Culture Mexico Life
pistachios The U.S. is the world’s top producer of pistachios, but Sonora and Chihuahua grow them as well.

‘Tis the season for…pistachios!

These 'smiling' nuts are loved the world over

It seems that suddenly, at every stoplight in Mazatlán, where I live, someone is selling cellophane bags of pistachios. Is it harvest season for these nuts, I wondered?

Turns out, it is. Pistachios are harvested in early fall, and in Mexico, the desert climates of Chihuahua and Sonora are where they’re grown. The trees need long, hot, dry summers; and while it takes seven to 10 years for pistachios to begin bearing fruit and producing nuts, modern grafting techniques have shortened that time. Pistachio trees can live up to 300 years (!), and in Iran and Turkey, which have the tastiest and most popular varieties, old (dare we say “ancient”?) orchards abound. The southwest United States is the world’s biggest producer of pistachios, though.

Like cashews, pistachios grow inside an odd-looking fruit called a drupe. The distinctive half-open shell occurs naturally, once they ripen, with a perceptible pop. The nuts are then hulled, dried and sorted as “open-mouth” or “closed-mouth.” Harvesting and processing is time-consuming and labor-intensive, hence pistachio’s relatively high cost. Like blueberries and beets, they’re full of antioxidants.

In Mexican cuisine, pistachios are used in sweets like polvorones (the real Mexican wedding cookies), nut brittle and a variety of other candies. They can also be ground with cilantro to make flavorful sauces for chicken and pork. In other countries, pistachios are used in a wide variety of dishes, from Sicilian cakes, cookies and pasta sauces to Middle Eastern baklava, layered cakes and couscous. In China, pistachios are a traditional New Year’s gift, and their “smiling” shell represents happiness, health and good fortune.

Pistachio mole shrimp
Pumpkin seeds are usually the star ingredient in green mole sauce, but pistachios add another flavor profile.

Green Mole

  • 3-4 zucchini or any summer squash, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 Tbsp. canola, vegetable or grapeseed oil
  • ¼ small white onion, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, sliced
  • 1 poblano chile, sliced
  • 1 güero, jabanero or serrano chile, sliced
  • 1 cup finely diced tomatillos
  • 1 cup roasted, shelled pistachios
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro
  • 2 fresh or dried hoja santa leaves
  • ½ cup baby spinach

Heat oven to 350 F (177 C). Place squash on a baking sheet; drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Roast until lightly brown, 15–25 minutes.

In a pot, heat canola/vegetable/grapeseed oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; cook, stirring, 5 minutes. Add chiles and cook, stirring, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add tomatillos and cook, stirring, until soft, 5-8 minutes more. Add ⅔ cup water and pistachios. Simmer 5 minutes. Remove from heat; transfer to blender (or use an immersion blender) along with cilantro, hoja santa and spinach. Blend until smooth. Add salt to taste.

Serve warm with the roasted zucchini. Serve topped with greens (e.g., cilantro, verdolaga, baby spinach), with rice and tortillas.

Mint, Pistachio and Feta Pesto

Serve with pasta, poultry, potatoes, pork or roasted veggies.

  • ¼ cup unsalted shelled pistachios
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Salt
  • ½ cup plus 2 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
  • 5-6 sprigs fresh mint leaves
  • ¼ cup packed fresh parsley
  • 2½ Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1-2Tbsp. feta cheese

Using food processor or immersion blender, pulse pistachios, garlic, pinch of salt and 2 Tbsp. oil until nuts and garlic are finely ground. Add herbs, cheeses and remaining oil; pulse until finely minced. Add salt to taste.

Pistachio Milk

  • 1 cup raw shelled pistachios, covered with water by 2 inches and soaked overnight at room temperature
  • 4 cups hot (not boiling) water
  • 5 tsp. agave syrup or other sweetener
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. ground cardamom
  • ½ tsp. vanilla

Line a fine-meshed sieve with a double layer of cheesecloth; set over a deep bowl. Drain pistachios, discarding liquid, and add soaked nuts to blender. Add hot water; blend on high for 2 minutes. Carefully pour blended nut mixture through cheesecloth-lined sieve; squeezing out as much liquid as possible. (Ground pistachios can be reserved for another use). Whisk in agave syrup/sweetener, salt, cardamom and vanilla to pistachio milk. Cool completely, then transfer to bottle or container. Store in refrigerator for up to one week.

Pistachio beet salad
This salad’s bright flavors include crunchy pistachios, succulent roasted beets and juicy citrus wedges.

Roasted Pistachios

Preheat oven to 350 F (177 C). Place shelled pistachios in single layer on baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and seasoning to your preference. Roast 10–12 minutes, tossing occasionally. Remove from oven, sprinkle with salt if desired and cool.

Coconut Nut Macaroons

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 cups shredded unsweetened coconut
  • ½ cup chopped pistachios
  • 3 egg whites, lightly beaten until just foamy
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • Pinch salt

Heat oven to 350 F (177 C). Whisk together egg whites, sugar and vanilla in large bowl. Add coconut and pistachios. Using a spatula, mix well.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Wet your hands and make small mounds (1–2 Tbsp.) of mixture on pan about an inch apart. Bake until firm to touch and lightly browned on edges, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven; cool on a rack at least 30 minutes before eating.

Roasted Beet, Citrus and Ricotta Salad

  • 2 pounds beets, roasted or steamed, peeled and cut into ½ -inch chunks
  • ¼ cup olive oil, divided
  • Salt and pepper
  • ¼ cup toasted shelled pistachios
  • 1 grapefruit, cut into wedges, 1 Tbsp. juice reserved separately
  • 1 orange, cut into wedges, 1 Tbsp. juice reserved separately
  • 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 2 Tbsp. minced fresh parsley
  • 1 Tbsp. honey
  • ½ cup ricotta or requesón
  • Optional: 2 sprigs thyme or rosemary

Crush pistachios in a mortar and pestle or chop with a knife until lightly crushed but not pulverized. Transfer half of nuts to large bowl. (Reserve remainder for garnish.) Whisk in citrus juices, shallot, herbs, and honey. Drizzle in remaining 3 Tbsp. olive oil while whisking constantly. Season with salt and pepper.

Toss beets and citrus with vinaigrette in large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Spread half of ricotta/requesón over a serving platter, place dressed beets/citrus on top, dollop with remaining ricotta/ requesón, sprinkle with reserved pistachios and fresh herbs if using, and serve.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expatsfeatured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Facebook.

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