BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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The Smiling Nut

Question: What’s a food photographer’s favorite subject?

Answer: Pistachios, because they’re always smiling!

Now you know my best/worst joke. Should I attempt to tell it again in person, I wouldn’t blame you for rolling your eyes, sighing in exasperation, or both at once. Despite that, I’m certain it will still happen sooner than later because I just can’t resist a terrible pun, especially when it relates to food. The likelihood that it might become a prime interjection into standard conversations is also high because pistachios happen to be one of my very favorite nuts, if I was forced at gunpoint to pick just one.

Granted, I’m far from a discerning connoisseur. Typical choices for these edible emeralds range from raw to toasted, in shell or out. Maybe you might get some fancy seasoning sprinkled into the mix, or keep it classic with a shower of fine salt. It’s an embarrassing admission to make in the age of hyper-awareness surrounding food sourcing and the celebration of less conventional options, but it never even occurred to me that there might be different types of pistachios out there. All nuts are not created equal, though history suggests that the pistachio originated from one general region in Asia over 9,000 years ago. Notable growers today include California, which is the sort of green emerald most US consumers are likely to pick up from the grocery store, consciously or not, as well as Iran and Turkey.

Just a single farm from any of these locations might be churning out a half dozen unique varietals, too. Rarely would the average consumer be able to pick them out by name, but the distinction between nuts is striking. Some might range from a mere centimeter to a full inch long; a whole spectrum of green hues can tint the kernels; flavors can dominate with more buttery, woodsy, grassy, or savory notes; textures might be impeccably crisp, or more tender, almost like a raw pea. Just scraping the surface on the micro-mutations of the cashew’s cousin makes me realize just how little I know about this beloved nut.

Greek pistachios had never crossed my radar prior to a press release from Hellas Farms. I wondered how different they could really be from my standard economy pick, a no-name brand from a pirate who’s name rhymes with Grader Schmoe’s. It was surprising to see the warm red blush tinting these nuts, a reminder of where the antiquated practice of dying the shells once came from. A very light kiss of salt accentuated the lightly roasted flavors embedded within, highlighting the high quality nut in a very simple, unfussy way.

The ultimate takeaway from this nutty exploration, however, is not that it’s necessary to seek out pistachios with particular pedigrees; rather, what counts more than anything else is freshness. All too often, packaged nuts sit on grocery store shelves for months, or even years, before you toss them into your cart. It makes a world of difference to have them shipped directly from the source, and especially when that producer has a real passion for their pistachios. No matter from where in the world your pistachios hail, opting for a more carefully cultivated selection will certainly give you something to smile about.


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Don’t Pass Over Quinoa

The beauty (and exquisite torture) of many Jewish holidays like Passover is that they’re not just one-day affairs, but week-long “celebrations.” When those particular events carry dietary restrictions as well, it can add up to an extra load of work simply planning out a standard set of meals, beyond the mandated festive meal with family.

Serving dish provided by Steelite

While this offering of quinoa, a pseudo-grain that just barely escapes the label of kitniyot, may come a bit late for your seder, it will be a delicious respite from dry boards of matzo in the days to come. Gently caramelized and naturally sweet onions carry this dish of hearty cooked quinoa, roasted gold beets, and nutty toasted pistachios. Redolent of cumin and bright, fresh herbs, the flavors could be suitable for either a formal dinner or a spur of the moment picnic, easily enjoyed both hot and cold. Tender beets yield to a satisfying crunch of nuts, creating a textural harmony throughout. I used an attractive blend of white, black, and red quinoa from Trader Joe’s for added eye-appeal, but of course, any one color would taste just as good.

Pistachio-Quinoa Pilaf

2 Medium Gold Beets (About 2 Cups Diced)
1 Cup Uncooked Quinoa
2 Cups Water
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
1 Medium Yellow Onion (About 1 1/4 Cups Chopped)
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/4 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Pinch Cayenne Pepper
1/4 Cup Packed Fresh Parsley, Chopped
1 Tablespoon Packed Fresh Mint, Finely Minced
1/2 Cup Shelled and Toasted Pistachios

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees, and wrap your beets in aluminum foil so that they’re completely covered. Place them in the oven, and allow them to bake, much like you would for a baked potato, for 60 – 75 minutes, depending on the size of the beets. When the beets are done, they should yield easily to a knife, if not be quite fork-tender. Let rest until cool enough to handle, and then peel and dice. Measure out 2 cups of diced beets, and set aside.

While the beets are roasting, you can save some time and get started on the quinoa. Bring the water to a boil in a medium sized saucepan, and then add in the dry quinoa. After the water returns to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and let simmer for about 15 minutes, until the liquid has been absorbed. Leave the quinoa covered and let rest for at least 15 additional minutes, so that it can steam a bit and fully hydrate. Transfer the quinoa to a large bowl and toss lightly with the chopped beets.

In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat, and add in the chopped onion. When it begins to sizzle lively, turn down the heat to medium-low or low, depending on how hot your stove runs. You want to cook the onions very gently so that they don’t brown around the edges and char, but slowly soften and caramelize. This process can take 30 – 40 minutes, so be patient, and continue to stir periodically. Add in the salt after the first 10 minutes, and be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan thoroughly to prevent pieces from sticking and burning. The onions should take on an amber brown color and a become highly aromatic. Incorporate the balsamic vinegar and add the onions into quinoa mixture, along with the remaining tablespoon of oil.

Finally, sprinkle in all of the spices, chopped herbs, and pistachios right before serving. Stir well to distribute evenly. Serve either warm, or refrigerated in an air-tight container for up to 5 days, and serve chilled.

Makes About 3 Main Dish Servings; 6 Side Dish Servings

Printable Recipe

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