During my first years of living in Spain in the mid-1990s, my wife, Eva, and I spent a few weekends in the pine-covered hills outside Barcelona at the deserted, overgrown summer house of her grandfather. We would sit for hours on the stone steps gently crushing the hard husks of pine nuts, extracting the oblong ivory seeds. Just as when she was a child, we followed a basic rule: Cracked seeds went into the mouth, perfect ones into a jar for later use.
We invented menus where every dish included them: Fresh greens with orange segments and soft goat cheese rolled in pine nuts; rice cooked with pine nuts and wild mushrooms; grilled rabbit with dried fruits and toasted pine nuts.
The house had a simple, two-burner stove with an aged gas canister that we hated to use, so, instead, we cooked on a wood fire outside as much as we could. Surrounded by vases of wild roses cut from the balcony balustrades, we ate late pine nut-studded dinners by candlelight, then sat in front of the drafty fireplace to enjoy dessert: fresh cheese with toasted pine nuts and honey.
Technically, pine nuts aren't nuts, but rather seeds in the cones of certain pine trees. Of the hundred or so species of pine trees around the world, about a dozen in the Northern Hemisphere yield desirable seeds. The creamy flesh has a piney, resinous flavor that hints of the earth, the woods.
Pine nuts are prevalent in the food of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa, where they are eaten in hand as snacks as well as used in a disparate list of cooked dishes.
In Catalonia, pinyons have long played an integral role in the local cuisine, and are used in everything from appetizers to desserts. In the Middle Ages, during their couple of centuries of power in Catalonia, the Moors introduced the practice of mixing the sweet with the savory, of using nuts together with fruit that was often dried.
Pine nuts are key to countless traditional Catalan dishes, such as spinach with pine nuts and raisins; roast goose with pears and pine nuts; roast duck stuffed with prunes and pine nuts; squid stuffed with pork and pine nuts; baked apples stuffed with ground pork, ham, and pine nuts; and panellets de pinyons, a marzipan cookie rolled in pine nuts that is eaten on All Saints' Day.
In Italy, pine nuts are most renowned as a key ingredient in pesto (along with basil, garlic, and olive oil), but are also found elsewhere, as in forcemeats and with sautéed chicken. In Tuscany, they go into a cake called castagnaccio. In Venice there is a torte made from Swiss chard, pine nuts, and currants. A similar torte is eaten for dessert in the French city of Nice.
In the southwestern Languedoc region of France comes omelette aux pignons, an omelet with pine nuts - a dish also found at the other end of the Mediterranean, in Lebanon. Pignons are also used in charcuterie (a variety of meats), in crudités (raw vegetable salads), and in pastries and baked goods, such as macaroons.
In Greece, pine nuts are an ingredient in certain pilaf rice dishes (often along with currants), as they are in Turkey.
Other traditional Turkish dishes incorporate them, including midye dolmasi - mussels stuffed with rice, pine nuts, and currants - and yalanci dolma, grape leaves with the same stuffing. They are also found in mutton balls, desserts, and even dropped into glasses of rosewater for certain village festivals.
In North Africa, pine nuts are commonly found in confections, and in Tunisia, they are sometimes added to the region's ubiquitous drink, mint tea.
Pine nuts are also native to other regions of the world. In Asia, the Pinus tree also bears an edible seed. In India, where they are called chilgoza, they are included in desserts, puddings, sauces, and sweetmeats, and garnish rice dishes. In Korea, they are used in a breakfast porridge.
More than pesto
Pine nuts are found in American kitchens, too, though their use is often limited to garnishing salads or in pesto sauce. But the tradition in the US goes back further than the recent pesto craze. Early Spanish chroniclers in the 1500s recorded native Americans of the Southwest eating them, grinding them for flour, crushing them for butter, and using them in soup.
Sometimes known as Indian nuts, or by their Spanish name, piñones, American-grown seeds have less protein and more oil than their European counterparts.
Toasting pine nuts draws out a deeper intensity of flavor. This takes just two or three minutes in a dry skillet over medium heat, or, spread out on a cookie sheet, six to eight minutes in an oven preheated to 350 degrees. They store well in a sealed container, but because of their oil content, do eventually go bad.
My wife's grandfather died a few years ago, and the house was sold not long after. Now we collect pine nuts at the summer place of my wife's parents, just down the coast from Barcelona. We walk around the apartment buildings and pick up dislodged seeds and shake fallen cones for more.
We are three now, and when we sit and crack the husks, our young daughter, Alba, gets her share of the broken seeds, too.
This is a riff on the classic Catalan recipe, Spinach With Pine Nuts and Raisins. Dried cranberries make a good substitution for the raisins, bringing a fruity tang to the dish.
1 to 1-1/2 pounds fresh spinach
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup dried cranberries
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Remove stems from spinach and wash leaves thoroughly in cold water. To be certain of removing all dirt, use a few changes of water. Shake off the leaves to remove any remaining water.
Put spinach into a large, deep sauté pan, cover, and cook without oil for 5 minutes on low heat until leaves have softened.
In the meantime: In a small sauté pan, dry-roast pine nuts over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until golden. Place in a bowl.
Add olive oil to the same pan and sauté cranberries until they plump up and turn bright red.
When spinach is done, drain off any water, and place in large serving bowl. Salt to taste. Sprinkle pine nuts and cranberries on top. Top with salt and grind fresh pepper over the top.
At the table, divide the mixture among individual plates.
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer.