the early 1900's Chico, California, became the home of the first experimental Plant Production Station. Funded by the USDA, this station brought in a variety of pistachio trees.
By the late1970s the San Joaquin Valley in central California became a burgeoning area for the commercial production of pistachios. Today, California produces about 80 million pounds of pistachios a year, a number that is expected to rise with their steadily growing popularity. Other large producers of pistachios today are Iran and Turkey. Syria, India, Greece, and Pakistan also grow pistachios but on a smaller scale.
The pistachio tree contributes more than its nuts to society. The tree oozes a resin, called terebinth, which is collected and used in the making of turpentine. Wood from the tree is an attractive, hard wood, dark red in color and valued in cabinet making.
The pistachio tree takes five to eight years to begin producing "fruit,' but between the 15th and 20th year they reach maturity and bear fully. Alternate years produce a heavy crop, the off year bearing very little fruit and sometimes no fruit at all. The familiar pistachio nut is actually the seed of the plant. The trees, like many humans, are sensitive to extreme conditions such as drought, or excessive rain, heat, cold, and high winds. The trees develop a brownish green flower in early summer. When ripe, in late summer or early autumn, pistachios split open along their seams called sutures. Those trees that bear a predominance of pistachios that are closed indicate growth conditions that were less than perfect, such as irregular watering.
The bright green coloring of the pistachio is completely natural. A deep green color is an indicator of the highest quality nut and brings the best prices. Lesser valued are those that range from yellow to light green.
The pistachio is a deciduous tree that can survive for hundreds of years, and even as long as a century in just the right climate. Sometimes introduced into landscapes as ornamentals, pistachio trees stand out with their attractive large, pointed, gray-green foliage that grows two to four inches long.
Harvesting pistachios takes place in the late summer or early autumn when the hulls that cover the shell become loosened from the nut or "seed," indicating a fully mature crop. Large tarps are then spread out under the trees. The trees are shaken while the tarps capture the bulk of the ripe pistachios that fall to the ground.
The outer hulls are then quickly removed by rubbing them with a coarse burlap in order to preserve the clean, white appearance of the shells and prevent staining.
Next, the nut processors soak the shells in a water-based brine followed by sun drying, a process that opens the shells even wider. In Turkey, where the pistachios are a little smaller and the shells are not as wide open as the California varieties, the nuts are placed in a brine, hulls and all. Brining with the hulls on leaves a pinkish coloring on the shells. Some nut authorities believe that the California growers attempted to copy-cat the appearance of the Turkish pistachios by dying them with red food coloring. Others claim the red dye is used to distract from imperfections and discoloration on the shells due to poor quality of the nuts. The red dyed pistachios were more available 40 to 60 years ago than they are today. Often, unopened pistachios are cracked open by machine. These, too, are considered lower in quality or from trees that were not properly maintained and irrigated.
In years past, the sorting of cracked nuts and those unopened was all done by hand, which may explain why pistachios were always more expensive than most other nuts.
To salt pistachios, the processor boils them in a salt solution. The nut s are then dried fully and stored in plastic bags. Because of the pistachio's split shell, processors are easily able to roast the nuts without first shelling them.
A picturesque tale that originated in the Middle East describes two lovers in a romantic setting in a beautiful grove of pistachio trees. They meet on a moonlit night, sit under the trees that just happen to have reached perfect maturity, and listen to the sound of the little pistachio shells bursting open. Blessings of good fortune, happiness, and abundance then befall them.
The Queen of Sheba was convinced that pistachios were a powerful aphrodisiac and ordered the pistachio harvest of the best trees grown in Assyria to be used for her and her royal guests only.
Kathleen E. McMahon, PhD, RD, writes on behalf of the California Pistachio Commission, "Current status of research on monounsaturated fats in nuts demonstrates that eating nuts can play a role in lowering coronary heart disease risk by decreasing both total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels."
Pistachios are rich in phytosterols, known for lowering blood cholesterol. Animal studies have shown that phytosterols may have anti-cancer properties. According to the 2000 USDA Dietary Guidelines that recommend a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, pistachios are an ideal food.
In the well-known DASH diet study, eating 4 to 5 servings of nuts per week played an important role in lowering blood pressure in patients with hypertension. Minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium, found in pistachios are important in maintaining normal blood pressure.
Pistachios are a key player in the highly respected Mediterranean diet as well and are considered one of the major components of the diet. Studies revealed that those on the Mediterranean diet had a lower risk for heart disease and hypertension.
In numerous medical studies comparing dietary data of vegetarian and plant based diets to standard American diets, vegetarians and vegans consistently register the lowest rates of chronic diseases and the longest life expectancy. An important staple of the plant-based diet is nuts and seeds.
Pistachios are the richest source of potassium of all the nut family. The potassium content of one ounce of pistachios is equal to that of one orange, a whopping 310 mg. Two ounces of pistachios contain more potassium than one medium banana. More of the pistachio's nutritional attributes for one ounce include 2 mg. vitamin C, 66 IU vitamin A, 44.9 mg magnesium, 16.5 mcg folic acid, 1.9 mg. iron, 38.3 mg. calcium, 5.8 g protein, and 3.1 g dietary fiber.
That single ounce of pistachios carries more than 10% of the Daily Value for dietary fiber, vitamin B6, thiamine, magnesium, phosphorous, and copper.
In comparing raw pistachios to dry roasted, you will find that some nutrients are diminished when the nuts are dry roasted, such as only 19.8 mg vitamin C, .9 mg iron, 36.9 mg. magnesium, and 275 mg. potassium compared to the higher figures noted above.
If pistachios stored over a long period lose their natural crispness, you can quickly revitalize them. Just place them on a baking sheet and heat them in the oven at 250 to 300 for 6 to 9 minutes.
If you simply enjoy nibbling on a handful or two of pistachios a day, and are using them up quickly, they can spend a few days sitting in a bowl on your kitchen counter without becoming rancid.
What more perfect finish to a satisfying meal could there be than an attractive bowl of fresh pistachios. So inviting,, they beckon one to reach out, pluck a singular gem, and begin that joyful process of pulling apart the shell, and finally tasting the rich sweetness of the nutmeat itself.
Add a few shelled, chopped raw, unsalted pistachios to soups and salads as a garnish, or use one or two handfuls as a main ingredient in a salad dish.
Grind raw unsalted pistachios in an electric coffee grinder and add them to fresh vegetable or fruit juices for a protein boost.
Add raw, unsalted pistachios to the blender when making smoothies.
Use them as a garnish in steaming hot soups.
Bake them into casseroles.
Add raw pistachios to grain dishes at the end of cooking. They're especially attractive with the lighter color grains, such as rice, quinoa, millet, and barley.
Include pistachios in any legume pates, such as a lentil pate. When the pate is sliced and arranged on a platter, the pistachios stand out and lend eye appeal.
Grind raw unsalted pistachios in an electric coffee grinder and add as a thickener to soups and sauces. Choose your basic ingredients carefully because ground pistachios will clearly affect the color of your finished dish.
Here's a gourmet main dish recipe that shows off the pistachio as a sauce that dresses up the top of an exotic, yet delicate combination. It's easy, yet impressive.
TO ASSEMBLE: Mound rice onto a large serving platter, either round, oval, or square.
An alternate serving suggestion is to make up individual plates in the same pattern as described above.
*If you're a purist and want to keep the sauce "clean," use ground white pepper.