Sicily and pistachios
If another island were worthy of the title ‘the Emerald Isle’ it would be Sicily. Not because of its verdant vegetation but because of one of its typical products. The pistachio and in particular the pistacchio verde di Bronte DOP. To celebrate the Sicilian pistachio harvest, which takes place this month, why not prepare this truly mouth-watering dish?
Pistacchio verde di Bronte DOP
The name pistacchio verde di Bronte DOP (green pistachio) has been protected under EU law since 2009. To qualify, pistachios of the variety pistacia vera have to be grown within the boundaries of the Sicilian towns of Bronte, Adrano, or Biancavilla in volcanic soil between 400 and 900m above sea level. Once harvested, they have to be sold within two years.
The pistachio is a very ancient plant and appears to be a native of the Eastern Mediterranean / Middle East. According to Pliny the Elder it was introduced to Italy in 35AD and has been cultivated there ever since. The name derives from the Ancient Greek πιστάκιον (pistakion). Today the two largest producers are Iran and the USA with Italian production paling in comparison. However the quality of the Italian product has led to it being very sought after and it sells for a high price. No wonder it’s know as ‘green gold’.
Pesto di pistacchi
In Sicily the pistacchio verde di Bronte DOP, known in Bronte dialect as scornabecco or spaccasassi, is made into a variety of sweet products from crema di pistacchio—a kind of pistachio Nutella—to marzipan and gelato. However, its also made into a pasta sauce, pesto di pistacchi. This is available ready made but it’s also very easy to make at home, as we shall see. There are several ways of using it including my favourite; with fusilli pasta and baby tomatoes (pomodorini).
The pistacchio verde di Bronte is very expensive, costing around €75 a kilo. However, the taste is worth the money. Cooking with them is very hard since there is a temptation to keep eating them as you go and you could easily end up with none.
When shelled, it’s hard to see where the pistacchio verde gets its name. They are not green at all, but have a deep purple tinge to them. However this is a skin which you should remove before using them.
Removing the skin
In order to remove the skin you should sit them in boiling water for five minutes. Then drain them and place them on a clean tea towel. Bring the corners of the tea towel together to make a pouch and then rub the part containing the pistachios between your hands for a minute or so. When you open the pouch the skin will have come off and you can pick out the now very green nuts. You will have to repeat this procedure a few times to get all the skins off.
When finished, you will be in no doubt as to where the name comes from. You will be left with a pile of emeralds, so bright that you might need sunglasses to look at them. The first time I did this I didn’t want to cook with them. I just wanted to sit and look at them and marvel at their beauty. I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to do the same. Take your time. Enjoy the process. After all the pistacchio verde di Bronte DOP is affiliated to the Slow Food movement.
Use a mixer
Pesto di pistacchi is made by simply mixing together all the ingredients and adjusting the consistency using extra virgin olive oil and water. Although this is traditionally done in a pestle and mortar there is no shame in using a mixer or food processor to get the job done. I use pine nuts to calm the flavour of the pistachios a little but some people use almonds or even walnuts. The lemon zest has the same affect and also adds freshness to the sauce. There is a small amount of garlic in this sauce but if you wish it could be left out. Substituting another cheese (pecorino for example) instead of the parmigiano reggiano would make this dish vegetarian.
How to enjoy it
Although pesto di pistacchi can be enjoyed in a variety of ways—on bruschetta or as a crust on meat or fish—it’s most often used as a pasta sauce. As I said, one of the most traditional ways of eating it is with fusilli pasta and baby tomatoes. The grooves on the fusilli suck the sauce into them meaning that each bite is packed with a pistachio punch. Although the pesto is delicious on its own (with the fragrance of lemon, another Sicilian product, adding a lightness to it) the combination of the salty pesto with the sweet and sour tomatoes is sublime. Try and spear a fusillo and a tomato with your fork and wait for the flavour explosion in your mouth. (There’s nothing to stop you adding more tomatoes, maybe even as many as there are pieces of pasta.)
Only the best
This dish can be prepared with any pistachio but it just won’t taste as good. If you are using the pistacchio verde di Bronte DOP make sure you use other high-end ingredients (I used De Cecco fusilli, parmigiano reggiano DOP, and datterini tomatoes from a farmer’s market).