What cross-country trip is complete without stopping at a screwball roadside attraction? After the obligatory photograph, my mother and I decided on a botanical journey of touring the pistachio orchards at McGinn's Tree Ranch in Alamogordo, New Mexico. We learned the fascinating history of the ancient tree and sampled a plethora of flavored pistachios, candies, and deserts.
Did you know that pistachios are not true nuts? The greenish meat found inside of the split shell is actually a seed of a fruit known as a drupe. Peaches, cherries, and plums are also drupes, where an outer fleshy part surrounds a shell with a seed inside or what we call a pit. In the case of the pistachio, we eat the seed inside the pit.
Not actually a nut but a fruit, the flesh surrounds the shell with a seed inside.
Pistachios are from antiquity originating from the Middle East where dry, long hot summers are required for proper fruit ripening. Archaeology dates the use of pistachios as a food to 9000 years ago in Jarmo, northeastern Iraq. The famed hanging gardens of Babylon are believed to have contained pistachio trees in 700 BCE, as well as, pistachios are mentioned in the Bible. Trade brought the culinary ‘nut’ to Rome and the Islamic Empire spread the seeds across northern Africa and into Western Europe. The first trees were brought to America in the 1800’s as garden specimens. However, agricultural production was not successful until the mid 1900’s in California.
McGinn's Tree Ranch Pistachio Orchard
California is the second largest producer of pistachios after Iran with an ideal desert climate including mild winters, windy springs, and hot dry summers. Trials in cultivation began in earnest in the early 20th century. It required nearly 10 years for trees to sexually mature. Many varieties were planted and after a decade only one tree succeeded in the California climate, “Kerman.” Serious propagation of the Kerman variety began and in the 1960’s the American pistachio industry was born. Pistachios are now commercially grown in California, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Mid season pistachio fruits, photo by Himex Group at wikimedia.org
The flowers grow in clusters and are wind pollinated requiring both male and female trees to ensure production. Heavy yields occur every 2 years with fruits ripening in the autumn when the outer fleshy part, or exocarp, changes from green in the spring to cream and finally a rosy red. The longitudinal split of the hard shell occurs while ripening on the tree when a characteristic popping noise is heard throughout an orchard; a pretty exciting herald of a soon to be ready harvest. Although the rhythmic sounds of the harvest are past, pistachios are now in season. The nutritious seeds are packed with protein, amino acids, B vitamins, potassium and magnesium. Studies show that pistachios are good for heart health and muscle recovery after exercise. Serve up a bowl of the savory snacks or delight holiday guest with this easy elegant chocolate candy recipe.
Vegan and Gluten Free
20 mins. preparation and 2 hours to cool and set in the refrigerator
½ cup shelled unsalted pistachios chopped into various sizes
2 bags of chocolate chips, I use Enjoy Life dark chocolate morsels with 2 ingredients, chocolate & sugar
½ teaspoon of coarse salt (I made one batch with salt and one without, both were yummy but the salted bark had more intense pistachio flavor
Melt chocolate chips in a double boiler or in a pan over boiling water. When completely melted and smooth, pour onto a parchment lined cookie sheet spreading to ¼ inch thick. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios and salt. Place in the refrigerator for up to 2 hours to harden. Once the chocolate is set, break into uneven pieces and enjoy.
Stay tuned for next week's post about How to Make Natural Flavoring Extracts. A great homemade gift for the cooks and bakers in your life.