California's Forgotten Pine Nuts

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Hank Shaw


When my friend Charlie asked if I wanted some pine nuts, I said sure, but I was confused. We are a long way from the high desert home of the piñon pine. Uh, where on earth did you get them? "From around my house," he said. "They're all over. I'll bring you a gunnysack full of 'em." And so he did.

Charlie wasn't entirely sure what sort of pine he'd been collecting nuts from for years, but he thought—correctly—that they were digger pines. Pinus sabiniana, a tree now called the gray or bull pine because, apparently, the term "digger" wasn't real complimentary to the local Indians who once used these trees for pitch and for food. Gray pines are unmistakable: Huge, spare, almost wispy, sporting gigantic cones that can knock you out or even kill you if you are so unfortunate as to be underneath one when it falls. This cone is nearly the size of a toddler's head. Those are the nuts behind the cone. Aren't they cute?

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Holly A. Heyser


Gray pines live only in California, and only inland. They ring the Central Valley and extend a little into Oregon. But you won't find them on the coast, or in any other state. They are NorCal's answer to the great piñon pines of the desert. Oh, and for all of you on the East Coast? Sorry man, but so far as I know there are no pines east the Mississippi that have large enough nuts to be worth collecting. If I am wrong, let me know.

Someday I will venture to the Great Basin to collect America's finest pine nuts, those of the piñon pine (Pinus edulis) and the single-leaf piñon (Pinus monophylla). Both are trees of the desert, and are common from Nevada to Utah and the Southwest states of Arizona and New Mexico. Keep in mind that more than 80 percent of the pine nuts eaten in American are actually from China and are from Korean pines.

If you are lucky enough to get your hands on real American piñon or Italian pine nuts (Pinus pinea), treasure them: They are high in fat and will not give you that nasty, metallic "pine mouth" that some Asian pine nuts will. Pine mouth can last for days.

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Holly A. Heyser


Back to my NorCal pine nuts. You may notice that they don't look like typical pine nuts. Gray pine nuts are long and slender, although they can weigh almost as much as a store-bought nut. So, you ask yourself, why isn't someone commercially harvesting the nuts from Pinus sabiniana?

Let me tell you why. To get this little half-pint jar of nuts, it required at least three hours of tedious work. It starts with the cones. You collect the cones in September or October and keep them in a place that is airy but dry; my garage was an ideal spot. You collect the cones when they are still tightly closed—otherwise the squirrels will eat all the nuts before you can get to them. Over time, they slowly open, revealing the nut within.

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Holly A. Heyser


Your first labor is to get all the nuts out of the cones. Do this by banging them around in the gunnysack (old coffee sacks are ideal) until the nuts all fall out. Or you can whack them on your garage floor. Or you can pick them out by hand. Watch out for the resinous pitch, though. It won't come off your hands unless you douse them in oil or some other solvent.

Many of the nuts will have a little wingy thing attached. This connects the nut to the cone. Toss it. You'll notice that the nuts range from big to small, and from shiny brown to matte charcoal-black. My experience is that the darker the nut is on the outside, the better the nut is inside. Toss nuts with holes in them; some bug has gotten to it before you.

These are the nuts you are looking for:

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Holly A. Heyser


That does not mean you should toss the brown nuts, however, but once you crack them you will find you'll get a larger percentage of aborted nuts with the lighter-colored nuts. What's an aborted nut? Apparently, when a gray pine is stressed by heat—this happens mostly at lower elevations—the tree will abort many of its nuts. You can't tell which are good and which are back until you crack them. This is what an aborted nut looks like:

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Holly A. Heyser


To crack a pine nut, you will need a hammer. This is a main reason why gray pine nuts are not sold commercially. The shell is thick, and very, very hard. You can crack the "good" piñon pine nuts of the desert between your teeth, and some innovative souls in Nevada have designed shellers for them. These will not work with the gray pine nut, which has a shell only marginally softer than the dreaded black walnut.

I cracked my pine nuts on my garage floor. I found the best way to do it without pulverizing the nut was a tap-TAP! with the hammer. All you want to do is crack the shell.

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Holly A. Heyser


Once cracked, you now need to carefully extract the nuts from all those shells. It's not as hard as fishing out the goodies from black walnuts, but pine nuts are soft and break easily. The paper skins come right off once the nuts are out of the shell.

I imagine this whole process would not be so hard if I had a comfortable place to do it all. But sitting on the concrete floor with a hammer, bent over, for several hours, was not my idea of fun.

What kept me going was Charlie's insistence that these pine nuts were better tasting than store-bought. Each little nut I plunked into the jar became a gold nugget, and recipes swam through my head as I worked: Pesto? A cream sauce for pasta? Muffins? A crust for meat? Cookies?

Yes, cookies. I love pine nut cookies. But I wanted them to be special cookies. I'd only get one chance to make these because I would run out of pine nuts if I failed the first time. So I searched around and read a dozen or so pine nut cookie recipes until I decided on a pine nut cookie with rosemary. I like the idea of two piney ingredients playing with each other. Just to make things a little weirder, I added some acorn flour to the cookie as well. Yeah, I know. Hippie cookies. Sue me.

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Holly A. Heyser


They were actually really good. Definitely a nutty, whole-grain thing going on (even though acorns aren't a grain), and you can definitely taste the rosemary. And the pine nuts? Well, they were fine.

But only fine. Italian pine nuts are better, as are the piñon pine nuts from the desert. My pine nuts were noticeably better than the Asian ones, and I will still collect them—but given that seven ounces of unshelled nuts gave me only one ounce of shelled nuts, I think it's worth the drive over the Sierras to get the better nuts in Nevada.

Still, I am glad I did this experiment. Our local pine nuts are delicious—and free for the taking—but they are a lot of work and do not yield as well as the pine nuts of the high desert. So you have to balance the cost of gas for a better nut versus the cost in effort to extract these smaller nuts. I'd say it's pretty close, but I'll fill up the truck and head over the mountains next time.

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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