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Exploring Pistachios: History and Eight Great Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Pistachios

Pistachios

The Story of the Pistachio

When not in bloom, Pistacia vera is an ugly little tree. It’s deciduous, meaning that it loses its leaves in the autumn. It is also dioecious—the trees are either male or female, with the male tree being significantly taller and broader. However, even the male trees are not very large. A mature tree will top out at about 10 meters. Pistacia vera has a spreading, umbrella-like canopy. The bark is gray in color; in young trees, it is smooth and glossy, but with age, the bark cracks and darkens. It’s nothing special.

But then in March, they transform—the ugly ducklings of the garden begin to bloom. The blossoms don’t form petals, but rather are arranged in green, grape-like clusters. Flowers are not pollinated by hummingbirds, bees, or any other insect; a gentle breeze moves the pollen from the stamens of the male flowers to the ovaries of the female trees. The fruits form and swell. These are pistachios.

The fruit of the pistachio is not really a nut—it’s a seed encased in a shell. As the seeds grow, the husks turn a brilliant red hue. In August, when mature, the husks split, revealing the seed within.

Pistachio tree flowers

Pistachio tree flowers

Where Did They Originate?

It is thought that the pistachio tree originated in Central Asia, in present-day Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan. Stands of wild trees can still be found there today. Archeologists have found evidence of the pistachio at a dig at Qalat Jarmo that dates to 6,750 B.C.

Map showing the location of Qalat Jarmo

Map showing the location of Qalat Jarmo

World Pistachio Production in Tonnes, 2019

Source: Wikipedia

CountryTonnes

Iran

337,815

United States

335,660

China

106,155

Turkey

85,000

Syria

31,813

All others (Greece, Italy, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Spain)

15,386

TOTAL

911,829

Growth Requirements

  • Sunlight: Full sun
  • Soil: Organically rich, dry to moist well-drained soil
  • Water requirements: Pistachios are drought-tolerant.
  • Maturity: Trees begin producing at year five and reach maximum production at year 12.
  • Longevity: Trees have been known to live for up to 300 years.
  • Climate: Pistachios grow best where there are long, hot summers and cold winters. They require a minimum of 1,000 chilling hours (below 45°F) for best production.

Nutrition Facts (Per 1 Cup)

Source: USDA

RDA

Calories

691

Total Fat

56 g

86%

Saturated Fat

7 g

35%

Cholesterol

0 mg

Sodium

1 mg

Potassium

1,261 mg

36%

Total carbohydrates

34 g

11%

Dietary Fiber

13 g

52%

Protein

25 g

50%

Vitamin C

11%

Calcium

12%

Iron

26%

Vitamin B-6

104%

Magnesium

37%

Trivia

  • Pistachios have the distinction of being one of only two nut trees mentioned in the Bible (the almond is the other one).
  • In Persia (modern-day Iran), the ownership of pistachio trees was a status symbol, and trading them was a very lucrative business; those who owned pistachios were wealthy.
  • It is said that pistachios were a favorite of the Queen of Sheba, and she kept the entire production in her land for herself.
  • Through the conquests of Alexander, the Great (334-323 BC), the pistachio reached Greece. Later, under the rule of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (1st century AD), the nut was also introduced into Italy and Spain.
  • Each tree produces an average of 110 pounds of seeds each year.
Chocolate pistachio cake

Chocolate pistachio cake

1. Chocolate Pistachio Cake

This beautiful chocolate pistachio cake is every bit as decadent as it looks. First, let's talk about the cake batter. A dense, moist chocolate cake starts with a double-dose of chocolate from cocoa powder and melted unsweetened chocolate. Strong-brewed coffee enhances the chocolate flavor even more. (Don't worry, it makes the chocolate taste more chocolatey, it doesn't make it taste like mocha.)

Pistachios blitzed in a food processor make the paste that's swirled into a basic buttercream frosting. There's enough to cover the cake and fill the layers.

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Finish it all with a dark chocolate ganache and a garnish of crushed pistachios.

Mortadella meatballs with pistachio pesto

Mortadella meatballs with pistachio pesto

2. Mortadella Meatballs with Pistachio Pesto

Some of you might be unfamiliar with mortadella; yes, it's a pork sausage, but it's unlike any sausage you've ever had before. The pork isn't merely ground, it's whipped into a smooth paste, seasoned with salt and pepper, myrtle, and pistachios.

The mortadella adds tons of flavor to these meatballs and makes them extra rich and moist. But the pistachio doesn't stop there. Pesto is traditionally made with basil, Parmesan, and pine nuts. Pistachios take the place of the pine nuts to make a creamy, herby sauce. Thanks to Giada de Laurentiis for developing this recipe for mortadella meatballs with pistachio pesto.

Pistachio-crusted chicken with arugula salad

Pistachio-crusted chicken with arugula salad

3. Pistachio-Crusted Chicken With Arugula Salad

There are so many reasons to love this pistachio-crusted chicken. First, it's low-carb. There is no flour or bread crumbs, so it's also gluten-free. It's juicy (no dry chicken here), quick-to-fix (under one-half hour), and it tastes great.

4. Pistachio-Crusted Salmon With Dried Cranberries

I developed this recipe for my family. Wild Pacific salmon is a sustainable, heart-healthy fish. We love the flavor and it's the Goldilocks of seafood—not too dry, not too oily, it's just right.

Cranberries and orange zest bring tart-citrus notes, mayonnaise might sound like an odd ingredient but it keeps the fish moist, tarragon brings a subtle herbal note, and the pistachios add a sweet crunch.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound salmon fillet, cut into 4 equal pieces
  • 1/2 cup low-fat or fat-free mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup chopped unsalted pistachios
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries, rough chopped
  • 2 teaspoons minced tarragon
  • 1/2 teaspoon orange zest
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Spray a rimmed baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray.
  2. Place salmon pieces on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, skin-side down. Spread equal amounts of mayonnaise on each piece of salmon.
  3. Top with pistachios and dried cranberries. Sprinkle on tarragon, zest, salt, and pepper.
  4. Bake in preheated oven for 12-15 minutes.
Pistachio paste

Pistachio paste

5. Pistachio Paste

"What in the world is pistachio paste, and what do you do with it?"

Pistachio paste is simply nut butter made from 100 percent pure pistachios. No sugar, no salt, and no food coloring. You need to remove the skins so that the resulting paste is (1) green, not muddy brown, and (2) sweet and nutty, not bitter.

Use is to sandwich cookies together, swirl it into soft ice cream, change up your favorite peanut butter cookie recipe by using pistachio paste instead of PB, schmeer it on apple slices, on toast, on bananas . . . the possibilities are truly endless.

Vegan pistachio ice cream

Vegan pistachio ice cream

6. Vegan Pistachio Ice Cream

Pistachios make a great snack on their own, but did you know you could turn them into ice cream? The secret to this pistachio vegan ice cream is to pre-soak raw pistachios in water for a few hours. This softens them so that when blitzed in a food processor or blender they turn silky smooth.

There is no dairy in this ice cream—full fat coconut milk makes it rich and creamy.

Salted honey and pistachio fig tarte tatin

Salted honey and pistachio fig tarte tatin

7. Salted Honey and Pistachio Fig Tarte Tatin

Tarte tatin sounds fancy (yes, it's French), but it's really nothing more than a caramelized fruit tart turned upside-down.

Saute fresh figs in butter and brown sugar. The mixture becomes thick and syrupy. Top with puff pastry, and bake right in the skillet. Once cooled a bit, invert the tarte on a serving plate so the pastry is on the bottom and the cooked figs on top. (Be careful with that part—the skillet and the bubbling fruit in it are hot!)

The finishing touch for the salted honey and pistachio fig tarte tatin is a mixture of (you guessed it) sea salt, honey, and chopped pistachios.

White chocolate pistachio cookie bars

White chocolate pistachio cookie bars

Our final recipe, white chocolate pistachio cookie bars, is the easiest one of all. I love to make bar cookies—there's no shaping, rolling, muss, or fuss. Mix the cookie dough, spread in a baking pan, and in 25 minutes you have 24 (or more) rich, gooey cookies.

Sources

© 2022 Linda Lum

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