Food: Nut crackers

Annie Bell goes shells out for pistachios
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Indy Lifestyle Online
On the recent arrival of my son, Kevin Gould, the owner of Joy in Finchley Road, rang me and asked "is there anything you're really craving?" I couldn't actually think of anything, but a couple of hours later the largest bag of salted pistachios I have ever seen turned up, pound for pound the weight of Louis, who is a very big baby.

The real luxury was they were already shelled, which did away with the sore fingers and frustration that comes of having to prize away the smooth, buff-coloured shell. And then there's the conundrum of what you do with the remaining third that simply won't open. Too small for a nutcracker, you can risk your expensive orthodontics so long as your mother isn't in sight to chastise you, but it still ends in frustration.

Here was a mass of delicately crisp nuts from Istanbul, with that tantalising pink papery skin and green inside, quite the most delicious pistachios I have tasted. Their freshness was extraordinary, salted in the way of all nuts in the Magreb where having emerged from the oven on roasting trays they are flicked with a saline solution. The moisture instantly evaporates with the heat of the nut to leave the finest white powder coating that is so much nicer than the grains of salt you find on bog standard peanuts. The other secret of roasted pistachios is the subtlest hint of lemon juice or sumac, the dried and ground berries of the sumac bush whose tartness brings out the nut's sweet flavour.

Up until having a lifetime's supply of these nuts, I used to make a special pilgrimage to Green Valley at 36 Upper Berkeley Street. They sell several shell-on varieties with different salinities, as well as the finely minced unsalted type used to adorn pastries and desserts.

And while you're shopping somewhere with a Middle Eastern accent, it would be a sin to pass up the small diamond-shaped squares of baklava, possibly pistachios' most delicious fate. I've never tried making this at home; a good shop-bought baklava is a masterful stack of fine sheets of pastry and thickened syrup scented with orange blossom fused together into a fudgy mass, with softened green pistachios in-between.

But my earliest memory of pistachios was of the ice-cream of the same name, that fabulously ersatz bright green slurry that tastes so strongly of almond essence and not at all of pistachios.

Now and again you come across the real thing in a restaurant where they have access to pistachio paste, the privilege of catering suppliers. For home purposes, you can grind pistachios as finely as possible in an electric coffee grinder, and add a drop of amaretto liqueur to send it scuttling in the direction of the fake version. As for that green, it's cheat or nothing, real pistachio ice-cream is more the colour of faded tarpaulin, sadly.

Pistachio and honey paste with croissants, serves 4-6

This is one of the most sumptuous breakfast spreads I know. It just so happens to be very good for you as well. Leaving out the croissants that is.

6 croissants

Pistachio paste:

175g/6oz shelled pistachio nuts (unsalted)

3 tbsp clear honey

2 tbsp amaretto liqueur

4 tbsp boiling water

pinch of salt

Place all the ingredients for the pistachio paste in a food processor and reduce to a sticky, fine-grained paste - this will be very thick. The puree is nicest eaten at this point, but if you want to keep and chill it, then it does need thinning a tad with boiling water when you come to eat it. Warm the croissants to eat with it.

Chanterelles and pistachio pithiviers with a fresh tomato sauce, serves 6

This makes an ideal vegetarian main course when entertaining. Having said that, it's delicious cold with a salad and it also reheats well, so if you make one in advance it'll see you through the weekend. Beyond this you can assemble and chill it in advance, in which case glaze and mark it just before baking.

Chanterelles:

50g/2oz unsalted butter

275g/10oz chanterelles, picked over

sea salt, black pepper

1 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Pistachio paste:

175g/6oz roasted and shelled pistachios

75g/3oz unsalted butter

20g/34oz plain flour

1 tbsp Pernod or other pastis liqueur

1 large egg

Pithiviers:

500g/1lb 2oz puff pastry

1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tbsp milk

Clarify the butter for the chanterelles by melting it in a small saucepan. Skim off the surface foam, decant the clear yellow liquid and discard the milky residue in the base. Heat half the clarified butter in a frying pan and cook half the chanterelles until soft; if any liquid is given out then cook until it evaporates. Remove and cook the remainder of mushrooms likewise.

Season the mushrooms and stir in the parsley.

To make the pistachio paste grind the nuts in a coffee grinder, then blend them with the other ingredients in a bowl.

Preheat the oven to 190C (fan oven)/200C (electric oven)/400F/Gas 6. Roll out 13 of the pastry on a lightly floured surface into a circle about 28 cm/11in in diameter. Place this on a baking sheet and using a palette knife spread the pistachio paste to within 3.5 cm/112in of the border. Scatter the mushrooms on top. Paint the exposed edge with the eggwash.

Roll out the remaining pastry so it is the same size as the lower half and lay it on top of the mushrooms, pressing the edges to seal them. Trim them into a scallop-shaped border using a sharp knife. Paint all over with the egg wash and trace lines like fine rays from the centre of the tart to the outside using the tip of a sharp knife, and mark the scalloped edges with diagonal lines. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the pastry is golden and risen. Serve hot or warm with the tomato sauce.

Fresh tomato sauce:

1.6 kg/312 lb plum tomatoes, halved

1 heaped tsp sea salt

1 level tsp caster sugar

100g/312oz unsalted butter

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Place the tomatoes in a saucepan, cover and cook over a low heat for 20 minutes until they collapse, pressing them down after 5 minutes of cooking to release some of the juices. Pass through a sieve or a mouli- legumes and return to the pan. Add remaining ingredients and simmer very gently, uncovered, for another 60 minutes until it's thickened up.

Pistachio meringue with poached pears, serves 6-8

One of the nicest sights on entering Books for Cooks in Blenheim Crescent is one of Victoria Blashford-Snell's meringues on the cafe counter at the back of the shop (where I started cooking). Victoria's meringues are pretty special, in fact close-on perfect: she's developed the knack of producing them crisp on the outside and marshmallow-like within.

The shop publishes a little book each year called One Year at Books for Cooks (pounds 5 inc. p&p, tel: 0171-221 1992) with the recipes the cooks have most enjoyed cooking from that year's publications. This year, there is an expanded section titled "Victoria's Perfect Pavlova and Other Famous Books for Cooks Meringues Strike Back" - worth sending off for just for this. Anycase, the method for the meringue is hers, and the embellishment is mine.

Meringue:

6 free-range egg whites (at room temperature)

350g/12oz caster sugar

2 tsp cornflour

1 tsp white wine vinegar

75g/3oz shelled pistachios

Poached pears:

570ml/1 pint water

175g/6oz caster sugar

6 cardamom pods, cracked

3 sprigs thyme

a slice of fresh root ginger

juice of 1 lemon

2 large comice pears

Cream:

275ml/10fl oz whipping cream

1 tbsp Poire William liqueur (optional but preferable)

To decorate: 1 heaped tbsp very finely chopped pistachios

Heat the oven to 170C (fan oven) /180C (electric oven)/350F/Gas 4. Lightly grease a baking tray and line it with baking parchment. Draw an 812in (22 cm) circle on the paper.

Put the egg whites in a large, clean, grease-free bowl with a pinch of salt and whisk until stiff. Start whisking in the sugar, 1 tbsp at a time, whisking well after each addition until the egg whites are stiff and glossy - Victoria says you should be able to hold the bowl over your head without the meringue falling out, but I passed on this test. Whisk in the cornflour and vinegar.

Chop the pistachios finely in a food processor and stir them into the meringue. Mound it on to the paper-lined tray within the circle and smooth the top and sides. Bake the meringue for 5 minutes and then turn the oven down to 120C (fan oven) /130C (electric oven)/250F/Gas 12 and cook for 114 hours. Cool the meringue completely, then either lift it off the baking parchment very carefully, or just trim the edges in line with the meringue and serve it off the paper.

While the meringue is baking poach the pears. Combine the water, sugar, cardamom, thyme and ginger in a non-reactive saucepan. Bring the syrup to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes, covering the pan after 10 minutes. Peel and core the pears and cut them into segments, then toss them with the lemon juice in a bowl. Add the pears and lemon juice to the syrup, bring it to a simmer, cover and poach for 15 minutes. Remove the pears and syrup to a bowl leaving in the aromatics and allow to cool.

Just before serving, whip the cream with the liqueur until it is stiff and spread it on top of the meringue. Remove the pears from the syrup and spoon them on top. Scatter over the finely chopped pistachios and serve it fairly soon while the meringue is still crisp

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