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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Alimentary, My Dear

Pistachio Pastiche Pistachios by the Plateful

By Tamia Nelson

January 15, 2013

When I was four, my family moved from a big‑city duplex to an old farmhouse set amidst acres of fallow fields bounded by gloriously scraggly hedgerows, all of them alive with wildflowers and buzzing with bees. (This was long before neonicotinoid poisons and colony collapse disorder made the news.) A tiny stream gurgled through a thicket that rang with the trills and chirps of songbirds, and the land rose up to a forested ridge in the east. To a kid who'd come from an environment where concrete and cut stone dominated, and where the air was filled with the uncatalyzed exhaust of hundreds of thousands of smoke‑spewing cars and trucks, at all hours of the day and night, the little farm seemed an earthly paradise. Young as I was, I set out to explore my new neighborhood without delay.

Before long, I was adventuring on my own. My mother wouldn't have countenanced this if she hadn't been convinced I'd learned the lessons she'd been at such pains to teach me. Fortunately, I'd paid close attention during our outings together, and a little button compass was my lodestar. (In those days, Cracker Jacks had really useful prizes.) I carried my compass in the watch pocket of my dungarees. Because I was always afraid of losing it, however, I didn't fish it out unless the need was great. But then I started thinking outside the (Cracker Jack) box, and discovered an alternative navigational aid, courtesy of the Brothers Grimm. After all, …

Every Explorer Needs to Eat While on the Move

And that means portable, pocketable snacks. As luck would have it, my favorite trail food at the time was the pistachio nut. Back then, these were ubiquitous. Most grocery stores, candy shops, and gas stations had coin‑operated dispensers near their entrances, offering handfuls of red‑dyed pistachio nuts for a penny. The upshot? I saved my pennies and stocked up whenever I had the chance, knowing that I wouldn't find a better traveling ration.

What does all this have to do with backcountry navigation? Here's the connection: Shortly after my family made the move from the city, my grandmother read the story of Hansel and Gretel to me, and the penny dropped, so to speak. If the white pebbles left by Hansel could lead him and his sister out of the trackless forest, why couldn't I leave a trail of scarlet pistachio shells behind me as I explored? Then I'd always know the way back home. It seemed a good idea, and I lost no time in putting it into practice, though — happily — I never needed to use my pistachio‑shell back trail. But at least I didn't go hungry on my walks.

As I grew older, however, my navigational competence increased. Soon I had stopped dropping pistachio shells as I walked. I can't say I've ever been tempted to revive the practice, either. And though my GPS leaves a trail of electronic breadcrumbs in my wake as I travel in the backcountry — unimaginative engineers have labeled them "track points"; I'll never understand why — these byte‑sized markers make lousy snacks. So the failure of pistachio nuts to meet the test of time as an aid to navigation doesn't mean they have no place in paddlers' packs. They do.

Nor are they hard to come by, despite the fact that Iran is the principal supplier. And those paddlers with strong ideological commitments to pistachio‑nut independence have reason to rejoice: Many of the pistachios sold in American stores now come from California. By the way, the pistachio "nut" isn't a true nut. It's a culinary nut. But this linguistic sleight‑of‑hand merely affirms the pistachio's value as a food source.

OK. Enough backstory chatter. Let's …

Get Cracking

Red‑dyed pistachios are rarer today than they were when I was a girl. Wikipedia offers a possible explanation for this, though not, I think, a particularly convincing one. Was the red dye really "applied by importers to hide stains on the shells caused when the nuts were picked by hand"? Credat Judaeus Apella, non ego. (A rough, but certainly not exact, translation: "Tell that to the Marines. I don't buy it.") No matter. In this, as in so many other things, color prejudice makes no sense. Today's undyed pistachios are every bit as crunchy, no less salty, and just as tasty as their red‑coated predecessors. In any case, the seed (that's the proper name for the pistachio "nut") is green, no matter what color the shell, and the flavor is… Well, the Joy of Cooking characterized it as "haunting," and I won't argue.

The old coin‑operated, service‑station dispensers are hard to find nowadays — just like old‑style service stations, for that matter — but this doesn't mean you'll have trouble buying pistachios. They're a HyperMart staple. Look for them with the other nuts. In Walmart, for example, you'll find them opposite the beer. Food co‑ops are good places to forage, as well. FYI: A pound of in‑shell pistachios goes a long way. It yields about eight 170‑calorie servings.

What's to like about pistachios? Easy. They travel well. (But be sure to keep them dry.) They taste good. They're versatile. And they're nutritious. Check out this label:

It Does What It Says on the Bag

The portion size is shown as ½ cup (including shells), which is a pretty generous amount for a snack. Active paddlers in hot weather will appreciate the salt. (On a low‑salt diet? You can also get unsalted pistachios.) The energy‑boosting carbs and digestion‑enhancing fiber are welcome, too, as is the market basket of micronutrients, especially on extended expeditions, when getting a balanced diet can sometimes prove difficult.

What about the shells? Despite my youthful fancies, I wouldn't recommend them as aids to navigation. I just pack them out. The Wikipedia article suggests they work well as tinder when starting a wood fire, but I haven't found them to be possessed of any particular virtue in this regard. So I'll stick to my fireballs. To be sure, pistachio shells will burn, even if they make indifferent fire starters, but burning garbage is seldom a good idea. Take the empty shells home, instead, and use them as mulch in the garden. They won't add much to your load. The shells weigh almost nothing.

Of course, before you can collect the shells, you have to extract the nuts. This isn't rocket science — most pistachio shells gape wide, and you can always use a half‑shell as a lever to crack any tough nuts that refuse to surrender their treasure:

Tough Nut or Not, All Pistachios Crack in the End

Packing? The job couldn't be easier. Simply slip the store package into a heavy‑duty freezer bag, or decant the nuts into doubled freezer bags if the shelf packaging leaves something to be desired. Just be sure you bring plenty, because …

Pistachios Are a Hit With Every Meal

Skeptical? Fair enough. But I think I can make the case. Let's start with breakfast. Add shelled pistachios to freshly stewed dried fruit. Stir them into oatmeal, or other cereal, whether hot (like James Stone's "Magic Morning Mix") or cold (such as my own granola). No time to eat a proper breakfast? That's not a problem if you made some energy bars at home, before you left for the put‑in, using pistachios rather than almonds or walnuts. And what about those leisurely rest‑day mornings? Bake some minipizzas and sprinkle pistachio nuts on top.

Maybe you feel like a snack after you've been on the water for a few hours. If you added pistachios to your favorite GORP or included them in your carry‑along bag of bonk‑busters, you're covered. And when lunchtime rolls around, you can mix pistachios with deviled meat — plus a single‑serving packet or two of mayonnaise — and fold the mixture into a tortilla, spread it between slices of bread, or slather it over some crackers.

Is it dinnertime already? Then add pistachios to "rasta" or rice pilaf or risotto, stirring in the nuts after the rice has cooked through. Pasta also partners well with pistachios. One of my favorite meals is capellini with garlic and olive oil sauce, and pistachios can easily pinch‑hit for the walnuts in the recipe. A quick meal of couscous with pistachios always goes down a treat at the end of a hard day, too.

Dessert, anyone? Fold pistachios into skillet cookie dough before baking, or mix them into slumps. How about ice cream with pistachios? Kids of all ages love it!

The bottom line? It pays to give pistachios a place in your paddling menu plan. And if your imagination needs a jump‑start from time to time, the "Alimentary, My Dear" archive contains many recipes you can adapt to make good use of these little green nuts‑that‑aren't nuts. Or, if simplicity is your goal and efficiency your watchword, just eat them out of hand, whenever the mood strikes. It worked for me when I was four, and I haven't lost the habit yet.

So You Think I'm Nuts?

Most paddlers go nuts over nuts, but how many of us think of pistachios when we plan our backcountry menus? They're worth a second thought, though. Not to mention a third. Few portable foods bundle such an interesting flavor with so much nutrition. And versatile? How many foods can take you from sunup to sundown without repeating a note? Pistachios can. So why not give them a try on your next outing?



Related Articles From In the Same Boat and Elsewhere on the Web

  • "Alimentary, My Dear — Fuel for Paddlers," a topical collection of more than 100 columns on food and cooking on the move, including, of course, …
  • "Go Nuts!"
  • And for a fascinating overview of the botany and economics of this undervalued nut‑that‑isn't‑a‑nut, be sure to take a few minutes to read the "Pistachio" article at Wikipedia. It's tasty, high‑fiber fare.


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