by Jonathan Ammons
photography by Eli Warren
Do you ever pass a jar on the shelf in the grocery store, and wonder just what it is that makes pine nuts worth their weight in gold? These little explosions of flavor can be costly— they can run as high as $35 per pound—and yet, they seem to be in every dialect of food, from every continent. It seems that the simple seed has become both a delicacy and a staple of modern cuisine.
Pine nuts—as one might assume— come from pinecones, which grow on pine trees. An ancient source of protein for hunter-gatherer tribes of lore around the world, pine nuts can be gathered wherever pine trees grow, and they have a deep history
in nearly every region of the world, although most of the pine nuts that we buy in the supermarket come from just 20 different species of pine tree.
In fact, to this day, most companies that distribute pine nuts do not farm them, rather, they are wild harvested. Additionally, consider that it can take up to 24 months for a single pinecone to reach maturity and be ripe enough for picking, and the nearly four year gestation period for a tree to even produce a pine cone, and increasing global temperatures make it even harder for trees to produce cones. So, the rarity and speciality of such
a supple ingredient starts to make a little more sense.
High in vitamin K and E, and with a distinct and pungent flavor, the pine nut has become a fixture in Italian, Latin, and European foods in sauces like pesto, but it also pops up in Native American dishes, northern Asian cuisines, and is a mainstay in Levant foods of the Middle East.
Most of us have a dusty jar with just a spoonful of pine nuts lingering in our cabinet somewhere from the last time we decided to make pesto. But it is important to know how to handle these little nuggets of gold, lest we waste their value. Remember that a pine nut, like any kind of nut, can spoil and go bad relatively quickly, within a few months of purchase.
Also, be sure to toast your pine nuts before using them. This will help prevent the dreaded Pine Tongue—
a malady that befalls some consumers that can leave them tasting a piney metallic taste in their mouth for everything they eat and drink! The jury is still out on what causes pine tongue, but the risk greatly diminishes when the nuts are cooked.
As playful in desserts as they are in savory foods, pine nuts make a great addition to salads and fruits, but also play just as well in minced meat dishes like kibbeh, skewered and grilled, or as a decadent garnish for grilled vegetables, tossed with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
1/2 cup broccoli, coarsely chopped
½cup fresh parsley (stems removed)
½cup fresh basil
¼-½cup toasted pine nuts
½cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
Olive oil, to texture
Salt and pepper, to taste
Start by blanching the broccoli in boiling water for 1-2 minutes, enough to soften the leaves, but not cook through.
Add everything but the salt, pepper, and oil to a food processor and pulse to coarsely chop. Mix in olive oil, salt, and pepper to season, and puree until a paste forms. Add olive oil in stages to ensure a nice, velvety texture, but be careful not to add too much, so that it doesn’t become greasy.
Exact measurements on the oil isn’t really possible in a recipe like this, as the size and girth of the leaves may vary, so eyeball it, and use caution. I wouldn’t use more than ½ of a cup.
Toss with pasta, use as a sauce for vegetables, or even a stuffing for scratch made ravioli. This pesto actually freezes remarkably well, so feel free to bag it up and freeze whatever is left over.
Pinole Wedding Cookies
2cups pine nuts
2cups of all purpose flour
¼cup Turbinado or Demerara sugar
½tsp vanilla extract
1stick of room temperature unsalted butter
Confectioners sugar for garnish
Start by toasting your pine nuts in a pan over medium high heat, stirring or tossing regularly until they begin to darken. Set aside.
Cube butter and add to a bowl along with the vanilla extract and sugar. Mix until a cream forms. Add flour, salt, and pine nuts, and mix until a batter forms.
Cover and place in the refrigerator for 45-60 minutes, until the batter is cold to the touch. Using a spoon for measurement, form and shape 1-1½” pillows from the dough, flattening the bottom of each with the palm of your hand. They should be shaped like little boulders.
Add to a buttered baking sheet, spaced apart by several inches, and place in a 350 degree oven for 20-23 minutes. Remove and allow to cool, tossing in the confectioners sugar until coated on all sides.