Pine nuts are a very interesting little nut, that actually do grow on pine trees. They’re also known as pignolias, and are common in Italian cuisine, especially for being a major player in basil pesto.
Oddly enough, pine nuts are also common in Mexican and Southwestern cuisines, which is how I first heard about them. And this is only because the piñon pine from which these nuts are harvested, are common in parts of Mexico as well as the Southwestern part of the United States. And, these pines grow in Italy, too, which explains everything. It’s all about what grows locally, isn’t it?!!
I used to live in Utah many years ago, and there’s a variety of piñon pine that grows in the mountains there, as well as in Colorado, that produces pine nuts. If you’re ever in that part of the country, take advantage of the lower prices for their freshly picked pine nuts. When they’re that fresh, they smell of pine. It’s fabulously stimulating to eat the fresh piney pine nuts.
Lots of people use pine nuts as is, but I like to toast mine. In fact, I use toasted nuts when I make pesto, although I have the impression that this is looked down upon by the Italians. I just prefer the flavor that toasting provides; it enhances the nut flavor. This is true with all nut varieties. If you leave them untoasted when adding them to pestos, they’re simply a thickener, and not an addition to the overall flavor profile. It’s a personal preference.
I love to use toasted pine nuts on top of salads and pastas. If you’ve never toasted pine nuts before, it’s extremely easy. It doesn’t take any time at all, which is why you have to be vigilant during the process.
Here’s what you do:
Heat the skillet to medium-high heat. The skillet must be hot, but you don’t want the nuts to burn. You know your stove best. Adjust the heat accordingly. I’m using a skillet that takes a while to pre-heat. So there will be a little time, maybe about 4 minutes, before I can smell some toasting happening.
Alternatively, pre-heat your skillet and then add the nuts. It makes no difference in the long run.
As soon as you smell the toasting, stand at your stove and do not leave. Begin moving the pine nuts around. You can flip them, using the skillet, if you’re good at that. If not, just move the skillet around vigorously, or use a tool of some kind to get the nuts moving around on all sides. You don’t just want one side of the nuts to toast.
As soon as the nuts are toasted to your satisfaction, remove them to a plate to cool. And don’t touch them until you are sure they are cooled off. Hot nuts burn.
After they’re toasted and cooled, store them in a sealable bag in the refrigerator. They will keep for quite a while. But always smell the nuts before using. Because of the oily content of pine nuts, they can become rancid quite quickly.