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With the peak of their season coming up, it's a good time to explore the many uses and health benefits of this versatile, tasty nut.

Healthful, delicious and growing in popularity, California pistachios - almost nonexistent 50 years ago - have become a billion-dollar crop.

In 1976, 1.5 million pounds were harvested in California. In 2012, it was almost 551 million pounds, our appetite increasing as more and more studies point to the nut's potential cardiovascular and eye health benefits.

About 250,000 acres of the Central Valley are now planted with pistachio trees with about 180,000 acres at bearing age. Pistachio trees yield about 3,400 pounds per acre.

While providing plenty of protein, pistachios have the lowest fat and highest dietary fiber content of the major tree nuts, nutritionist and pistachio expert Arianna Carughi said. Pistachio's green color as well as the nut's yellow tint and purple skin are linked to several antioxidants and phytonutrients.

The nuts contain compounds that make you feel full, giving them another advantage over other nuts, she said.

As a snack food, the effort needed to crack and pop them out of their shells tends to slow down consumption, giving them a sort of built-in portion control.

Pistachios have been part of Mediterranean cuisine for millennia with most of the world's supply coming from Iran. But Middle East conflict in the 1970s - there are still embargoes on Iranian pistachios - allowed California to get a foothold in the global market.

About 40 percent of the California crop stays in the United States; 29 percent is exported to China and most of the remainder goes to Europe.

As a crop, pistachios have some advantages over other nuts and tree fruit, Thom Dille, chairman of the 550-member American Pistachio Growers, said. Unlike almonds, which need honeybees, pistachios are wind-pollinated. One male tree can pollinate a block of 25 to 30 female trees.

Those female trees take about seven years to reach full maturity and nut-bearing age. While almonds tend to remain productive for less than 20 years, pistachios keep bearing for generations.

They also need less water. Native to arid regions of the Middle East, pistachios have a lot of built-in drought tolerance.

"In Iran, they actually grow them as bushes," Dille said. "In California, we train them into small trees so they're easier to harvest."

That is, until the trunks get too old and thick. To shake.

That's how pistachios are harvested. Machines grab the trunks and give them a good shaking. Ripe nuts, which grow in grapelike clusters, are caught by crews before they hit the ground. "We want the shells to be as immaculate and clean as possible," Dille said.

As the nuts ripen, the shells crack open on the tree before the pistachios are harvested and dried. Once processed (usually within 24 hours of harvest), the raw unshelled nuts will keep for months.

This season, many trees likely will get a second shake, Dille said. Rainy March weather made for spotty pollination. Some trees continued to bloom into April.

The peak of pistachio season is coming soon, Dille noted. "Traditionally, the holidays are when we sell the most. Pistachios make a wonderful gift."

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California Pistachio Popcorn

2 quarts popped popcorn

1/2 cup butter or margarine

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup shelled natural pistachios

Keep popcorn warm in 250-degree oven while preparing coating. Melt butter in large saucepan; stir in sugar, corn syrup and salt. Bring to boil; stir constantly. Reduce heat to medium; boil without stirring for 5 minutes. Remove from heat; quickly stir in vanilla and soda. Place popcorn in large, heatproof bowl; slowly pour syrup over while stirring. Add pistachios; mix thoroughly. Turn into greased 15-1/4- by 10-1/4- by 3/4-inch baking pan; bake at 250 degrees for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove from oven; cool. Break into serving-size pieces. Store in lidded container.

Source: American Pistachio Growers

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Pistachio Power Bars

For cookie crust:

1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

1 cup butter or margarine, softened

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2-1/2 cups whole wheat flour

1 cup rolled oats

3/4 cup natural pistachios, finely chopped

For fruit-nut layer:

3 tablespoons butter or margarine

3 tablespoons brown sugar, firmly packed

6 tablespoons flour

6 tablespoons frozen orange juice concentrate

1 cup dark seedless raisins

1 cup dried apricot halves, slivered

1 cup natural pistachios, whole

For cookie crust: Combine sugar, butter and vanilla; beat well. Mix in flour, oats and pistachios until crumbly and moist. Lightly press into bottom of 10- by 15-inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 13 minutes.

For fruit layer: Beat butter with sugar. Mix in flour and orange juice concentrate, then fruit and pistachios. Spread fruit layer on crust, distributing evenly to edges. Return to oven to bake 15 minutes longer, or until crust looks golden at edges and fruit is glossy. Cool, then cut into 15 square bars.

Source: American Pistachio Growers

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Pistachio Rice Cakes

2 cups short-grain rice

4-1/4 cups water

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon or vanilla

1 teaspoon sugar (optional)

1-1/4 cups low-fat cream cheese

1 teaspoon coconut oil

1 teaspoon honey or agave nectar

1/2 cup chopped roasted pistachio kernels

Cook rice according to package directions. While rice is still hot, add all other ingredients and mix well.

Cover a baking sheet with plastic wrap and spoon rice mixture onto wrap. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap, use a rolling pin to compress the rice.

Let it cool to room temperature and place in refrigerator overnight. Remove and cut into 1 inch squares. Makes about 25.

Source: American Pistachio Growers

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Pistachio Biscotti

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted

3 tablespoons milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 eggs

2-3/4 cups flour

1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons crushed anise seed

1 teaspoon baking powder

Dash salt

1 cup coarsely chopped, natural pistachios

Combine sugar, butter, milk and vanilla; blend thoroughly. Add eggs; mix well. Combine flour, anise, baking powder and salt; add to butter mixture. Stir in pistachios; mix well.

Cover and chill dough 2 to 3 hours. Divide dough into quarters; shape into 1 1- by 3- by -3/4-inch logs. Place on lightly greased cookie sheets; bake 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove from oven; cool slightly.

Cut into 1/2-inch diagonal slices. Lay cut sides down on cookie sheets. Bake at 250 degrees for 25 minutes more.

Chocolate-coated variation: Melt 1 (8-ounce) chocolate bar in a double boiler. With pastry brush, apply one layer of chocolate to cut side of baked cookie. Finely chop an additional 1/2 cup of natural pistachios. Sprinkle on cookies while chocolate is warm.

Makes about four dozen.

Source: American Pistachio Growers

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Pistachio Baked Fish

This easy entree works well with a wide variety of fish including red snapper, cod and tilapia.

1 pound fresh fish fillets

1/2 cup dry bread crumbs

1/2 cup natural pistachios, chopped and divided

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon minced parsley

3/4 to 1 teaspoon dry mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted

Cut fish into serving-size pieces. Combine bread crumbs, 1/4 cup pistachios, cheese, parsley, mustard, salt and pepper in shallow dish. Dip fish in milk and roll in crumb mixture; place in shallow greased dish. Drizzle with butter; sprinkle with remaining pistachios.

Bake at 450 degrees, allowing 10 minutes per inch of thickness measured at its thickest part or until fish flakes when tested with fork.

Serves 4.

Source: American Pistachio Growers

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Orange Pistachio and Goat Cheese-Crusted Pork Chops

Zest and juice of 2 oranges

1/2 cup finely chopped pistachios

4-ounce log soft goat cheese

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

4 (6-ounce) bone-in or boneless pork chops

1/2 cup white wine

1 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup orange juice

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a small bowl, combine the orange zest and juice, the pistachios, goat cheese, allspice, salt and pepper.

Arrange the pork chops in a small metal roasting pan. Spread a quarter of the pistachio mixture over the top of each chop. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the chops reach 155 degrees at the thickest part. Transfer the pork chops to a plate. Cover with foil to keep warm.

Place the pan on the stove top over medium heat. Add the wine and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits. Add the chicken broth and bring to a simmer. In a small glass, mix the orange juice and the cornstarch, then add to the pan, stirring until thickened. Strain the sauce through a mesh strainer, if desired. Adjust the seasoning with salt and black pepper. Serve the sauce with the pork chops.

Serves 4.

Source: Associated Press

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Pistachio Tart With Shortbread Crust

For the crust:

6 ounces (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

Salt, pinch

1-3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon flour

For the filling:

1-1/3 cups unsalted pistachio kernels

2 tablespoons flour

3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

6 ounces (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For the crust: In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine all ingredients and mix with paddle attachment until fully incorporated. Remove from bowl and press evenly into a fluted 9-inch tart pan that has been sprayed with pan spray. Chill in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. Remove from refrigerator, line bottom of tart pan with a circle of parchment paper, cut to size. Fill with dry beans, enough to cover the parchment paper. "Par-bake" (barely bake) the shell until light golden brown, about 10 minutes, remove from oven and cool completely. Once cool, discard the beans (or store for later use).

For the filling: Pulse the pistachios in a food processor until very coarsely chopped (some of the pistachio will be mealy and the remainder will be coarse). Turn pistachios into a mixing bowl, add all other ingredients and combine with a spatula until fully incorporated.

Fill the par-baked tart shell with the pistachio filling, smooth the top with a spatula, and bake for 30-40 minutes, until filling is golden brown and set. Test for doneness by inserting a clean knife or toothpick in the center - it should come out clean and the tart should not jiggle. If the crust begins to brown before the pie filling is set, cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake until done.

Source: Pastry chef Lauren Mitterer of WildFlour Pastry of Charleston, S.C., via American Pistachio Growers

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Herbed Pistachios

This snack was created by Las Vegas chef Grant MacPherson, best known for his work at the Bellagio and Wynn resorts.

2 cups shelled natural pistachios

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 teaspoon each thyme and oregano, crushed

2 tablespoons minced parsley

Melt butter in skillet. Add herbs and pistachios; toss to coat. Saute about 5 minutes or until pistachios are coated and crisp. Cool on paper towels.

Note: Experiment with different herbs.

Source: American Pistachio Growers

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Pistachios 101

NUTRITION: One ounce of pistachios contains 49 nut kernels and 159 calories. About 108 of those calories come from fat. Pistachios are high in protein, with 6 grams per ounce. They're also a good source of dietary fiber (3 grams per ounce) and Vitamin B6, Vitamin E, thiamin, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese. The green nut meat and its surrounding red-purple husk are high in antioxidants including carotene, lutein and phenolic acid.

SELECTION: Pistachios are available year-round, although the fresh harvest arrives in stores in October. Under proper conditions, the raw nuts will keep for up to one year. Throughout the year, they're roasted (and often salted) as needed for distribution. Look for healthy, compact, uniform nuts in off-white whole shells. The shells should be free from imperfections and unbroken or cracked except for the characteristic split. Inside their shells, the nuts should feel heavy when held in your hand. Avoid any nuts with dark mold spots or rancid smell.

STORAGE: Raw pistachios should be stored in a cool, dark place. They'll keep for up to two months in their packaging. For longer storage, freeze in shell or as shelled kernels. Shelled kernels should be stored in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container.

PREPARATION: Most American pistachios are simply cracked and eaten as a snack, with or without salt or other seasoning. But pistachios are an excellent addition to salads, entrees, desserts and baked goods. Try substituting pistachios in recipes that call for walnuts or almonds.

ALLERGY ALERT: Pistachios may cause allergic reactions in people with sensitivity to anacardic acid or urushiol, which is found in pistachios. Persons who are allergic to mangoes or cashews also may be allergic to pistachios.

HISTORY LESSON: Mentioned in the Old Testament, pistachios are an ancient crop, dating back at least 2,500 years. Alexander the Great brought pistachios to Greece circa 330 B.C. By 100 A.D., Roman traders introduced them to Italy and Spain. Because of their use in trade, they were nicknamed the "Latin penny." Pistachios became a symbol of wealth, a little luxury traditionally added to desserts and baked goods. In the 1880s, Italian and Middle Eastern immigrants brought pistachios to the United States, where they became a popular barroom snack.

GEOGRAPHY LESSON: Native to the Middle East, pistachios love hot, dry summers and cool winters - typical weather in California's Central Valley where 98.5 percent of the domestic harvest comes from. The most popular commercial variety is Kerman, brought as a single seed from Persia to California in the 1930s.

RED DYE DECLINE: Traditionally, imported pistachios were dyed red to hide blemishes on the shells. California pistachio growers and processors prefer to keep their nuts au naturel, although a small percentage of the American crop is still dyed.

SEEING GREEN IN ICE CREAM: Pistachio is a favorite ice cream flavor, but it's food coloring, not the nuts, that adds the bright green tint to this frozen dessert. Often, commercial ice cream makers may use less-expensive almond paste, not pistachio paste, to flavor that ice cream base, too, with chopped pistachios added for crunch.