A favourite delicacy of the Queen of Sheba, pistachios are a popular ingredient in dishes from around the world. But how do Britain's top chefs use them in their cooking? And how can you do the same?
When most of us think of pistachios it’s in their most familiar guise: roasted, salted and accompanied by a giant pile of shells. For if there’s one thing you can’t deny about these nuts in their snack form, it’s that they are fiendishly moreish.
There’s something so satisfying about pulling apart the shells to reveal the tasty little morsels inside, and once you’re on a shelling roll, mind firmly ensconced in Eastenders, before you know it you’ve demolished the bag.
Yet there’s so much more to these humble nuts than their status as uber snack; they actually make a versatile and quite delicious cooking ingredient that can take your food up a gear (witness this glorious recipe by Josceline Dimbleby).
Pistachios: Preserve of the rich and famous
With a lovely buttery flavour and attractive green and dusky pink hue, it’s little wonder that soon after their discovery in the Middle East back in 6760 BC they became the preserve of the rich and famous.
In fact, legend has it that especially fine pistachios were a favourite delicacy of the Queen of Sheba, who confiscated all Assyrian deliveries for herself and her royal court. Next time you see someone selfishly gorging on a bowl, you know what to say!
And if their regal credentials don’t sway you, perhaps the romance of pistachios will. A story goes that lovers used to meet under pistachio trees on moonlit nights and listen for the cracking of shells, which was considered a sign of a happy relationship. Now unless you live in the Middle East, the Med or California, you’re probably unlikely to be able to re-enact this, but it’s a nice story to regale your guests with nonetheless.
How to pick a pistachio
When selecting pistachios, keep your eye out for unblemished, plump nuts that still retain their original green colour, as sometimes the nuts are artificially dyed red. In most cases, you’re best off shelling out (sorry) a bit more to get a tastier, healthier nut.
The nuts are particularly popular in Middle Eastern cuisine, perhaps most famously in baklava, the fabulously rich and sweet pastry filled with crushed pistachios. For a good example of this, check out Andrea Oliver’s delicious aubergine, fig and caramelised shallot baklava.
Pistachios are also commonly used in Indian and Italian dishes ranging from pâtés and desserts to pilafs.
In recent years there’s been a trend for using them to make a crust for meat and fish. Nick Nairn’s Pistachio Crusted Monkfish calls for simply rolling monkfish tails in a mixture of ground pistachios, sesame seeds, white flour and seasoning and then pan-frying in butter and oil. The result is an attractive and crunchy outer that is so much more glam than batter!
Baking with pistachios
Pistachios make for terrific sweet treats when incorporated into your baking. Drawing on their Middle Eastern roots, they are great partnered with spices such as cardamom and cinnamon, and their wonderful colour offers much decorative charm.
I recommend smashing pistachios and mixing them with ground spices and double cream for a delicious cake filling. And don’t forget to add them to your biscotti – they gleam like little green gems in these biscuits, and if there were ever a nut that was born to be dunked in coffee, it’s the pistachio.
Finally, try having a go at pistachio custard. This is a luscious accompaniment to oeufs a la neige (aka snow eggs) and will send custard lovers barmy. Start by making a pistachio cream by finely grinding the nuts in a processor with sugar. Add milk and process to a paste, then chill, ideally overnight. Stir this into homemade custard (try Henry Dimblebly’s recipe for quick real custard) along with almond essence, making sure to sieve out any pieces.
I don’t know what my next pistachio make will be, but I sure as hell won’t be sharing.
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