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Greek island of Aegina grows some of the best pistachios in the world

pistachios aegina

By Marcia Vanderlip

For some of us, pistachios are simply that guilty, in-front-of-the-TV pleasure, leaving our fingers sore from cracking shells, the floor in front of us littered with shell halves.

That said, pistachios are ripe for far more interesting culinary uses. Greek cooks seem to know a good many of these, both sweet and savory. It is no wonder the one place in the world known for “the best” pistachios is the Greek island of Aegina, a 40-minute boat ride from Piraeus, the port city six miles southwest of central Athens.

On a sunny Monday, my husband and I packed a daypack and paid 29 euros each for round-trip tickets on the “Flying Dolphin,” a hydrofoil that taxis back and forth every 40 minutes. We docked at the easy-going port of Aegina Town, the capital of the island where Nikos Kazantzakis wrote “Zorba the Greek.”

The harbor’s strip is lined with tavernas, souvenir shops, a fish market and several pistachio stalls. The side streets might be slightly more interesting, but the main boulevard is very pleasant, nonetheless. Tourists and locals sit in shady cafes in the heat of the late afternoon drinking frappes or Greek beer and gazing at the harbor yachts that share space with modest fishing boats. Some do their sightseeing on rented bikes or by horse and buggy, but the town is easily explored on foot. Because we had never seen a pistachio tree, we rented a car to scout for orchards and see a bit more of the island.

But first we sampled the nuts. Mary Stauridou sold roasted pistachios — fistiki (little peanut), in Greek — and a selection of pistachio treats from her husband’s family farm. Since 1964, the family has made its living from their pistachio orchards. They have a small factory nearby, where she and a small crew make pistachio candies, pasta sauces and pistachio spoon sweets. The spoon sweets — ghleeka kootalyoo — are made from green pistachios that have been harvested early, usually in May. They are cooked and soaked in the local honey and best served over fresh yogurt.

A couple of blocks away, up one of the side streets, we met the friendly and towering Achilleas Chaldeakis, a second-generation grower. His shop, which translates to “Small, But Big,” is filled from top to bottom with pistachio products. Chaldeakis explained the pistachios are harvested in August or September, depending on the year’s weather. “We collect them, clean them in water, then dry them in the sun,” he said. “As it should be, no chemicals.” Some are salted with sea salt, and others are not salted for various cooking applications.

Pistachios were introduced to the island in 1860 and later were grown around Athens and other parts of Greece. Many of the orchards on Aegina are located on small family operations on the west side of the island, which is very fertile and less mountainous than other areas. The main variety, Koilarati, is a blond, rounded nut with an emerald interior and rosy exterior — when ripe.

After a walk around town, we drove inland toward Ayios Nekatarios, a modern convent and one of the largest Greek Orthodox churches in Greece. Winding gardens of rosemary, lantana, roses and bougainvillea lead to the tomb of Saint Nektarios at the top of the hill. At the bottom of the hill, where we parked, a trio of jolly pistachio hawkers met us with a grocery cart filled with bags of the nuts. The roundest of the three told us the pistachios were to blame for his girth. We bought some lightly salted — delicious! — before we hunted for orchards. The pistachio orchards we saw were tucked into rolling hills. They shared terrain with olive trees, oleanders, pine, Queen Anne’s lace, lemon trees, modest homes and the ruins of many an ancient chapel. A good dozen of these are all that is left of Paleohora, the island’s capital in the Middle Ages; it is now a ghost town nestled into a profoundly melancholy slope just across the road from St. Nektarious.

This time of year, the pistachio clusters look like prehistoric flowers bursting from bright-green foliage in what might otherwise pass for fig orchards. Some are still a little green while others are already blushing pink, a sign they will ripen soon. At harvest time, pickers drop tarps on the ground and use long sticks with rubber or cloth tips to knock down the clusters. The outer skin is removed in a machine-washing process. Then the nuts are sorted and dry-roasted in the sun.

Once the nuts have been dried and salted — if they are salted — they are encased and refrigerated to keep them fresh for up until the next harvest.

We purchased multiple bags of the precious nuts — about $50 worth — and then wandered the harbor town, this time in search of a cookbook. Finally, in a back-street bookstore, we found an excellent one, published in 2009, albeit in Greek. Loosely translated, the title is “Traditional Greek Recipes with Pistachios: Easy, Quick, Tasty.”

We gathered the book and our nuts, and rode the Flying Dolphin back to Athens. The next morning, I enlisted two Greek friends at our hotel to translate a few easy, quick, tasty recipes. I plan to make more of the recipes with my Aegina nuts, if I can get back to Missouri before I eat them all. You can order Aegina pistachios online if you can’t make it to beautiful Aegina any time soon. If you visit, stay longer than a few hours. The island is an interesting source of ancient history, religious significance, natural beauty and great eats.

These are a few favorite recipes from the book my two cooking friends in Athens helped me translate.

CUCUMBER SALAD WITH BASIL

4 cucumbers, sliced

6 basil leaves, chopped

1/4 cup chopped purple onion (optional)

1/2 clove garlic, minced

4 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped

1/2 cup roasted pistachios, unsalted

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

2 tablespoons cream cheese or soft goat cheese

1 cup hard cheese, cubed (pick your favorite)

Mix the cucumbers, garlic, basil and tomatoes together in a bowl. Then blend in the pistachios. Season with salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, mix the lemon juice, mayonnaise, soft cheese. Blend the dressing into the salad. Then add the cubed hard cheese and blend with the salad. Adjust seasoning to taste. This is a good salad to serve with roasted chicken, grilled meat or fish.

LAYERED SALAD WITH PISTACHIOS

This is a Greek take on the Caprese salad. This recipe calls for blanched and peeled tomatoes. But at the height of the season, it seems a shame to alter fresh tomatoes.

1/2 cup roasted pistachios, finely chopped

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

2 large tomatoes, sliced (and blanched, if you must)

1 round fresh goat cheese or fresh Mozzarella cheese

1 teaspoon dried oregano

sea salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup arugula, chiffonade (sliced thin)

Slice the cheese and tomatoes for layering. Layer them like fallen dominoes on a serving plate. In a separate bowl mix make a dressing of the balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Sprinkle the arugula and pistachios on top. Drizzle with the dressing. Finish with dried oregano and ground black pepper. Share with friends.

PISTACHIO PESTO

2 tablespoons basil leaves

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese grated

1 cup unsalted pistachios

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 clove garlic

Process in food processer, or go old-school, with a mortar and pestle. Serve on pasta or crostini.

PISTACHIO CRUST FOR MEAT OR FISH

This would be a good crust for baking. It is nice on pork, chicken or fish. While this calls for unsalted pistachios, the salted will work, if they are not too salty.

2 tablespoons dry mustard

1 cup crushed unsalted pistachios

1/2 cup breadcrumbs

2 eggs

In one bowl mix mustard, pistachios and breadcrumbs. In another bowl beat the eggs. Dip the meat or fish into the eggs, then the pistachio mix and bake.

CHICKEN ROLL STUFFED WITH PISTACHIOS

This is not difficult to put together. This dish is a colorful presentation because when you slice the roll you see the red pepper, sun-dried tomatoes and various shades of green. The pistachios are in the sauce.

4 boned and pounded chicken breasts

1 cup cream cheese

2 cups spinach, chopped

1 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon fresh dill, chopped

2 tablespoons flat parsley, chopped

1/2 cup white wine

2 tablespoons sun-dried tomatoes, chopped

1 cup red bell pepper, chopped

1 cup pistachios, crushed

2 tablespoons butter

2 cups chicken broth

1/3 cup cream

Pound the chicken breasts with a meat-tenderizing mallet, so they are thin enough to make a roll. Sauté the spinach, onion, garlic, dill and parsley in butter. Then add the white wine and let it cook down with the lid off the pan for about 5 to 7 minutes. Salt and pepper the chicken and then on each breast, spread the cream cheese, then the sautéed blend, the chopped red peppers and tomatoes. Roll them up. Use toothpicks to hold them together. Put a little water in a lipped roasting pan or Pyrex dish. Cover the chicken rolls with foil. Bake them for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

For the sauce: If you want a really good sauce, wait until the chicken is done and use some of the liquid from the chicken with the chicken broth. Melt the butter in a pan; add the crushed pistachio and then the cream.

For serving: When the rolls are done, let them cool just enough to slice, Add sauce to the top of each stuffed disk and serve with rice.

Servings: 4 to 5

Source: Columbia Daily Tribune

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