What's behind the high price of pine nuts; Pignoli: The trees must be at least 25 years old, and the seeds are picked by hand. And they're in worldwide demand.; SUNDAY GOURMET


Pine nuts or pignoli are tiny seeds from one species of pine tree that grows in Italy, China, Spain, Portugal and Australia. When I used to shop for pine nuts, I wondered why they were so expensive, until I learned that they are normally harvested by hand.

Moreover, pine trees only start producing pine nuts after 25 years and only become commercially viable after 75 years. Pine nuts are still an integral part of Italian cuisine and are a staple in most pesto recipes. They also are used by Indian tribes from Mexico and the southern United States. They play a role in the cuisines of India and the Middle East as well.

Pine nuts have a long culinary history and are even mentioned in the Bible. They were cultivated by the Romans, and remnants of pine nuts were actually found among the ruins of Pompeii.

Elongated, cream-colored pine nut kernels are about 1/2 inch long with a sweet flavor and buttery texture. A large pine cone can bear about 100 seeds, some of which are so small that an average of 1,500 seeds make up a pound.

Pine nuts are an excellent source of magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, copper and folic acid. They are also a rich source of dietary fiber. They are usually sold shelled, and you should use them quickly because they go rancid. Always smell the pine nuts before purchasing them if you can to judge their freshness. Old pine nuts smell "off" and look oily.

Store pine nuts in a container in the refrigerator, where they may keep for about a month. Or you can freeze them for two to three months. You can eat pine nuts raw, although I prefer to toast them in a 325-degree oven 10 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.

They are great as a topping for salads or in cakes and cookies. For an entree, I like to toast them and then mix them with cooked angel hair pasta, Parmesan cheese, extra-virgin olive oil and chopped fresh basil.

Pignoli cost $11 to $14 a pound, and now you know why.

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