Inspiration always comes when you are not expecting it. I knew National Pistachio Day was coming. Throughout this quest, I have tried to look ahead at what holidays are coming up in the week ahead so I can plan. Some recipes take at least a day to prepare so I need to plan for the extra time or if I am trying to seek out a special food or event, I need to know ahead of time so I can track it down. This quest gets kind of consuming because when I’m not celebrating or writing about it, I’m trying to plan what to do next. Or at least I try. It’s not always easy to look ahead when you have things to do in the moment. In any case, this was one of those times that I knew something was coming (Pistachio Day) and throughout the week, I was stewing on how I should celebrate.
The pistachio comes from the Middle East and are one of the oldest flowering nut trees in the world. There is evidence that they were around in 7,000 BC and in fact legend has it that Nebuchadnezzar, the ancient king of Babylon, had pistachio trees planted in his hanging gardens. That means that pistachios are part of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. That’s quite a nut. Although it’s not a nut. Technically it’s a seed – part of the cashew family (the same family that includes poison ivy). Pistachio trees flourish in warm climates which is why Iran continues to be the largest producer of pistachios in the world. The tree was introduced to California in the 1850s and has since taken a liking to the sunshine on the West Coast. Today almost all of the pistachios sold in the US come from California. That wasn’t always so. In fact, prior to the 1970s, most of the pistachios used to come to the US from Iran. However, after US-Iran relations became tense during the hostage situation of 1978, imports of Iranian products were limited which let the California pistachio industry take off. When the pistachios were still coming from Iran, often the shells were spotted or blemished because they were not immediately hulled and washed. To combat the spots, some marketers decided that dying the shells of the pistachio red would cover up any imperfections. That’s why pistachios were almost always red in color prior to the 1980s. The California growers got their act together and worked at proper washing and hulling of the pistachio, so the red dye was no longer needed. Today, the true green color of the pistachio nut (seed) is what we know.
Earlier in the week, I was driving home from an appointment in Warwick and I got stuck in some traffic outside of Providence. I was listening to NPR and a show on the channel called Here & Now. The host was interviewing a chef out in California who was giving us pointers on what to make for your Oscar night viewing. One of her suggestions used pistachios. She was trying to make something that would represent California, home of the Oscar, and pistachios fall in that category. It sounded delicious. Then I remembered Pistachio Day was coming on Sunday too – Oscar Sunday. It seemed too perfect. I scrambled to make a note to myself about remembering the name of the show and the website where the recipe was posted. I couldn’t find any paper, so I had Siri take a note for me and then I just hoped I’d remember I had taken a note on my phone. Luckily, I did.
On Friday, when I was at the store, I picked up a bag of pistachios. I had the choice of buying a tub of shelled pistachios or a bag of pistachios still in the shell. The kind in the shell were about half the price of the shelled variety, so I went with that knowing that I could just sit down and shell the whole bag myself saving myself some money. That’s what I did on Sunday morning. I got two bowls – one for the pistachios, the other for the shells – and got to cracking. I couldn’t help thinking of Laura’s Dad who was a known pistachio fiend. In fact, he had a special pistachio basket that had two sides to it: one for the shells and one for the nuts. He would sit in his chair watching a movie or the fights and just plow through a whole bag of them munching happily away. They were probably one of his favorite foods. My Dad was a fan too and I can recall him eating them in his easy chair, struggling with discarded shells, and just enjoying the special treat. Had they ever met, maybe our Dads could have shared a bag of pistachios together. I imagine that would look something like this:
I worked swiftly through the bag. I knew I needed about a half-cup of pistachios for the recipe so I tried to curtail myself from eating too many so I would have enough. The joy of a pistachio right from the shell is always a delight. They’re addictive. Even breaking open the shell is magic – part of the dance. I will say that when you are trying to shell a whole bag, your finger tips start feeling it. You have that salty coating on the top of your fingers, you feel slight chips in your nails from sticking them into the open crevices of the nut. It’s an odd sensation. Then you get the pistachios that only have a tiny opening and it’s a struggle to get them open. Lola calls these “squinters.” They just won’t open with your fingers. You try, but it hurts your nails even more. You try using your teeth which is a terrible idea, then you just give up. I’m not sure why that feels like failure, especially after you have just gone through a couple of dozen of nuts, but you just wanted this one – the nut with the shell that wouldn’t relent. You feel like that squirrel from the Ice Age movies. I only had a few squinters in the bag, five to be exact, so if they went to waste it wasn’t that big of a deal. But it was the hunt that was driving me. I finally discovered that if you take a paring knife, it is the perfect tool to pop open a squinter shell not unlike shucking an oyster. Victory was mine and the spoils were a bowl full of shelled pistachios.
The recipe was for Ricotta, Lemon And Honey Tartine With Salted Pistachios. That sounds complicated but it was super easy. I made it at about 4 PM when we needed a little snack to tide us over until dinner (we had missed lunch for some reason). You start by toasting some nice crusty bread. When the toast is ready, you spread on some ricotta cheese with lemon zest, salt and pepper mixed in. Then you sprinkle on some chopped pistachios. To top it off, you drizzle on some honey. Really one of the easiest recipes I have ever made.
Fantastic. Really, they were great. The lemon flavor mixes so well with the ricotta so in every bite you have this fresh citrus flavor, but you also have the saltiness of the pistachios and the sweetness of the honey. And it’s all on this delightfully crunchy bread which was sturdy enough to hold it all without falling apart. Maybe it was because we were super hungry, but these were one of my favorites. So fresh, filling and delicious. Lola felt the same too. We are going to make these again in the future. I really felt this recipe came to me with divine intervention. I am not usually listening to the radio in the middle of the day, and almost never listening to talk radio about recipes. But this one found it’s way into my ears, plus it was a pistachio recipe to use for celebrating an important day, which also happened to be Pistachio Day. That’s serendipity, all tucked away in a neat little shell.
Later in the night, we watched the Oscars. We always watch the Oscars, being the film buffs we are. In fact, a few years ago, we did one of those Oscar movie marathons where you watch five Oscar nominated movies back to back in a theater. That was an experience and what I most recall about it is the smell of the theater at the end of that day. We have seen most of the movies up for awards this seasons, though we have not seen La La Land yet. As we watched the telecast, we decided to have a little dessert and the perfect choice was of course pistachio ice cream, or gelato in our case. Pistachio ice cream was always that weird green ice cream that you would see, but never wanted. My dad would always go for it – it was his choice at any ice cream stand. I can remember seeing it in his hand and being very curious about this green ice cream, but when I heard it was pistachio wanting no part of it. I’ll stick to my chocolate chip. But, when you get around to trying it, pistachio ice cream is pretty awesome. We went with a brand called Talenti, which like I said, is actually gelato. But, they have some great flavors too and you can taste the quality in every flavor. Their Sea Salt Caramel is particularly good. For today, we went with Sicilian Pistachio.
This stuff was great too. Creamy. Great pistachio flavor in the gelato itself plus no shortage of roasted pistachio bits mixed in throughout each bite. A wonderful little treat against the back drop of the Oscars.
I think I nailed today, thanks to my divine inspiration via NPR. We celebrated the pistachio nut in two delicious and unique ways (well three really if you count me munching on nuts right from the shell). We saw the savory side and the sweet side. That’s a pretty diverse little ingredient. We should have given it an award. I can picture it now: everyone dressed in gowns and tuxes, a hush comes over the crowd in anticipation, Warren Beatty slowly opening the envelope:
“And the Oscar for Best Performance in a Supporting Recipe Role goes to …. The Cashew!” Hold on. Let me see that envelope.
Next Up: National Strawberry Day or National Kahluha Day