Paprika and Red Pepper Soup with Pistachio Puree
Epiphanies, Scribes, and a Scrumptious Soup
by Victoria Challancin
First of all, let me begin by saying I love epiphanies. Love the sound of the word, love the meaning, love the idea. I mean, what isn't to love about being struck with a life-enriching realization of something that carries eternal meaning, or at least personal? [I once met a Mexican artisan whose name was Epifanio and have forever teased my son that I would be pleased one day in the long distant future to have a grandchild of that very name! Or Epifania, of course]
My most recent epiphany came just yesterday as I was going through the process of renewing my Mexican working papers. Let me start at the beginning.
Throughout a lifetime of travel, often in remote areas of the world, I have long been fascinated with the idea of scribes. Bound up in history since the beginning of recorded time, the first scribes engraved their messages on lumps of wet clay. Because they represented the educated, those who could write, they served royal courts, the rich, and the poor. Who could ever forget the incredible almost five thousand year-old statue of the Seated Scribe at the Louvre or the countless images found all over Egypt, on walls and in three dimensional atatuary. In fact, scribes are revered in art throughout antiquity, especially in the Fertile Crescent.
I can remember being touched by the modern-day scribes who sit outside the post offices of India, with their lists of Hallmark-style greetings ready to be copied from paper or even from the walls of the interior building itself. And in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kenya, and other places--yes, I have seen scribes. Even when I moved to Mexico 25 years ago, men with typewriters positioned themselves on the sidewalks outside government buildings, ready to make a little money with just the skill of being able to write the language.
And then yesterday, an epiphany. As I sat in the office near the immigration building, where I have to renew my papers each year--an office complete with computers, printers, photography machines and yes, typewriters--for the polite and competent family of modern-day scribes to help me wade through the intricacies of Mexican bureaucratic paperwork, I had an epiphany. With their professional dignity and competence, these men and women helped me, a well-educated former university teacher with an acute love of the written word, unravel the mysteries of that which I couldn't understand. And life spirals around again and comes full circle. An epiphany indeed.
Pistachios: A Little Information
From my early memories of my older brother loving Pistachio and Marshmallow Cream milk shakes from Howard Johnson's to my later life in the Middle East, where I learned that fresh pistachios arrived on Thursdays from Iran to sate my newly fueled love of the famed Middle Eastern nut, I have had a love affair with pistachios. Growing up in South Florida, we did eat pistachios, albeit horrid specimens dyed red to disguise blemishes in the hulls and which tinted the fingers as well. But after living and travelling in the Middle East throughout my mid-twenties and thirties, I really came into a serious case of pistachio love.
When I first moved to Abu Dhabi to start a school for an American company doing water pipeline work in the city, I lived for a while in a penthouse in a building that housed a popular Lebanese bakery on its ground floor. While I didn't actually have to trip over the trays of tempting pastries, often replete with pistachios, to get to my flat, it seemed that way to me. I started out sampling a piece at a time and slowly grew to buying increasingly larger boxes of treats. And although walnuts were available in some pastries, I almost always opted for the pistachios. Then, later in Bahrain, waiting on those pistachios from Iran (and cashews from Kenya), my appreciation just grew. I even knew of one lone house, down a lonely and remote alley, where the mother made to order tiny cardamom-pistachio sweetmeats called al salooq, sent home in paper bags and prized as an accompaniment for coffee or tea, or to be served to special guests at any dinner or party. Yes, my love of pistachios grew over the years.
And just for you, a bit of lore and history:
- Originating in Asia Minor (specifically the area known as Great Iran which is modern Iran and Iraq), pistachios are now grown in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Tunisia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Italy (Sicily), Uzbekistan Afghanistan, Australia, and the United States
- Pistachios were a common food as early as 6750 BC
- Pistachios are one of the oldest flowering nut trees
- Pistachios can contain a toxin found in poorly harvested or processed nuts (also some can have aflatoxins)
- The Hanging Gardens of Babylon contained pistachio trees
- The pistachio and almond are two nuts mentioned in the Bible
- Legend says that the Queen of Sheba decreed them to be exclusively a royal food
- Apicius mentions pistachios in his classic cook book of early Rome
- Pistachios were planted in Rome as early as the first century A.D.
- According to Muslim legend, the pistachio nut was one of the foods brought to Earth by Adam
- A desert plant, the pistachio is highly tolerant of saline soil and hot climates
- The FDA in 2003 approved the health claim that the nuts lowered the risk of heart disease
- Consuming 32 to 63g per day of pistachio can significantly elevate plasma levels of lutein, alpha-carotene, and beta-carotene
- There actually exists a "Pistachio Principal" whereby the act of shelling and eating pistachios one by one slows one's consumption, allowing one to feel full faster after having eaten less--and it is a pleasant pass time to boot!
- Pistachio shells can be recycled and used as a fire starter like kindling, as a mulch for plants, a medium for orchids, and as a deterrent for slugs and snails when planted around the base of certain plants. Research shows that the shells may be helpful in cleaning up pollution created my mercury emissions as well.
- Pistachios belong to the Anacardiaceae or Cashew Family, which includes mango, poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac
- The pistachio has been used as a dyeing agent
- Because of its high nutritional value and long storage life, pistachios were an early indispensable travel item among travelers and traders alike, especially along the Silk Road that connected China with the West
- China is the largest consumer of pistachios today
- In folk remedies, the pistachio has been used to treat ailments ranging from toothaches to sclerosis of the liver
- Alexander the Great introduced pistachios into Greece
- Because of close trade relations with Syria, the Venetian Republic eventually grew pistachios to feed the increasing demand
- Although pistachios were used in cooking in various ways in Italy, north of the Alps they were used primarily as a costly addition to baked goods
- Pistachios are rich in phytosterols, which are known to lower blood cholesterol
- Another tip from early folklore: share some pistachios with your loved ones as an aphrodisiac guaranteed to enhance performance (if it worked for the Queen of Sheba, it might just work for you!)
Pistachios and cardamom together. Of course this recipe grabbed me. A combination redolent of flavor and rich history--and utterly impossible to ignore. Truly, this is one of my favorite soups I have ever made. Unctuous and rich, yet not really heavy, this soup is a marvel of delicate flavors. If I could rate this with stars, I would give it an unabashed five out of five!
Cook's Notes: I used canola oil, serrano chiles, water, Mexican sour cream (no buttermilk available here), and the pistachio puree, but forgot to sprinkle with cilantro. I think the cilantro would also be nice blended with the puree of pistachios. This is such a heady soup that the water base was fine, as was the canola oil, though I was tempted to use olive oil. If you are careful when reheating so as not to curdle, yogurt would also be a nice substitute for the buttermilk. Sometimes when buttermilk is required, I actually sour some milk with lemon juice or vinegar; usually, I just substitute crema ácida, or Mexican sour cream.
Recipe: Paprika and Red Pepper Soup with Pistachio Puree
(Recipe from Eating Well Magazine)
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 large red bell peppers, halved lengthwise, stemmed, seeded and diced
1 to 2 red serrano or Thai chiles, stemmed and coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons sweet Hungarian paprika
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 cup unsalted shelled pistachios
2 cups vegetable broth or water
1 cup nonfat buttermilk
2 tablespoons whipping cream
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
Garnish: Puree 1/4 cup shelled pistachios with 1/4 cup water and a pinch of salt. Add a small handfull of cilantro or sprinkle it on the soup separately.
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, bell peppers and chile to taste. Cook, stirring until the vegetables release some of their juices and the onion is lightly brown around the edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle the vegetables with paprika, salt, and cardamom and cook, stirring, until the spices are very fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat; let cool for 5 minutes.
Transfer the soup to a blender (in batches if necessary) and puree until smooth. Return the soup to the pan.
Whisk buttermilk and cream in a bowl; sitr into the soup. Gently warm over low heat. SErve sprinkled with cilantro and pistachio puree.
©Victoria Challancin. All Rights Reserved.
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