We all know pine nuts right? Those small, decadent, outrageously expensive nuts that melt like butter on the tongue and give traditional basil pesto it’s signature flavor. But where do they come from? Today, we’ll find out!
Why are they called pine nuts?
Turns out, the answer is closer than we may think. It’s in the name! Pine nuts, in North America, come from pinyon pine trees.
The pinyon pine is well-equipped to live in treacherous desert environments — they are compact, slow-growing, and drought tolerant. Since they’re accustomed to hard desert life, the pinyon pine grows primarily in the southwest, with some as far north as Wyoming.
There are quite a few varieties of pinyon pine trees. Most commonly used for harvesting pine nuts are the Colorado pinyon, single-leaf pinyon and Mexican pinyon.
Now, while pine nuts harvested in North America may come from the pinyon pine, what about European pine nuts? Pesto, a staple of Italian cuisine, is made specifically with pine nuts. And these pine nuts come from a different tree.
Meet the stone pine, which has been cultivated as a pine nut machine for over 5,000 years in Europe. The stone pine is native to the Mediterranean region and Southern Europe.
Getting to the Good Stuff
Now that we know the basics — that pine nuts do indeed come from pinecones — we can get into the good stuff.
Before harvesting, the pine nuts need time to mature. This can take anywhere from 18 months to three years. Yes three years! Apparently good things do come to those who wait.
Typically, pine cones bud in the spring, grow through the summer, remain dormant in the cold months (fall/winter) and mature again through the following spring/summer. Each varietal of tree may have different maturation times. The trees that take three years go through cycles of growth and dormancy until the finally reach peak harvesting stage.
Turns out, harvesting pine nuts is no small feat, which accounts for their significant price tag at the grocery store. Thankfully, the Huffington Post debunked the myth of pine nuts for us:
“Pine nuts are ready to harvest about 10 days before the green cone begins to open.
The cones are dried in a burlap bag in the sun for 20 days, to speed up the process of drying and opening.
The cones are then smashed (as a way to quickly release the seeds) and the seeds are separated by hand from the cone fragments.
The fact that it takes a lot of time and patience is an understatement — and justifies the high price of pine nuts.”
So with the pine nuts finally mature and released from their cone casing, their all ready to use now right? Not quite. The pine nuts themselves have an external shell, which then has to be removed to reveal the sweet golden raindrop-shaped nut inside.
For the ambitious home gardener, you can learn how to harvest pine nuts at home from your very own pinyon pine tree. Read more at Gardening Know How.
Pine Nut Palooza
Now for the fun part! What to do with all these tasty pine nuts. Here’s three recipes to try.
Pine Nuts may be the most buttery of all the nuts. They are full of delicious oils that come out when they are lightly roasted in the oven, or toasted in a frying pan. Sprinkle them on pastas, salads, anywhere that could use a delicious, light buttery crunch.
1. Traditional Pesto Genovese
For an authentic use of pine nuts, try this Original Pesto Genovese recipe. This recipe uses a traditional mortar and pestle to create a luscious, smooth pesto bursting with fresh basil, parmigiano reggiano, and pine nuts.
2. Italian Pine Nut Cookies
For those with a sweet tooth, try out one of my personal favorite Italian cookies. While I can’t share my family’s secret recipe, this Food52 recipe is a good replacement. The sweetness of the almond paste (ground sugar and almonds) balances out the buttery pine nuts on top. It’s the perfect nutty cookie, not too sweet.
3. Pine Nuts on Pasta
Try some toasted pine nuts sprinkled on this nutrient-packed, extra flavorful Pasta with Kale and Garbanzo Beans. Toasted pine nuts go well with pretty much any pasta dish, so I encourage you to make your favorite and add a sprinkle of pine nuts on top. Or, use the pesto recipe above with your favorite pasta and add an extra pinch of pine nuts just before serving!
What’s your favorite way to enjoy pine nuts? Let us know in the comments below!
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