Pistachio nuts

Taking over the column for 2016, Jenny Hobson McGrigor kicks off the year by praising the pistachio as it hits peak season this month.

Are you hanging on to end of summer with visions of a cold beer by the water and a handful of roasted pistachio nuts with that salty outer shell within arm's reach? Before you start dreaming about the sensational pairing, let's show the nut a little more respect.

Prior to the pistachio being roasted, salted and packed, it exists as a vibrant flavorsome fresh nut, quite some distance from the dry, salty cocktail nibble we all love.

The pistachio has been a favourite for a mighty long time, and is actually a member of the cashew family. Historically, the pistachio was recognised as a common food from as early as 6750BC and its first mention in English records is around year 1400 – it's a well-established part of the diet.

Today, Italy and Turkey are major pistachio growers, along with the USA. Pistachio production was established in Australia 30 years ago and it is a blossoming industry. Pistachios are grown all over the country (Vic, SA, WA) and are starting to appear more in their fresh form in greengrocers. The season starts in February and lasts for a couple of months, so you have lots of time to experiment with and embrace these nuts.

The trees are prolific once they start to fruit and have been known to live for more than 200 years. They start slowly, not producing any nuts for the first five years or so. Once they get going there is no stopping them! Great clusters of the nuts are produced and hang from the tree – they are literally shaken off when harvested.

The nuts, when ripe, are surprisingly pink /white on the outer layer or skin. This is a furry shell which is easily peeled off to reveal the nut and often has that familiar split along it's length. I have read that this split indicates ripeness, but I'd say it also indicates ‘easy access’ - pistachios are far easier to open with the split than without! That said, spilt or no split the nuts are edible and delicious.

Look for a bright, pink colour when you are choosing your pistachios. If the outer husk is looking brown then it's getting old – best avoid these. The ripe pistachio has a bright, fresh green flesh with a soft texture almost like an avocado.

Much like that popular green fruit, pistachios are nutrient rich: high in antioxidants, vitamin A, calcium and iron. They are higher in plant protein but also slightly higher in fat than the very popular almonds. Expect a good energy boost from the oils and good fats in pistachios too – it's win-win really, as long as you avoid the added salt which nutritionists universally dislike.

Pistachios are really versatile, and make for superb snacks straight from the shell or spiced up with Indian or Middle Eastern spices. They are great sprinkled on yoghurt or when used in baking biscuits, cakes or meringues. If we are talking sweet treats though, nothing beats classic pistachio gelato. Trust the Italians!

Middle Eastern, particularly Turkish, cuisine favours pistachios. These nuts often appear as a dressing, accompanying chicken cooked on coals or adorning the classic Baklava (a top festive treat in Turkey) that is literally showered with ground pistachio nuts.

Put aside the cold beer and focus on the possibilities of the pistachio as you cling to the end of the fading summer. They are so much more than a salty nibble!

Jenny Hobson McGrigor is co-owner of Murdoch Produce. Contact her on jenny@murdochproduce.com.au or visit the website www.murdochproduce.com.au.