Summer means basil and basil means pesto and pesto means pine nuts … toasted pine nuts. And that’s where the trouble starts because pine nuts are stupid-easy to burn, especially in a pan on a cook top. The solution is elementary. But first, some background.
Pine nuts are extracted from the mature cones of several varieties of Pinaceae Pinus a.k.a. pine trees? The entire device has been designed with both protection and dispersal in mind. Once extracted from the cone the outer shell must also be removed. It’s a labor intensive process, which is one reason pine nuts cost so darned much.
Although nuts from the European stone pine (pinus pinea) are considered the piece de resistance, I prefer those of the Pinyon pines grown in the Western U.S. There are also several Asian varieties, but I’d steer clear of nuts from Chinese white and red pines as they have been linked to “pine mouth,” the only symptom of which is a strange metallic taste in the mouth which strikes a day or two after eating.
Back to the burning issue: Pine nuts contain a lot of oil with a low smoke point so incineration does happen. And yet, toasted pine nuts taste about 10 times better than non-toasted.
Here’s how I toast pine nuts:
1. Rinse half a cup of pine nuts in cold water
2. Drain, then toss in a teaspoon of salt. That’s right, you’re making a brine. But don’t worry about over-salting as any excess will fall off later, post-roast as it were.
3. Move to a small paper bag, fold over and microwave on high for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes.
4. When the nuts are done pull and allow to sit for one minute before tasting. You may need another 30 seconds or a minute but it’s better to be a little under-cooked than overcooked.
Now you know and knowin’s half the battle.
© Alton Brown 2015