Along with caviar, saffron and truffles, pine nuts are among the most expensive foods we eat. A small jar, about 1 3/4 ounces, costs $1.99.
And no wonder. The preparation is a long process. First you have to find a pine tree at least 25 years old; then someone has to gather the cones, competing with birds, squirrels and other small animals for the seeds; then remove the seeds from the cones and, finally, remove the nuts from the seeds.
To us, they may be a luxury food, but to the Navajo and Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, pine nuts are a diet staple. The Indians gather their nuts from the pinon pine, and they eat the nuts raw, boiled, mashed, ground into flour or as a spread for corn cakes. Harvested in Italy from the stone or parasol pine, pignoli are an important ingredient in dishes such as pesto in Genoa and pasta con sarde in Sicily. Pignons in Spain and Portugal come from the royal pine tree and are cooked with dried, salted cod or in paella.
Combined with rice and currants, pine nuts become stuffing for grape leaves in the Middle East, and in China, pine nuts can be found in sweets or as garnishes in savory fried dishes; Koreans add them to congee, kimchi and rice desserts.
There are about 80 types of pine trees and most pine nuts are edible. Some taste faintly like pine, others have a turpentine or resin flavor. The pine nuts are tucked inside pine cones and as the cones become warm, either naturally by the sun or in an oven, the seeds are released. A ton of pine cones yields about 75 pounds of pine nuts. After the husks are removed mechanically, about 25 pounds of shelled pine nuts remain. Sold with the husks intact, they often are called Indian nuts.
Pine nuts can be identified by color and shape. The Mediterranean ones are about 5/8 -inch long, slender, ivory in color, slightly sweet. The Chinese pine nut is more beige, more teardrop-shaped and more pungent in flavor. They are about $7 a pound, about half the price of Mediterranean pine nuts. You can find pine nuts in supermarkets, and in produce sections that sell pine nuts from China marketed by Frieda of California. Many ethnic-food stores sell them in bulk.
Pine nuts are high in fat and become rancid unless stored in airtight containers in a cool place. They can be frozen, but they tend to become mushy, so buy them as you need them. One ounce of pine nuts, (about 2 tablespoons) contains 146 calories, 14.3 grams fat and 4 grams carbohydrates.
They can be tossed into salads, ground and used as a breading for fish, mixed into chutney, and substituted for other nuts in baking. Add a few to spinach, eggplant or roasted pepper dishes. To release the full flavor of pine nuts, roast them in a 350-degree oven for a few minutes or in a dry cast-iron frying pan. Watch them carefully; they burn easily.
Pine nuts add a mellow crunch to this winter-time tomato sauce.
Pasta with pine nuts
Makes 4 servings.
4 ounces pine nuts
1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
salt and pepper, to taste
grated Parmesan cheese, to taste
1 pound pasta, such as fresh linguine
Place pine nuts in a shallow baking dish and roast in a 350-degree oven until lightly browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove and set aside.
Place sun-dried tomatoes in bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to stand until softened, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove tomatoes and reserve 1 cup water. Cut tomatoes into small pieces. Set aside.
In a large saute pan, heat oil; add onion and garlic and saute till tender. Stir in tomato-soaking liquid and mix well. Add sun-dried tomatoes, capers and pine nuts and mix well. Season with salt and pepper. To serve, cook pasta according to package directions. Divide pasta among 4 plates, top with sauce and, if desired, grated Parmesan cheese.
Makes 4 servings.
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
2 eggs, slightly beaten
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped, sun-dried tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
3/4 cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
olive oil for cooking pancakes
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
4 ounces prosciutto, minced
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream
Combine flour, baking powder and salt. Beat together milk, eggs and olive oil. Stir dry ingredients into the milk mixture. Add sun-dried tomatoes, basil, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese and mix well.
Lightly oil a griddle or skillet and make pancakes using 1/4 cup batter for each one. Cook 2 minutes one side; 1 minute on the other.
To make sauce, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and saute shallots and garlic 3 minutes. Add prosciutto and cook 2 minutes longer. Stir in tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cook 10 minutes. Stir in heavy cream. Heat slightly; do not boil.