Alex Trebek beware!

Hopeful Jeopardy contestants digest the last bit of trivia before applying for television time. And learning this collection of little-known facts about pistachio nuts could mean the difference between "Final Jeopardy" success or failure. Or, if you happened to get a full category labeled "Pistachio Ponderings," you'd easily be $3,000 ahead.Well, that may be a slight exaggeration, but at least you'd be a guaranteed winner in the "Trivial Pursuit" neighborhood competitions.

And if the prize is pistachio nuts to eat, that would be incentive enough to enter the contest many times.

The day I discovered pistachio nuts, I found Baskin-Robbins on Michigan Road in Indianapolis. The ice cream chain trademarks a tempting flavor called Pistachio Almond Fudge; a tiny pink spoon sample of the month's featured flavor collared my taste. Seems like I stopped by the store for refills on 25 of 30 days.

Then the folks at Jell-O enabled me to buy pistachio for the pantry with their new pudding mix. In marketing the product, they developed a slew of recipes to layer, blend and otherwise disguise the pudding, but I liked it best alone. I only had to beat my son, Greg, to the pudding shaker and milk.

The distinctive flavor settled in as a family favorite, and I wondered why we lived so long in pistachio unawareness.

I wasn't the only one. Pistachio nuts are a fairly recent addition to everyone's market basket.

Although the trees are centuries old in Iran, limited quantities of the nut were imported. Cumbersome processing methods blemished the nut shell; thus, the nuts were dyed a bright red, identifying them with the holiday season.

Just when the colored nuts achieved a recognizable place in the grocery, the Iran hostage crisis curtailed their presence. Any product from Iran was embargoed in the wake of the political events.

The crisis couldn't have been better timed for the new pistachio growers in California.

Recognizing the potential pistachio market in this country, farmers began planting California pistachios in the mid-'70s. The tree takes approximately seven years to mature and produce a commercially viable product. California growers infiltrated the market in the absence of the imported pistachios.

Market share for the "nut with the natural tan" expanded. Kris Nylander, general manager of Western Nut in Salt Lake City, estimates this year's crop at 115 million pounds. "Ninety million is the most they've had before, but this year will bring a noticeable reduction in the price. We had pistachios last year for $4 to $6 dollars a pound; we anticipate this year's price to drop to around $2.75 to $3.50."

U.S. processing methods carefully guarded the shell; the pistachio emerged as an appealing product without the use of artificial coloring.

When pistachios are ripe and still on the tree, their ivory shells are covered with a rose-colored skin. The skin protects the nutmeat and the shell.

The rosy skin is removed from the shell during processing and the mature nuts split open. Pistachios that remain sealed are immature nuts or "grannies." "If the nut doesn't open during processing," Nylander explained, "it probably isn't any good anyway. Don't bother with the hammer or the nutcracker."

Pistachios lend appeal to menu items for a variety of reasons.

- Pistachios offer good nutrition as well as good taste. An ounce of nuts contains 160 calories and are classified nutrient dense, providing a good balance of calories compared to concentrated nutrition.

- Pistachios are low in saturated fat and relatively high in monounsaturated fat.

- The nuts contain 3.1 grams of fiber per ounce, more than raisins, potatoes, wheat bread and celery.

- Pistachios are a source of vegetable protein, containing 6 grams per ounce.

- Each ounce of the nut contains 5 grams of carbohydrate.

In addition to the healthy reasons for swallowing the nutmeats, pistachios lend a distinctive and elegant flavor to any recipe.

In cooking with pistachios, natural shell nuts should be used. Red pistachios have an added food coloring that may affect the color of your recipe. Eight ounces of in-shell nuts equal 1 cup of nutmeats. It takes about 15 minutes to shell two cups of nuts.

Shelling the nuts seems to create a mesmerizing effect on snackers. "The ritual of cracking and opening the nuts is often as satisfying as eating the nuts," says Allette Gomez of the California Pistachio Commission.

In fact, Chateau Souverain restaurant in Geyserville, Calif., added warm pistachios as an aperitif between courses. Chef Gary Danko finds the pistachio interruption "slows down the dining process. Nibbling on the nuts allows people to relax, to lay back and thoroughly enjoy an evening."

Proprietors of the new Radisson Hotel in Fresno, Calif., the heart of pistachio country, tagged their lounge "Pistachios."

Gomez explained, "The hotel wanted to identify with the local market, but also recognized the potential of pistachios as an emerging product for the food service industry. They've become a popular snacking item."

Pistachios emerge as a natural, crowd-pleasing snack or lend extra appeal and crunch to a variety of hot or cold dishes.

*****

Recipes listed:

Pistachio Corn Meal Pizza

2 1/2-2 3/4 cups flour

1 package fast-rising yeast

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups hot water

2 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 cup cornmeal

1/4 cup pistachios, chopped

Pear Pistachio Pizza:

1 cup Monterey jack cheese, grated

1 pear, cored and thinly sliced

1/2 cup pistachios

1/4 cup ham

3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

Pistachio Chicken Pizza:

1 cup Cheddar cheese, grated

1 tart apple, cored and thinly sliced

1 cup smoked chicken or turkey breast, shredded

1/2 cup pistachios For crust combine 1 cup flour, yeast, sugar and salt. Put water and oil in blender and add flour mixture while blending at medium speed. Whirl 15 seconds; pour into large bowl. Beat in 11/2 cups flour, cornmeal and chopped pistachios. Knead in enough flour to obtain smooth dough. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and set in warm place about 15 minutes. Knead dough briefly, divide in two and shape or roll on greased pizza pans into 12-inch circles. Top with desired toppings and bake at 450 degrees for 12-14 minutes.

For Pear Pistachio Pizza, spread jack cheese on crust. Arrange pear slices, pinwheel fashion on cheese. Sprinkle pistachios and ham over pear slices. Top with Parmesan cheese and bake.

For Pistachio Chicken Pizza, spread Cheddar cheese on prepared crust. Arrange apple slices and smoked chicken over cheese. Sprinkle with pistachios and bake.

Pistachio Truffle Pie

1/2 cup light corn syrup

1 package (6 oz.) semisweet chocolate chips

3 egg yolks, beaten

2 cups heavy cream, divided

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/4 cups pistachios, chopped

Pistachio Crumb Crust:

3/4 cup vanilla wafer crumbs

1/3 cup sugar

1/4 cup pistachios, chopped

1/4 cup butter, melted

2 tablespoons cocoa Combine corn syrup, egg yolks and chocolate chips over low heat; stir until smooth, cool. Whip 11/2 cups cream until soft peaks form; gradually fold cream and 3/4 cup pistachios into chocolate mixture. Spoon into crust and chill at least 2 hours. Whip remaining cream, sugar and vanilla. Garnish pie with whipped cream, chocolate curls and remaining pistachios. Makes 10-12 servings.

For crust, combine vanilla wafer crumbs, sugar, pistachios, cocoa and melted butter. Press into 9-inch pie plate. Bake at 375 degrees for 7-9 minutes; cool before filling.

Spaghetti Squash Pistachiano

1 spaghetti squash, about 1 1/2 pounds

1/2 cup pistachios

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, cut into thin strips

1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1/4 cup Mozzarella or Monterrey Jack cheese Pierce squash several times with fork. Place in microwave; cook, uncovered, on HIGH for 9-10 minutes or until squash is tender. Turn squash over once during cooking, remove from oven; set aside to cool slightly. Halve squash lengthwise; remove seeds. Lift out spaghetti-like strands with fork and place on 2 microwave-safe plates. Sprinkle each serving with pistachios, basil, tomatoes and olive oil; fluff with 2 forks to mix. Combine Parmesan and Mozzarella cheese; sprinkle over spaghetti. Return to microwave; cook on HIGH for about 30 seconds. Makes 2 servings.

Turkey Supper Salad

4 green onions, divided

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil

1 1/2 cups cooked turkey, julienne

1/2 cup sweet red pepper

1/4 cup white wine vinegar or lemon juice

1 teaspoon basil, crushed

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

4 cups torn or sliced romaine or spinach

1/2 avocado, sliced or cubed, optional

1/2 cup Monterey jack cheese, grated

1/2 cup pistachios, chopped Cut 2 green onions into 1-inch pieces. Saute onions and garlic in oil until lightly browned; remove and discard. Add turkey and red pepper; saute until heated. Add vinegar, basil, mustard, salt and pepper. Place romaine in salad bowl. Add hot turkey mixture; toss. Top with avocado, cheese, 2 remaining green onions, sliced, and pistachios. Makes 4-5 servings.

Pistachio Bulgur Pilaf

1 cup sliced mushrooms

1/2 cup cracked wheat bulgur

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 1/4 cups water

1 cup cooked turkey, diced

1/4 cup pistachios, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon dried mint

Salt and pepper Saute 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.

Pistachio Brittle

1 cup shelled pistachios

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

1/8 teaspoon lemon extract or vanilla Place pistachios on baking sheet; bake at 300 degrees to keep warm while preparing candy. Combine sugar, butter, water and corn syrup in saucepan. Cook, without stirring, to soft-crack stage (275 degrees). Add lemon extract or vanilla and pistachios. pour onto foil-lined baking sheet. Cool. Break into serving size pieces. Makes about 36 pieces.

Chicken-Pistachio Roll-Ups

6 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless

Pepper

1 bunch (12 oz.) fresh spinach, washed and stemmed

2/3 cup ricotta cheese

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/3 cup pistachios, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried basil leaves

Cherry tomatoes Flatten each breast to 1/4-inch thickness; season with pepper. Cover and cook 3 cups (refrigerate remainder for garnish) spinach until wilted; drain. Rinse under cold water; drain again. Pat dry and flatten with paper towels. Cover each breast with an even layer of spinach. Mix remaining ingredients and spread evenly over spinach to within 1/4-inch of edges. Roll up jelly roll style, starting from the shortest end. Arrange in a lightly oiled baking dish, seam down. Cover with foil and bake at 375 degrees 18-24 minutes. Refrigerate 3 hours. To serve, cut each roll in 1/2-inch slices; arrange on reserved spinach leaves. Garnish with cherry tomatoes. Makes 6 servings.

Pistachio Ice Cream

1/2 cup pistachio nuts

Few drops rose water

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Few drops green food coloring

4 1/4 cups cream

1/8 teaspoon salt Blend pistachios with rose water in mortar and pestle or processor. Add 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup cream, vanilla, almond extract and food coloring; stir until sugar is dissolved. Heat 1 cup cream to near boiling; add remaining sugar and salt. Stir until dissolved; chill. Blend chilled cream with pistachio mixture; add remaining cream and freeze according to manufacturer's directions. A pretty holiday dessert served in a meringue tart and garnished with cherries. Makes about 9 servings.