A passion for pistachios. Or, how did a nut from the Middle East become so popular in the West?

Americans have always been fascinated with nuts. Almonds, pecans and walnuts, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, filberts, and peanuts. One by one they seem to reach a peak in popularity, then become a staple item while a different one takes the spotlight.

Many once relegated to cakes, candies, and tortes are now showing up in new sauces for poultry, game, and fish.

Pine nuts and pistachios are two of the latest to be seen in many new recipes. Neither is new, but the pine nut, or pignoli, from Mediterranean countries is a basic ingredient for the fresh basil sauce known as pesto. It's also used in many other pasta dishes.

But the pistachio nut is probably tops as the current favorite, especially the large variety in the natural color shells that are grown in California.

Once the product of Assyria and Iran, they're now grown in the United States. Pistachios are green or ivory colored, but some Near Eastern varieties are dyed red in processing to hide blemishes from crude hulling methods.

Not that there is anything wrong with a little color. US importers use a nontoxic, red vegetable dye approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Some imported pistachios are also coated with a thin layer of cornstarch and salt to improve appearance.

Because California nuts are mechanically hulled and dried within 24 hours of harvesting, they don't need the red coloring, even though it is familiar to many Americans.

The pistachio has a characteristically delicate, sweet, oily taste that is excellent as a flavoring for sweets, sauces, cakes, and ice cream.

Although the pistachio oil is used as a flavoring ingredient, the majority of nuts in the US are sold in the shell and eaten out of hand as a snack.

California growers claim their pistachios taste the same as the imported nuts but are larger, fresher, and easier to open, although the question of best flavor is always debatable among purists and people from Iran.

Under favorable conditions, pistachio trees live and produce for centuries, producing a heavy crop one year followed by a smaller one the next. In the Kerman region of Iran, a 700-year-old tree is still standing. The most important California cultivar is called ``Kerman.''

The Queen of Sheba was especially fond of pistachio nuts and is said to have monopolized the limited pistachio output of Assyria for herself and her court favorites. In Syria, pistachio nuts are an important ingredient at wedding feasts, and following a social call departing guests often receive a small bag of pistachios as a gesture of goodwill.

Iran was the top supplier of pistachios to the US market in 1979, with 12 million pounds. After the seizure of the American hostages and the subsequent cutoff of all imports from Iran, the total of Iranian pistachios imported in 1980 fell to less than 1 million pounds.

Pistachios vary in size. The Iranian variety has from 18 to 40 nuts per ounce. California nuts are larger - sometimes as few as 14 per ounce.

Today, about 30 million pounds of in-shell pistachio nuts are consumed annually in the United States. It is expected to grow to at least 50 million pounds a year in the next decade.

Pistachios are fine in sauces, p^at'es, and stuffings, and Germans and Italians use the oil in curing pork sausage.

When shopping for nuts, look for freshness and avoid any rancidity. Store both shelled and unshelled nuts in the refrigerator.

For longer storage, seal carefully and freeze. The nuts will keep well in the freezer for a year or longer and can be used directly from the package with no thawing time necessary.

Pistachio Meatballs 1 pound ground turkey 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs 1/2 cup chopped shelled natural pistachios 1/4 cup minced onion 1 egg, beaten Dash salt Sweet and Sour Sauce (recipe follows) Shelled, chopped natural California pistachios (optional)

Combine turkey, bread crumbs, pistachios, onion, egg, and salt. Shape into 3/4- to 1-inch balls.

Place on 151/4-by-101/4-by-3/4-inch pan. Bake at 400 degrees F. 15 minutes or until cooked.

Stir into Sweet and Sour Sauce; heat thoroughly. Garnish with pistachios.

Makes 5 dozen appetizer meatballs.

Sweet and Sour Sauce

Combine 3/4 cup pineapple juice, 2 tablespoons each packed brown sugar and cider vinegar, 4 teaspoons cornstarch and 1 tablespoon soy sauce.

Cook and stir until thickened. Makes 1 cup.

Bulgur Pilaf With Pistachios 1 cup sliced mushrooms 1/2 cup each cracked wheat bulgur and chopped onion 2 tablespoons oil 1 1/4 cups water 1 cup diced cooked turkey 1/4 cup coarsely chopped shelled natural pistachios 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice 1/8 teaspoons dried mint Salt and pepper

Saut'e mushrooms, bulgur, and onion in oil until onion is tender and bulgur golden.

Add water; bring to boil. Simmer, covered, about 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed and bulgur tender.

Add turkey, pistachios, parsley, lemon juice, mint, and salt and pepper to taste. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Three-fourths teaspoon fresh mint can be substituted for dried mint.

Chicken With Pistachios 2 whole chicken breasts, skinned, halved, and boned 1/8 teaspoon pepper 1 tablespoon oil 1/2 cup orange juice 2 tablespoons water 2 teaspoons lemon juice 1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel 2 tablespoons sliced green onion 1/4 cup chopped shelled natural pistachios

Pound chicken breasts to 1/4-inch thickness; season with pepper.

Saut'e in oil 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Add orange juice, water, lemon juice, and orange peel.

Simmer, covered, 10 minutes or until chicken is tender. Remove chicken.

Add green onion to pan; cook over medium heat until slightly thickened. Pour over chicken.

Season to taste. Sprinkle with pistachios. Makes 4 servings.

Pistachio Meringues 2 egg whites (at room temperature) 1/2 teaspoon each vanilla and ground cinnamon 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 cup chopped shelled natural pistachios

Beat egg whites, vanilla, and cinnamon until soft peaks form.

Gradually add sugar; beat until stiff peaks form. Fold in pistachios.

Drop by teaspoonfuls onto cookie sheet lined with brown paper. Bake at 325 degrees F. 20 minutes.

Turn oven off and leave meringues in oven until cool. Makes 3 dozen.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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