$20 and Under: In A Nut Shell
May 09 2019

$20 and Under: In A Nut Shell

By: Kim Ranjbar

One of the most ubiquitous items found on a Persian table is the pistachio. It doesn't matter if you're over for tea or a large family celebration, you will almost always find a bowl of these green beauties available for snacking. I can picture my father lying on the couch, watching football and splitting open pistachios to pop in his mouth one-by-one, and it was not uncommon for my mother to chew him (or my siblings and me) out for leaving empty shells all over the coffee table.

Though there are several different varieties of pistachio, the ones grown in Iran are ultimately the best. I realize this sounds incredibly biased, but connoisseurs agree. Iranian pistachios are the meatiest and the richest in flavor, with a higher fat content. This delicious nut-technically a seed-has been around for a long, long time. In fact, it is believed that Iran's central plateau was the birthplace of the pistachio, and evidence of its existence can be found as early as 6000 B.C.

California's pistachios come close in flavor to Iranian varieties, but that's no surprise, considering all of the pistachio trees in our country descended from one Iranian nut (from the Kerman province), which was collected and planted by botanist William E. Whitehouse in 1929. Thanks to Whitehouse and that one-and only-viable nut that survived planting in Sacramento, California, the United States overtook Iran as the world's largest producer of pistachios in 2008, and we've been vying with each other for the top slot ever since. We should thank Iran and Whitehouse for our thriving, billion-dollar pistachio industry, which would not exist otherwise.

Due to the current political climate, President Donald Trump reinstated trade sanctions on Iran, and Persian pistachios are, once again, difficult to find in the U.S. I'm sure my mother has a stash of Persian pistachios brought over by visiting relatives, but unless you get a dinner invite, she'll doubtlessly be unwilling to share.

Sofia's Pistachio Cake

No matter. Pistachios are loved all over the globe, and there's plenty to be had right here in New Orleans. Our incredibly talented chefs are whipping up dishes featuring the beloved nut in both sweet and savory settings. Take, for example, the delightful torte available at the recently opened Sofia, a new CBD restaurant on Julia Street. Executive Chef Talia Diele is concocting enticing, Italian-inspired plates, like lemon chicken with wilted greens, smoked mushroom polenta, Gulf snapper with eggplant caponata, and several types of wood-fired pizza. Dessert menus tend to change more frequently, but if you can, dive into their crumbly pistachio cake with roasted grape marmellata and Greek yogurt espuma. It's not too sweet, and their cappuccino is an excellent accompaniment.

1000 Figs's Lamb & Pork Kofta Platter
1000 Figs's Lamb & Pork Kofta Platter

Over near the Fair Grounds, just off Esplanade Avenue, lies 1000 Figs, the brick-and-mortar restaurant owned by the same folks who brought us the Fat Falafel food truck and Echo's Pizza in Mid-City. You can't really go wrong with anything on their menu, from the hand-cut fries served with garlicky toum to the chicken salad sandwich, but go for a little more adventure with their Lamb & Pork Kofta platter. Similar to meatloaf, the kofta is topped with a fresh cilantro and pistachio duqqa (an Egyptian condiment made with nuts and spices) and served with yogurt, Louisiana rice, cabbage slaw, grilled veggies, and harissa. It a nice-sized lunch platter for only $15!

Willa Jean's Avocado Toast (Photo by Lorin Gaudin)
Willa Jean's Avocado Toast (Photo by Lorin Gaudin)

Downtown in the South Market District, popular bakery and restaurant Willa Jean serves up all kinds of goodies for breakfast and lunch. Among the dishes of cornbread, shrimp and grits, fried chicken with Tabasco honey, and crispy boudin is an avocado toast revelation. Smashed avocado is served on their house grain bread with fresh greens, olive oil, chilis, pistachios, and sunflower seeds, topped with a poached egg. It's a tad steep at $15 for toast, but it's a dish that'll keep you coming back for more.

Head to the Metairie burbs for a taste of India at Shyan's Kitchen on Houma Boulevard, just across Veterans from Clearview Mall. Offering a blend of Indian and Pakistani cuisine, this tiny restaurant inside a strip mall has everything from samosas and curries to korma and saag paneer. Shyan's also has a huge selection of naan-we're talking 10 different flavors-and one called peshwari naan is stuffed with cashews, pistachios, raisins, and rose water. How much can you eat at $4.99 per order?

Bar Frances's Mussels with Dill-Seasoned Chips
Bar Frances's Mussels with Dill-Seasoned Chips

Get yourself back to the city and point your vehicle towards Freret Street. Located in one of the newer buildings close to Napoleon Avenue is Bar Frances, a modern bistro with a French flair. You can enjoy grilled Napa cabbage with miso vinaigrette, charred octopus, and Louisiana Crawfish Bolognese, but the pistachio-lover will go straight for the Prince Edward Island Mussels steeped in pistachio pesto and malt vinegar and served with dill-seasoned chips.

After lunch at Bar Frances, you should really drop by Piccola Gelateria right next door for a small or large serving of their sumptuous, thick-and-almost-chewy pistachio gelato. Chef and owner Ross Turnbull studied the making of gelato at its birthplace in Italy and has graciously brought his knowledge to us. By all means, take advantage!

Finally, I'd like to leave you with one more sweet treat to try. Just outside the French Quarter is a small café on the corner of N. Robertson Street and Ursulines Avenue, called Fatma's Cozy Corner. Among other items, like stuffed grape leaves, hummus, salads, and sandwiches, is their crisp, honey-laden baklava made with phyllo dough and crushed pistachios. Enjoy a slice with a bitter, hot cup of Turkish coffee and while away the afternoon relaxing in the historic Treme neighborhood.

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