Nutty NutritionHabeeb Salloum February 1, 2008
Pistachios and Almonds Bring Mediterranean Flare to Winter Menus
Nuts are at the top of the list when it comes to healthy foods. From the wide variety of these fine edibles, pistachios and almonds are especially favoured by many cultures, especially in Asia and the Mediterranean, where they have been cherished as a wholesome food for thousands of years.
The ancient inhabitants of these lands understood well the benefits of virtually every type of edible nut to the human body. The ancients consumed them instead of meat, either because of lower cost or religious practices, and in the process contributed greatly to their wellbeing.
Among all the nuts, pistachios and almonds were the most used for decorative purposes to make dishes more appetizing and appealing. Today, both pistachios and almonds are an important part of culinary life around the globe.
The pistachio (Pistacia vera), whose name derives from the Persian word pisteh, is believed to have originated in Iran. For thousands of years it thrived in western Asia from Syria to Afghanistan. Pistachios were prized for their creamy flavour and nutritious value by royalty and the elite in the old world, and were the favourite nuts in the imperial court of Queen Belghais of Sheba. Interestingly, they are one of only two nuts mentioned in the Bible.
During Roman times the pistachio tree was introduced to Greece and Italy from Syria. Some historians indicate that after the fall of the Roman Empire, the cultivation of pistachios disappeared from Italy and was later re-introduced by the Arabs to Sicily after their conquest of the island. In his book Islamic Sicily, Aziz Ahmad says the name of the ‘pistachio’ possibly came into Sicilian from Arabic then moved on into the other languages of Europe.
Pistachios were introduced to the U.S. by a Syrian immigrant in the late 1890s and began to be cultivated commercially in California. Today, this state’s annual production is second only to that of Iran, the largest producer in the world, followed by Turkey and Syria, the third and fourth largest. Other pistachio producing areas are the Indian sub-continent, China, Greece, Italy and Tunisia. The vast majority of the world supply of pistachios is consumed in the United States.
Pistachios are harvested when the outer husk covering the shell loosens and falls off easily when the tree is shaken. The husk covers a pale green nut encased in a beige coloured shell. A single tree in its prime can produce some 50 pounds of nuts. When placed in airtight plastic bags and stored in a refrigerator, pistachios will last for months. However, if frozen they will last for years and still retain their flavour and mineral content.
Considered one of the best of the nuts, in most cases pistachios are roasted and salted un-shelled. From 80 to 90% of pistachios are prepared in this way and consumed as snacks. Un-roasted and shelled pistachios have a sweet flavour and are used in cooking. In the Middle East they are mainly utilized in desserts both as ingredients and for decorative purposes.
Unsalted pistachio nuts are a very healthy food but rich in oil, the excessive consumption of which can add to weight problems. They can be substituted for other high fat foods, but only a small handful, no more than four times a week. Unsalted, they have a high-potassium, low-sodium content, helping to regulate the body’s fluid balance and normalize blood pressure. In addition, they are an excellent source of protein and have a good amount of calcium, iron, phosphorus, thiamine, zinc, vitamin B6 and vitamin E.
Pistachios are cholesterol-free and relatively low in calories compared to other nuts. They are high in fibre and low in saturated fat but contain a good amount of monounsaturated fat, lowering the risk of heart attack. Pistachios also contain an antioxidant that has been associated with a decreased risk of chronic disease such as cancer. Sarah K. Gebauer, a graduate student in integrative biosciences at Penn State University, explained the latest research in April 2007 to attendees at the Experimental Biology Conference: “Pistachio amounts of 1.5 ounces and 3 ounces – one to two handfuls – reduced risk for cardiovascular disease by significantly reducing LDL cholesterol levels, and the higher dose significantly reduced lipoprotein ratios.”
Much used in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Indian cuisines, unsalted pistachios, containing 165 calories per ounce, are an excellent addition to vegetarian diets. They are also superb when used in appetizers, breads, cookies, muffins, pâtés, pesto, salads, sauces, stuffing for fish and meats, vegetarian foods, and for garnishing.
These culinary uses and their healthful attributes are appreciated in many countries, especially in Syria where visitors are often given a bag of pistachios as a parting gift.
ALL ABOUT ALMONDS
On the other hand, food historians indicate that almonds are among the oldest foods known to humankind. For centuries, they have been used for food and confectionary purposes and valued for their nutritional and medicinal qualities. Some historians indicate that almonds are native to China, but it’s more likely that they originated in the Middle East. Now they are eaten all over the world.
Almond trees, referred to a number of times in the Bible, are the oldest and most widely grown of all the nut trees in the world. Pliny noticed almonds among the trees of ancient Egypt, and they were known among the Greeks and Romans long before the Christian era. The Romans introduced them into Europe through England where they were first known under the name ‘almande’ from the Latin amandela. Sometime in these early centuries, they reached the Far East by way of Arab traders.
During the Middle Ages, almonds became very important to commerce in Central Europe. Their use in the medieval kitchen was extensive, especially among the affluent classes. This was due to the Crusaders in the Middle East where the knights developed a taste for this historic nut.
Almond trees (prunus amygdalus) are related to stone fruits such as cherries, peaches and plums and come in two major types – sweet and bitter. The sweet, by far the most important, is cultivated for its edible nut. There are a variety of sweet almond types such as Barbary, Sicilian, Valentia and Jordan – the finest of the sweet species. The bitter almond, which is inedible, should be used with caution since it possesses dangerous poisonous properties. It is only grown for its oil – used in the manufacture of flavouring extracts and a number of medicines.
The rather dry-looking and leathery-green almond fruit encompasses the almond nut – harvested when the fruit dries and breaks open to reveal a rough shell. Almonds are often sold in this shell which encapsulates the oval almond nut. However, most of the time the shell is removed and the almonds are sold ready-to-eat, for use in cooking, or as an ingredient in the manufacture of food, cosmetics and other products. Currently, chocolate manufacturers use 40% of the world’s supply of almonds.
Today, almonds are grown in most temperate areas of the world such as the Middle East, Morocco, Portugal, southern Italy and Sicily, Spain, and California (in which is located the world’s largest almond factory, processing 2 million pounds of almonds per day).
Most people think of almonds as a delicious food. Only a few know that they have medicinal qualities. Early in history, the Chinese employed almond oil for soothing coughs, easing flatulence, and relaxing the muscles. Other ancient peoples used them for easing kidney disorders and fevers, prevention of intoxication, and for all types of body aches.
Modern research has established that almonds do not contain cholesterol and are an excellent source of protein as well as the minerals calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. Also, they contain a good amount of fibre, folic acid, vitamin E and phytochemicals, believed to help protect against cardiovascular disease and cancer. While they tend to be very high in calories and fat, most of the fat is polyunsaturated or monounsaturated.
Almonds and their oil are employed in a variety of medicinal and other products. They are used for cough remedies, as a soothing ingredient in internal medication, and externally as an emollient or skin softener. Also, they are used in the manufacture of cleansers, facial soaps and shampoos.
However, through the ages, almonds have been chiefly valued for their culinary attributes. One of the most versatile of nuts, they enhance all types of food with a distinctive and satisfying taste. Almonds are employed extensively in the kitchens of the Middle East, North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily. Delicious when served alone for snacks, they are also used for decorative purposes, but in the main they are used as ingredients in drinks, sauces, tajines (stews), soups, candies, chocolates and pastries. No one who has tried the almond-filled pastries of North Africa or the Arab-introduced candies of Spain can deny that almonds are a gourmet delight.
In the lands of their origin, the use of both pistachios and almonds in cooking relates to the richness of dishes served. They were and still are to a great extent the food of royalty, so people of wealth serve them at feasts and weddings. Hosts who serve a generous portion of these nuts with their food are considered to be hospitable and generous.
In the Western world pistachios and almonds are now essential in kitchens during such holidays as Christmas and New Year. And for Valentine’s Day, I have no doubt that a box of fresh pistachios or toasted almonds presented to a loved one will cheer the heart of the beloved and at the same time help to keep them healthy.
Spicy Pistachio Mashed Potatoes Appetizer
- 3 cups mashed potatoes
- ½ head garlic, peeled and crushed
- ½ cup shelled unsalted pistachios
- 4 Tbsp lemon juice
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp pepper
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- 6 Tbsp water
1) Place potatoes in a bowl and set aside.
2) Place remaining ingredients in a blender and blend for 1 minute. Thoroughly stir the blender’s content into the potatoes; then spread on a platter and serve.
Pistachio Honeyed Rice
(Serves 4 to 6)
- 2 Tbsp cooking oil
- 1 cup coarsely ground pistachios
- 4 cups hot cooked rice
- 4 Tbsp honey
- 2 Tbsp soy sauce
1) Heat oil in a frying pan then sauté pistachios until they begin to brown. Stir in remaining ingredients, then serve warm.
Bean and Almond Soup – Asseeda
(Serves about 6 to 8)
This North African soup is both exotic and tasty.
- ½ cup navy beans, soaked overnight in 8 cups of water mixed with 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- ¾ cup blanched almonds, pulverized
- 2 medium sized onions, chopped
- ¼ cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp pepper
- ½ cup white grape juice
- 4 tablespoons slivered almonds, toasted
1) In a saucepan, place beans with their water and bring to boil then cook over medium heat for 1 hour.
2) Add remaining ingredients, except slivered almonds, then bring to boil. Lower heat to medium/low and cook covered for another hour or until the beans are well cooked, adding more water if necessary.
3) Purée in a blender then re-heat. Place in a serving bowl, garnish with almonds and serve immediately.
Almond Drink – Horchata
(Serves about 10)
Horchata is an exact replica of a Moroccan almond drink that is served to honoured guests. First prepared in Andalusia by the Moors, it was taken to North Africa by the expelled Muslims and to the Americas by the Conquistadors.
- 1 cup blanched pulverized almonds
- 3/4 cup honey
- 8 cups water
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
1) Combine all ingredients, then allow to stand overnight. Place in a blender to liquefy.
2) Squeeze out all the juice possible through a thin cloth. Chill, then serve with ice cubes.
Pistachio Fruit Dessert
- 1 large plum, diced
- 1 medium apple, peeled, cored and diced
- 1 medium peach, diced
- 1 cup diced cantaloupe
- 1/4 cup raisins, rinsed
- 2 Tbsp lemon juice
- 1/2 cup honey, melted
- 1 cup water
- 3 Tbsp butter, melted
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 cup rice
- 4 Tbsp crushed pistachios
1) Combine plum, apple, peach, cantaloupe, raisins, lemon juice, honey and water in a saucepan then cover and cook over low heat for 12 minutes. Add butter, cinnamon and rice, then, stirring often, cook over low heat for 10 minutes or until rice is done, adding a little water if necessary.
2) Transfer to a serving bowl and allow to cool for 1 hour, then sprinkle with the pistachios just before serving.
Fig and Pistachio Balls
- 1 cup pistachios pulverized
- ½ lb dried figs, with stock ends removed
- ½ of an orange peel, finely chopped
- 4 Tbsp creamed honey
- 1 tsp rosewater
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- ¼ cup icing sugar (optional)
1) In a food processor, place pistachios, figs and orange peel, then process until ingredients are finely ground. Add honey, rosewater and cinnamon, then process until dough is formed. Form into balls the size of small walnuts, then set aside.
2) Place icing sugar on platter, then roll balls in icing sugar. Place on a serving tray, then sprinkle with remaining icing sugar, and serve.
Almond Stew: Al-Qidra bi-Lauz
In Morocco almonds are basic ingredients in many dishes. (Serves – 4 to 6)
- 4 Tbsp butter
- 2 lb beef or lamb, cut into l inch cubes
- 4 medium onions, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pepper
- ½ tsp ginger
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- ⅛ tsp saffron
- 1 cup slivered almonds
- 2½ cups water
- ½ cup fresh coriander, finely chopped
- ½ cup parsley, finely chopped
1) Melt butter in a saucepan, then add meat, chopped onions, garlic, salt, pepper, ginger, cinnamon and saffron, then stir-fry for 10 minutes. Add almonds and water, then cover and cook over medium heat for 50 minutes or until meat is almost done, adding more water if necessary.
2) Stir in coriander and parsley, then simmer over low heat for 25 minutes or until meat is well done, adding a little more water if necessary.
3) Serve with cooked rice or mashed potatoes.
Books by Habeeb Salloum:
- Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead: Recipes and Recollections from a Syrian Pioneer
- Classic Vegetarian Cooking: From the Middle East & North Africa
- Sweet Delights from a Thousand and One Nights: The Story of Traditional Arab Sweets
- The Arabian Nights Cookbook: From Lamb Kebabs to Baba Ghanouj, Delicious Homestyle Middle Eastern Cooking
- Scheherazade’s Feasts: Foods of The Medieval Arab World
- Bison Delights: Middle Eastern Cuisine, Western Style
Habeeb Salloum’s articles have been published in the Toronto Star, Backwoods Home Magazine, Forever Young Information Magazine, and Vegetarian Journal, among others. His most recent book Asian Cooking Made Simple – A Culinary Journey Along the Silk Road and Beyond is available at amazon at: http://tinyurl.com/zk3ueyv