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The Sultan of Nuts
Pistachios add panache to all sorts of sweets — savories, too
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The delicate, distinctive flavor of pistachios can add flair to a range of dishes, from French patés to light sponge cakes such as the one in today's recipe.
IF THE PISTACHIO were a character in a fanciful costume ball, it would likely be a sultan swathed in green silk. The pistachio definitely has flair, and its unusual color and unique taste have been prized since ancient times. Yet despite its distinctive flavor, the pistachio is delicate and can be easily overwhelmed by other ingredients. That's why it's important to find the right pairings for this complex nut.

Most often we see pistachios in sweets and desserts. The nuts are a wonderful complement to confections like Middle Eastern halva, made of sesame seeds ground with sugar, or Italian nougat, prepared from beaten egg whites and sugar. Pistachios also pair extremely well with ice cream. The next time you pour a good chocolate sauce over vanilla ice cream, try garnishing the sundae with pistachios. Pistachio flecks add depth to traditional Persian ice cream made with saffron and rose water, sometimes available at Pacific Market, the Iranian grocery and deli on Lake City Way. H”agen-Dazs makes an all-natural pistachio ice cream that will surprise anyone who has tasted the artificially colored and flavored version, which bears little resemblance to the real thing.

Those who are charmed by such desserts will probably want to read Cindy Mushet's mouth-watering book, "Desserts: Mediterranean Flavors, California Style" (Scribner, 2000, $30). This baking teacher includes two luxurious recipes among others using pistachios: pistachio cake with honey-nougat icing, and pistachio and apricot baklava with orange-cardamom sauce. Less complex but similar in spirit are the pistachio sweetmeats produced at the Olive Branch, a Mediterranean grocery and deli on 15th Avenue Northeast. These all-pistachio confections are made with orange-blossom water, which seems to distill the pistachio flavor.

Thumbnail Pistachio Roulade
While pistachios are a glamorous way to end a meal, they are an equally enticing way to begin one. Pistachios add zest to French patés, where they contrast with the color and texture of preserved meat, and to a spread made of feta and blue cheeses plus wine, served at Porta, the Greek restaurant on Eastlake Avenue. Even simple toasted pistachios, whether plain or salted, are an appealing appetizer.

As it does with most nuts, toasting enhances the taste of pistachios. Toast them in the oven at 350 degrees for 5 to 7 minutes. When the nuts have cooled, rub them inside a kitchen towel to remove the skins.

Pistachios hold their flavor better in the shells, and, like all nuts, are best kept refrigerated for short-term use (up to three months).

If you're looking for pistachios with greater flavor, search for Turkish or Iranian nuts. American pistachios grown in California have been bred for appearance and ease of use, whereas pistachios from the Middle East have been cultivated more for taste. Pistachios (the name is of Iranian origin) are native to a broad area in western Asia.

According to folklore in the lands of its origin, lovers would meet beneath pistachio trees on moonlit nights to hear the shells crack open, considered an omen of good fortune. Perhaps we can take a cue from this custom and use this exotic nut to create our own rituals of love or renewal.

Andrew A. Jayasundera is a Seattle-based publications specialist and free-lance writer. Barry Wong is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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