Everything You Wanted To Know (or Not) About: Pine Nuts

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The pine nut.

Yes it actually comes from pine trees. The stone pine, to be exact. The pine nuts you'll find at your grocery store and the kernals in the harder and larger shells that can be found right off of the pine cone! Yes, you can theoretically go into a forest, find a sone pine tree, and harvest and eat the nuts. In fact, our ancestors have been doing that for thousands of years. 6000 years to be exact.

Pine nuts have a distinct, sweet and woodsy taste. They have good bite to them, making them substantial despite their small size. Because of that effect they are popular in salads and desserts. A classic European pairing is almond or marzipan cookie topped with pine nuts. And of course, we have the classic pesto which is comprised of toasted pine nuts, basil, garlic, parmesan cheese and olive oil. They are a classic ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine, Middle Eastern and even Asian.

Harvesting the tiny nut is not as complicated as one would think. Pine cones are taken and placed in large burlap bags and left out in the sun for about 20 days to dry out. Then you beat the shit out of the bag until the cone is pulverized and the seeds remain. Then you sift through, removing the seeds quite easily. Conversely, you can just hike around a forest and pick them up off the ground.

Pine nuts are edible raw and taste fine unlike their other nut cousins the almond, peanut, and walnut that benefit greatly from a little roasting before consuming. However, they develop a nice crunchy texture from a little pan-roasting (picture above). Just a couple of minutes - they burn quite easily as they're full of oil.

Classic combinations for pine nuts include:
  • Moroccan spices, cous-cous, currants or raisins
  • basil, parmesan, garlic, olive oil
  • almond or marizpan based cookie dough
  • ricotta cheese, honey
  • spinach, feta cheese, lemon
  • apricot, honey
  • goat cheese
  • persimmon, ginger, cinnamon
  • basil, parsley, cilantro, mint
  • semi-sweet chocolate, sea salt

You can toss them in rice, cous-cous, pasta, or salads. Top them on cookies or desserts. Grind them with an herb like mint or cilantro and coat meat with them (pork and lamb work exceptionally well) for an amazing crust.

Personally, I love them most in salads and pastas. I often toss a small handful on top especially when I'm working with a bitter green like escarole or kale. The sweetness of the pine nut balances out the bitterness of those greens so nicely.

Recently I whipped up a quick batch of spaghetti with black kale, cherry tomatoes, sweet onion and of course, pine nuts:

It is just this simple.
Spaghetti with Black Kale, Cherry Tomatoes, and Pine Nuts
1/2 lb spaghetti
extra virgin olive oil
1/2 sweet onion, chopped
4-5 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch black kale (or green kale), leaves removed from stems
1 cup cherry tomatoes
2 Tbsp toasted pine nuts
freshly grated Romano cheese
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
Cook spaghetti according to package instructions. To make the sauce, heat some olive oil in a large saute pan (about 1/4 cup). Saute the onion on medium flame until soft, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic, kale and tomatoes and mix to combine. Reduce heat to low and cover with lid. Cook until kale is wilted about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Drain the spaghetti and add it directly into the kale mixture, tossing with tongs to coat. Add the pine nuts and a good sprinkling of romano cheese and serve.

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