A project of Straus Communications, this column originally appeared in the Oakland Tribune on April 2, 2003.

Farm Fresh

Farmer goes nuts for pistachios
By Laurel Miller - CONTRIBUTOR

"When I was growing up in Iran," reminisces pistachio farmer Ahmad Dalvi, "we would spend hours sitting around shelling 'green,' or unripe, pistachios. We liked to smash them up and mix them with feta cheese, then eat them spread on lavosh or pita bread. I sell green pistachios because they have a lot of childhood memories for me."

Although Dalvi's unripe pistachios are only available through September, his roasted and seasoned pistachios are available at some farmers' markets year-round.

Dalvi, a former engineer, began farming 17 years ago. Today he grows 17 acres of pistachios and citrus on his 37-acre Sacramento property, Happy Nuts Farm.

"I got into farming after I was laid off from an engineering job. I ran into an old friend, who introduced me to agriculture. My interest in sustainable farming came about in the same way, through being educated by others."

Dalvi eschews the use of pesticides or fumigants on his crops. "Fumigants are commonly used in pistachio farming," he says. "although in Iran, where the majority of the nuts are grown, there was traditionally not much pesticide use until 50 years ago."

Pistachios have been cultivated in the Middle East since 7,000 BC. They are eaten extensively throughout the region as a snack, albeit an expensive one -- pistachios cost three to four times as much as other nuts.

"In the Middle East, it is customary to offer pistachios as a snack to guests, to show respect."

Next to Iran, California is the top producer of pistachios, although the nuts are also cultivated in Syria, Turkey, Australia, Spain and North Africa.

The most common cultivated variety is the kerman, a hybrid developed in California in the 1950s.

Dalvi also cultivates badmi, which he says have a creamy taste, and akbari, which have a high moisture content.

Pistachios are harvested by a machine that shakes the tree to loosen the nuts. They are then taken to a peeler that removes the soft outer skins, revealing the shells, containing the actual nuts.

Technically, the pistachio nut is the kernel of a small, olive-like fruit that grows in small clusters on the trees. Although pistachios were traditionally dried in the sun, modern methods involve drying the nuts in a dehydrator.

The pistachios are then graded, sorted and sometimes seasoned. Dalvi specializes in seasoned nuts, including flavors such as mesquite roast; Persian roast (lemon juice and saffron); garlic-onion; lime-chile; salsa; roasted salted; and unroasted unsalted.

He also makes pistachio butter, a rich, creamy, decadent treat that makes for a pleasant change of pace from peanut butter.

The old tradition of dying pistachios red began as a way to disguise blemishes and other imperfections. "The outer skin has a high amount of tannic acid," Dalvi says. "If the nuts are not taken to the peeler right away, the tannins will stain the shells with dark yellow splotches, so the nuts would be dyed red to make them more aesthetically pleasing."

Whatever the color of their shells, the green hue of the actual nuts sets pistachios apart. The green color is caused by chlorophyll.

Like most people, I love pistachios in their purest form -- straight from the shell. But the sweet, almost creamy nuts lend a subtle, delicate flavor to a wide range of dishes, from ice cream and pastries to nougat, savory sauces and cake filling.

To remove the papery outer skin from shelled, roasted nuts, just rub the nuts in a towel.

Pistachios are highly perishable, Dalvi says, and should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container. They will go rancid if kept for long periods, however, so buy only what you can use in a few weeks.

Happy Nuts Farm sell pistachios at the Berkeley and Marin farmers' markets. You can also mail-order nuts by calling (916) 362-7712.

From "The Sugar Club Cookbook" by Peter Gordon (Soma, $27.00).

Sbricciolona means "she that crumbles" and is an apt description. Serve these Italian cookies with mascarpone or whipped cream and fruit.

1 (heaping) cup shelled pistachio nuts

11/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup light brown sugar

2/3 cups polenta, sifted to remove lumps

Finely grated zest of one orange

2 egg yolks

9 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted but cooled

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grind the nuts to fine crumbs in a food processor. Add the next four ingredients and process for 10 seconds, then add the egg yolks and process for another 10 seconds. Last, add the cooled butter and process for 20 seconds.

Scrape mixture onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and spread loosely to a depth of about 1/4-inch. Place in oven and bake for about 40 minutes, or until golden (check color after 30 minutes).

Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes before cutting into -inch-wide fingers. Allow to cool completely before transferring from the pan to a cake rack. Store in an airtight tin. Makes 3 dozen.

Per Cookie: 95 Calories; 5g Fat; 2g Protein; 10g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 20mg Cholesterol; 31mg Sodium.

E-mail contributing writer Laurel Miller at kaukaukids@hotmail.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
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Last modified: March 26, 2002