World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Category: Nuts

SHF #4- Nuts for Pistachios

Xmas04_2 After a holiday feast the child in all of us yearns for something a bit sweet. This past Christmas after a lavish and dramatic (due to the fire in the oven) meal I set out a platter filled with pistachio chocolate chip biscotti, orange butter cream Florentines and homemade almond chocolate toffee. There was also a towering six-layer white cake with cranberry filling all dressed in coconut. But that’s another culinary adventure.

Nuts are a central ingredient for cooking and baking throughout the world. Dates stuffed with walnuts and almonds were one of the earliest prepared desserts. Sweet almonds are the central ingredient of marzipan for enclosing and decorating a cake. Pralines, burnt almonds cooked in sugar until caramelized remind me of the New Orleans French Quarter and pecan pie is as American as apple pie. Pale-green pistachios are luxurious and a bit exotic. As a child in the 70’s I would watch my mother’s hands turn red from the dye applied to the shell to hide blemishes. Today, due to more advanced harvesting and processing methods this market problem isn’t such a big worry so the nuts are kept natural. My mother would carefully parse out the pistachios over a period of time due to the high cost. As a child I didn’t appreciate the subtle but distinctive taste. Today that’s all changed.

In the Middle East pistachio nuts and cashews are often eaten as a mezze. In the Middle East, I’m told that at times they are sold flavored with rose water or lemon juice. Good-quality halvah, Turkish delight, baklava and nougat all contain pistachio nuts. In Italy, an ice cream called cassata combines three colors—usually brown, white and green. The most common flavors are chocolate, vanilla and pistachio ice creams. In many cultures the pistachio is said to have aphrodisiac qualities. In fact the Queen of Sheba ordered a harvest of the best trees grown in Assyria to be used for herself and royal guests.

Grown in California, Iran, Turkey, Italy and Australia, the nut belongs to the to the Anacardiaceae or cashew family. Other members of this nutty family include cashew, mango, poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac. The resin of the pistachio tree is collected and used in the making of turpentine. The bright green coloring of the pistachio is completely natural and comes from chlorophyll. In the marketplace the deeper green colored nut is an indicator of the highest quality and yields the best prices. Pistachios are typically sold roasted and salted.

According to growers, the nut is ripe when the shell usually gapes open at one end to expose the kernel. In Iran, according to Oxford Companion to Food, this state is termed khandan or laughing.

According to a recent Iranian Cultural Heritage News report, the pistachio crop represents the second most important non-oil export product in Iran after carpets. Comprising about 55% of pistachio production and over 60% of its export.

Biscotti, as if we didn’t know already, translates from the Italian as ‘twice baked.’ This particular recipe, and I’ve baked a lot of biscotti recipes, is, without question, remarkable. Call me a non-traditionalist but biscotti that breaks your front tooth is not what I’m seeking. Biscotti should be strong enough to dunk in coffee and still have a crunch. Based on the response after Christmas dinner and the many gift bags to friends this was a success.

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Power Nut

nuts1Due to the recent eating fascination of all things low carb nuts are now the new power food. Most are low in unsaturated fats and are a good source of protein, fiber and give a boost to energy levels. Hazelnuts in particular are a versatile nut. I like them best of all because of their distinct somewhat sharp taste.

Historians believe this nut to have originated in Asia which would make it one of the oldest agricultural food crops. Greeks and Romans once prized hazelnuts for their medicinal properties. The Celts equated hazelnuts with concentrated wisdom and poetic inspiration. Lore tells us that St. Patrick rid Ireland of serpents with a rod or branch of hazel. Magician’s wands are traditionally made out of the wood of this tree. There’s a lot of power and strength here.

Fast forward to today and we’re calling hazelnuts well, filberts. Let’s set the record straight. They are not the same but are close cousins. The misnomer may be thought by some historians to have originated from the Old English name, “full beard,” because of the long husk that entirely covers the nut in some varieties. Others thought the name was derived from St. Philibert; August 22, the day dedicated to the saint corresponds to the time, in England, of the ripening and harvesting of the earliest filberts er, ah, hazelnuts.

No matter, what we do know for sure is that there are over 100 known varieties grown throughout the world with the majority grown in Black Sea coast area of Turkey. In the United States, Oregon accounts for 99% of all hazelnut production in the United States primarily in the Willamette Valley. The best, though I’ve never tried them, come from Italy’s Piedmont region.

According to the Hazelnuts Growers of Oregon the nuts are high in dietary fiber, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, vitamin E, and 80 percent of its total fat is monounsaturated. These “good fats” are believed to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. They also do not contain cholesterol.

Medical documents from about 1,800 years ago detail remedies using hazelnuts. An ointment of burnt hazelnut shells and bear suet was smeared on balding heads; a common cold remedy has the nut mixed with black pepper and a persistent cough was treated with a ground hazelnuts and honey. Not sure if there is any worth in this treatments.

Most of the magic of hazelnuts today is in its most frequent use–baking and confections—particularly in concert with chocolate.

For the record when you’re shopping in your local nut house be it the grocery or virtual shop Oregon nuts are reddish-brown, and the Turkish nuts are more chestnut-brown. It is acorn-shaped and about the size of a grape. The nut’s dark papery skin should be removed by toasting the nuts in a 325°F oven for about 8 to 10 minutes until their skins begin to crack. Watch carefully and closely and smell. When you start to smell them it means the oils are being released. Remove them and transfer the hot nuts to a kitchen towel and vigorously rub them together to remove most of the skin. It’s okay if there is some skin left behind. Let the nuts cool before incorporating into the recipe. It’s convenient too if you do prepare more nuts than you need as they can store easily the fridge or freezer. The baking expert Flo Braker, the author of several definitive books on baking, suggests freezing the roasted hazelnuts as the skins will easily flake off. It works, you just need to anticipate doing it.

My first introduction to hazelnuts came in the form of Nutella. This chocolate-hazelnut spread is to Italians what peanut butter is to Americans and vegemite is to Australians. According to company history, Nutella spread, was created in the 1940’s by Pietro Ferrero, a pastry maker and founder of the Ferrero company. One of the world’s largest chocolate producers it’s treats include Kinder Surprise Eggs, egg-shaped chocolates with tiny toys inside, Mon Cheri chocolates, Rocher chocolates, and Tic Tac breath mints.

Nutella, created during a wartime cocoa shortage, due to war rationing making chocolate a delicacy limited to a lucky few. So Ferrero mixed cocoa with toasted hazelnuts, cocoa butter and vegetable oils to create an economical spread of chocolate which he called “pasta gianduja” (pasta jon-du-ja).

But sole credit can’t be bestowed on Pietro. According to an 1996, Atlantic Monthly article Corby Kummer

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