In praise of pine nuts
Pine nuts have been a staple ingredient in Italian cuisine since the days of ancient Rome. Today, they still play a big role in all kinds of delicious Italian recipes.
by Cameron Kane
Pine nuts (pinoli or pignoli), tiny, pale, teardrop shaped nuts, are used in cooking and baking throughout Italy. In Tuscany, they are baked into pastries. In Umbria, they are roasted with meats. In Sicily, pine nuts are paired with all kinds of seafood. Then there's Genoa where pesto, that famous and fragrant fresh basil sauce, originated. Though basil is the dominant flavor, pounded as it is with olive oil, grated cheese, and garlic, it's the addition of pine nuts that gives pesto its supple texture and richness. (Traditional pesto, the only kind most Genovese will eat, is pounded in a mortar and pestle to release essential oils, enhancing the flavor and creating an inimitable texture.)
Indeed, pine nuts have long been entrenched in Italian cuisine. Roman soldiers ate pine nuts as they marched into battle. In 1666 Pope Clement IX decreed a pine nut plantantion be planted on the coast near Rome to ensure a steady supply. And archaeologists uncovered piles of the savory seeds preserved in the volcanic ash of Pompeii. Pine nuts play a role in other food cultures as well, including Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East. Native Americans from Mexico to Idaho have relied on it for thousands of years, often grinding the nuts into flour, while China has considered the nut a cherished delicacy since the 7th century.
Where pine nuts come from
Pine nuts are harvested from inside the pine cones of certain varieties of pine trees. The technique for retrieving the nuts, unchanged over time, is simple but labor-intensive: the trees are either shaken or prodded by long, hooked poles in order to knock down their cones. The cones are then heated, softening their shells to allow the kernels to be removed and de-skinned. (It's this labor intensive process that makes them so pricey.)
Choosing and using pine nuts
China is currently the world’s largest producer of pine nuts. But it's the Italian pine nut, harvested from the stone pine, that is the real prize. While the Chinese variety can be quite strong tasting, the Italian is sweeter and milder, with a true nutty flavor. Portugal, Spain and North Africa all produce a similar nut. Check the packaging to see where the pine nuts are from; more often than not, Italian pine nuts, which are slightly more elongated than the Chinese, will cost more.
No matter which variety you buy, be sure to taste the nuts before using; because they are high in fat, they can go rancid quickly. Pine nuts may be used straight from the jar, but often they are toasted, either on a baking sheet in a low oven or in a dry skillet over medium heat, to intensify their nutty flavor. Use pine nuts wherever you might use walnuts or almonds; they're especially good toasted and added to green salads and can add the perfect toasty note to a pasta or fish dish.
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