'A piece of the action' makes things a bit nutty

THE SIEGE OF the pine nuts began a few weeks ago, shortly after we got a late-night phone call from James "Buzzy" Cusack, a friend and neighbor. Buzzy said something like " Psssst, wanna buy some pine nuts?"

Buzzy had sniffed out a deal on pine nuts grown, as they say in gourmet circles, on the wrong side of the tracks. These were Chinese pine nuts, as opposed to the familiar, high-flying Portuguese-grown variety. Buzzy was a fan of the Chinese pine nuts and was putting together a consortium to make a bulk purchase of the lesser-known nuts at Jeppi Nut, a well-regarded nut house just east of downtown Baltimore. In 10-pound lots, the Chinese nuts would cost a mere $7 a pound as opposed to almost $10 for the Portuguese. Did we want a piece of the action?

How could I turn this opportunity down? I am, on the whole, a pro-pine-nut person. Moreover, it is a rarity that I am asked to be a part of any action. So I took a 3 1/3 -pound position in the Chinese pine-nut market.

Since then, the nuts have been a presence at almost every home meal. I haven't put them on cereal yet, but I have had handfuls for breakfast. I have also chewed them for lunch, after they were toasted and mixed with salad greens. They have become my frequent dinner companions, appearing on top of homemade pizza and in various desserts.

Despite daily attempts to diminish the supply of pine nuts, it still resembles the snow atop the Himalayas, a large white mass that shows no signs of shrinking.

Before the siege, I was somewhat familiar with the creamy-colored nuts.

I knew they were a key ingredient in the pine-nut cake, the fall-down-and-roll-on-the--floor-with-delight dessert, served at Tio Pepe restaurant in downtown Baltimore. Later Emiliano Sanz, the chef at Tio Pepe, told me that he uses the Portuguese, not the Chinese, pine nuts to make the cake.

He also told me he uses the Portuguese, not the Chinese, when he makes the sauce with raisins and pine nuts that goes on the fresh halibut, and he uses the Portuguese nuts when he makes spinach with pine nuts and grapes. "I taste them both," the chef told me. "The Portuguese is longer, thinner, a better flavor, more like the ones I grew up with in Spain."

The price of the finer pine nuts fluctuates, the chef said. Right now, he said, at $10 a pound, the Portuguese nuts were down from their high of $17 a pound. Meanwhile, when I called Jeppi Nut, I learned that during the two weeks that I had held them, my Chinese pine nuts had dropped in value from about $7 to $6.23 a pound. From a financial point of view, I had backed the wrong nut.

Yet I reminded myself that the pine-nut venture was not an investment, it was an attempt to spice up supper and lunch and sometimes breakfast. The Chinese pine nuts may not be as sweet as the Portuguese, but they have good flavor, and you develop a taste for them, even when they show up several times a day.

A few days after the mother lode of pine nuts took up residence in our kitchen, I read that pine-nut purchasers should "buy them in small quantities and use them quickly because their high oil content makes them turn rancid quickly."

Since then, my wife and I have been in a race against rancidity. We have adopted the "sprinkle-it-with-pine-nuts approach" to cuisine. Pine nuts are showing up in all the usual spots, toasted and tossed on pasta, and in unlikely locations, such as a "surprise" in the teen-ager's sliced chicken and mayo sandwich.

Meanwhile I have been combing cookbooks looking for recipes that call for large quantities of pine nuts. Here is one. It produces three crusts for 9-inch tarts, not something you make every day. Nonetheless, I am fond of any recipe that encourages tart making. Especially this one, which uses 2 cups of the pine-nut mass.

Makes three 9-inch tarts

2 cups pine nuts

1/3 cup sugar

3 cups all-purpose flour

16 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Place the pine nuts in the food processor and pulse a few times. Add the sugar, flour, and continue to pulse until the nuts are finely ground. Place the mixture in a mixing bowl. (The dough can be mixed by hand or in a mixer fitted with a paddle.)

Add the softened butter, the egg and vanilla extract and mix to incorporate all the ingredients. Divide the dough into three parts. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 10 minutes before using. Dough can be frozen for future use.

When ready to bake a crust, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter and flour a 9-inch fluted tart pan with removable bottom and refrigerate it while the oven preheats.

Remove the tart pan from the refrigerator. Using your fingertips, press the chilled dough evenly over the bottom and sides of the pan. Trim excess dough. Bake the crust for 10 to 15 minutes, then rotate the shell and continue baking for another 10 to 15 minutes or until the shell is golden-brown. Remove the shell and let cool while you make a filling, (such as a lemon sabayon). There may be cracks in the shell; they will not affect the tart.

- From "The French Laundry Cookbook" by Thomas Keller (Artisan, 1999)

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