The pistachio nut is the fruit of the common pistachio tree, native to the Middle East. Over the centuries, its cultivation spread all around the Mediterranean region, and to California in the 20th century. It was introduced into France in the 17th century, then known as the « almond of Persia ». It is found in old recipes under that name. The fruit, or nut, has a purple skin and sweet green flesh protected by a shell. The shell naturally splits when the fruit is ripe. Pistachios can be eaten raw or roasted, salted or unsalted.
The best pistachio nuts come from Iran, and are particularly flavorful. Greek pistachios are also highly renowned. However, most of the pistachios sold in France are from California. They can be bought whole, shelled and peeled, plain or salted, ground, or toasted and salted. For cakes and pastries, choose pistachios that are shelled, peeled, and unsalted. Pistachio paste, a puree of pistachio nuts often with added glucose and food coloring, is sold in tubs. There are also pistachio purees, increasingly made from organic pistachios. You can also find pistachio meal (ground pistachios), pistachio oil, pistachio pesto, and pistachio cream, a mixture containing pistachios, white chocolate, sugar, skim milk, and pistachio flavoring.
Whole pistachios should be shelled first. The easiest way to peel them is to blanch them for two or three minutes in boiling water, then cool and rub off the fine layer of skin.
Pistachio nuts are often eaten as snacks, simply toasted and salted. But they have a much broader use in cooking. Pistachios are found in terrines and patés, sauces, and even in meat stuffings. A pistachio crust can be made to coat a cut of lamb or salmon before cooking in the oven. They are used to make such cold cuts (cooked meats) as galantine and mortadella. In pastry making and confectionery, pistachios are also extensively used in mousses and creams, ice cream, ganache, nougat, chocolate bonbons, etc.
Pistachios can keep for close to three months stored in an airtight container away from heat or in the refrigerator. They can also be frozen but in their shells. Pistachio meal can be stored the same way, but become rancid quickly.
Like all nuts, pistachios contain a lot of fat (which is why it is used to produce oil), protein, dietary fiber, minerals of all kinds, and B-group vitamins. Its fat content is principally composed of unsaturated fat, which is why it becomes rancid quite quickly. Pistachios also contain a great deal of phytosterols and antioxidants. This combination of nutrients allows for it to lower high levels of blood cholesterol. It is, therefore, an excellent health food, particularly when eaten raw (untoasted and unsalted).
The green Bronte pistaschio (Pistacchio Verde di Bronte) is a renowned and tasty pistachio nut variety native to Sicily and enjoys Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. It is the pistachio of choice for leading pastry chefs, such as Pierre Hermé and Philippe Conticini.