Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Pine Nuts

The price per pound was roughly half what they charge at a discount supermarket. And a few big clumps of basil happened to be sitting on the kitchen counter back home, waiting to be chopped into pesto and frozen for the winter. So I bought the great big bag of pine nuts at CostCo at $14 dollars a pound, little considering that due to their high oil content, pine nuts go bad quickly, and a pound and a half of those tasty little nuts will take you a long ways into the autumn.

We made the pesto—though a friend later reminded me that it’s better to toast the pine nuts in a frying pan and sprinkle them on top just before serving. And we gave some to my mother-in-law for her birthday. At that point I began to dig out a few tried and true recipes…

Why are pine nuts so expensive? Because they take eighteen months to mature (which seems very odd to me) and must be harvested by hand. I can remember driving north from Pie Town to Fence Lake, New Mexico, through several monotonous hours of miniature hills covered with juniper and piñon pine—a Georgia O’Keefe nightmare. There were pick-up trucks parked in the ditches here and there, and we finally figured out that folks were out gathering pine nuts. We stopped at a café—it may have been in Quemado—and I was pleased to listen in on the conversation of two chunky young Indian men in the booth next door. It seems that one absent member of the party wasn’t pulling his weight. I heard one of them say, “ Next year, I think it should be just you, me…and grandma.”

Pine nuts grow best at elevations between six and eight thousand feet. That’s the zone at which the snowpack is likely to linger, providing run-off well into the summer. But there’s no telling if a crop of nuts will mature or wither on any given year.

Harvesting pine nuts doesn’t have to be a drag, however. The Spanish composer Enrique Granados published a set of canciones amatorias in 1915 that includes a number called “They Went into the Pine Woods.”

Country girls from Cuenca go up into the pine-woods,
Some for the pine nuts, some for the dancing.
As they dance and shell the pine nuts
The pretty country girls enjoy
Throwing the darts of love at one another.
Between the branches—when blind Cupid
Asks the sun for his eyes to see them better—
You can see them treading on the eyes of the sun.
Some go for the pine-nuts, some go for the dancing.

I’m not sure what’s going on here, but it sounds a little more interesting than “you, me, and grandma.”

Quite a few species of pine trees produce edible nuts. The pine nuts they sell at road-side stands in the American Southwest are very different from the ones we buy at the store, being larger and perhaps less delicate in flavor. (Maybe they’d taste better if I shelled them.) The bag I bought at CostCo came from China. It’s said that in China they mercilessly denude the trees of branches to make the job of harvesting easier, and then just move on. I suppose it’s possible...

In any case, these Chinese nuts are as good as any I’ve tasted. In fact, the pesto we made the other day was almost too rich. I also recently made a salad of fresh beets, gorgonzola, pine nuts, and vinaigrette—you can’t miss with that combination.

But the best of the dishes I cooked up is an orzo salad that I rank among the most subtly pleasing concoctions in the world. What’s interesting about this salad is that when you take a bite, you don’t taste much of anything. There are little bits of flavor taking you this way and that, and only gradually does the full impact hit home. I once made a batch of this stuff and something seemed wrong. I finally figured out that the raisins were sticking to each other. Not getting dispersed. You need every little touch, in the right proportion, in every bite, or the thing won’t go.

Here’s the recipe.

Orzo Salad with Lemon, Feta, and Pine Nuts
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more as needed
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 cup orzo
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup golden raisins
3 tablespoons finely chopped black olives
3 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
2 oz. feta cheese, crumbled

Combine the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, and sugar in a jar. Shake it and set aside.

Cook orzo according to package directions. Meanwhile, toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet over medium-low heat. Shake them from time to time — they burn easily. They should toast up in just a couple of minutes. They’re done when you can smell them and they start to turn brown. Lovely.
Drain the orzo and transfer it to a medium bowl. Add the dressing to the hot pasta and toss to coat. Let cool to room temperature. (Stick it fridge to speed things up.)

Add the pine nuts, raisins, olives, red onion, and basil and stir to combine. Add the feta and toss lightly. Taste and adjust the seasonings to your liking.
It’s a good idea to make this at least 4 hours ahead of time so the flavors can meld. It’s also fine right away and delicious the next day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Could someone please tell me some different ways to shell pine nuts? Besides using my teeth?! How is it done commercially?