05/19/2015 02:35 pm ET Updated May 17, 2016

Pistachios, Pistachios...I'm Just Nuts About Those NUTS!

all photos by Jay or the associaition

Every night before I go to sleep, I reach over to my night table and grab a handful of pistachio nuts, which I shell quickly and chew soulfully before swallowing a big glass of water and falling off to sleep. Why this routine? Well, it began several years ago at Christmastime. I always get a huge gift hamper of wonderful food items from friends Stewart and Lynda Resnick of Roll Int. /Paramount Farms. One of their prime farm products are pistachios and they always include a big bag of those nuts in the package (along with lots of Fiji Water, Pom Wonderful, Justin and Landmark Wines.) Then I read some interesting articles in The New York Times and other prestigious journals about the health benefits of nuts, especially pistachios. Thus what began as a brief evening idiocyncracy has evolved into a sublime nightly ritual.

The association's Judy Hirigoyen with Chef Nancy Silverton at lunch.

Last week an invitation landed on my desk and when I saw who it was from and where it was, I smiled to myself and softly sang, "I'll be there." A group called THE AMERICAN PISTACHIO GROWERS was throwing a media lunch at Chef Nancy Silverton's tiny, elegant chi SPACCA restaurant on Melrose, right around the corner from her Osteria Mozza and Pizzaria Mozza.. The fact that Nancy would cook a five-course luncheon, with each dish having some relationship with pistachios, was intriguing. Boy, am I glad I was terrific. I learned a whole lot about pistachios that I didn't know, all good stuff, and came home loaded down with a gift bag of pistachio-related products. A jar of shelled nuts, one of unshelled nuts, a pack of caramelized nuts, some nutty chocolates, and a bottle of the rare pistachio oil, with a jar of pistachio butter. Plus two interesting books: The Mozza Cookbook, which Nancy wrote two yeas ago with an intro by Mario Batali.The other book was a new work by a charming woman who spoke briefly to us at the luncheon. Cheryl Forberg's book was "A Small Guide to LOSING BIG, From the Nutritionist for NBC's 'The Biggest Loser." I must admit I've never watched that show but it seems that Cheryl has written a really smart, savvy small guide to losing weight, a tome which makes more sense that almost every diet book I've ever read. It does advocate following the Mediterranean Diet, which all of us seem to be adopting these days. More on her health-related bits in a moment...but here's one big scoop: there's been a recent study in England which hints that eating pistachios can hinder the advancement of Alzheimer's. Now, that's a nice nut to crack!

Want a slice of Pistachio Pixza?

Did you know that pistachios grow in bunches on trees? These trees take 5 to 8 years to mature and bear fruit, but then can bear nuts for 100 years and more. (They are wind-pollinated as opposed to bee-pollinated.) During harvesting they use a machine which shakes the trees and drops the nuts into a special catcher, never letting the nuts touch the ground. The outer hulls are removed within 24 hours and then the nuts are washed dried and separated by size. Just some of the multitude of interesting nutty tidbits which were supplied by a short film and a running commentary while we enjoyed Nancy's splendid offerings. Just back from a trip to Israel, the chef raved about the food there....and served us bowls of "Falafel" pistachios. She revealed that her next cookbook will be about Israeli food. (Her menu was simple and stunning. After a pistachio pizza (too thick-crusted for me) and a savory bacon-pistachio terrine, there were two extraordinary salads. My favorite was a marinated bitter radicchio and beet salad with goat cheese balls covered in crushed pistachios.The main course was grilled Swordfish Spiedini on skwers, with fregola sarda and pistachios. With Nancy you know that often the 'best' comes last, and this lunch was no exception, ending with a luscious dessert of strawberry coppetta (custard) with pistachio gelato.

Nancy's salad featured marinated raddichio with goat cheese and crushed pistachios.

I sat at a table with a fascinating guy named Rudy Hernandez. Originally an investment banker, in 2000 he became involved with pistachios and managed some major investments. Now a major grower, he was one of the first graduates of the American Pistachio Growers Leadership Class. He's chairman of their marketing committee, so we had a nice talk about marketing nuts and 'stuff' in the U.S. and the world today. I pontificated as always, arguing that they had to do more marketing in major cities like L.A., New York and Chicago. Interestingly, he told me that they had about 625 growers in the non=profit association out of a total of 950 U.S. growers, and they were overwhelmed with worldwide business. Surprised to learn that the biggest international market for pistachios apart from the U.S. is China! 99% of the pistachios in the U.S. come from California, with small groves in New Mexico and Arizona. In 2013 they produced 475 million pounds of nuts. They harvest the nuts for about six weeks in early Fall and then they draw upon those large supplies in silos all year. I thought I heard correctly that the first pistachio trees were brought here from Iran in the 60's by UCSB and the Agricultural Department, making it a relatively new crop in American agriculture. The first commercial crop was grown in 1976.

Nancy preparing one of her salads, wild cress with pistachio aillade.

The dessert featured pistachios and delicious.

Time to try and digest for you some of the 'health' facts which I assembled during this so-interesting lunch. Speakers noted that pistachios have protein, beneficial fats, fiber and other important nutrients the body needs every day. I was given colorful folders detailing how these pistachio nuts aid Management, Diet, Heart Health, and Blood Sugar Control. A single ounce of pistachios consists of about 49 nuts and contains only 160 calories, lower than most other nuts.. The act of manually removing the shells gives you pause, as you looks at the empty shells, about eating too many. There is emerging evidence that the carotenes in pistachios may protect the eyes from sun damage and some types of macular degeneration, acting as internal sunglasses.

I'll conclude this commentary with a note from the 2013 New England Journal of Medicine: Those who ate nuts, one ounce per day or more, seven days a week, had a 20% lower death rate. Further, consuming nuts was also associated with a lower risk of death due to cancer, heart disease and respiratory disease. So my reaching for a handful of pistachios every night is NOT so nutty after all!

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