Ancient Greeks and Romans praised pine nuts as aphrodisiacs, and the nuts still are a standard ingredient in Italian cuisine. In North America, pine nuts were a staple in the diet of nations such as the Hopi and Navajo. They were eaten whole, ground and baked, or pounded into a buttery paste. Indigenous peoples in what is now California also harvested pine nuts, with young men earning honors by climbing tall pine trees to shake down the cones.
Pine nuts are somewhat more expensive than other nuts, due to their labor-intensive harvesting process. The pinecones that contain the nuts (sometimes 100 nuts in a single cone) must be collected from the tree or the forest floor. The cones are then heated, which opens up their scales and loosens the nuts. The individual nuts' thin hulls are cracked open by rollers. The nuts are often lightly roasted to improve their flavor. Pine nuts are invariably sold shelled and raw.
The single dish that has made pine nuts so popular is pesto, a savory blended mixture of basil, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil. Pine nuts are also frequently used as snacks, in pastas, soups, sautés, breads, pastries and salads, and as an accent to chicken, lamb, veal, duck, pork and fish. Pine nuts are higher in protein than most nuts and are a good source of thiamine, potassium and phosphorus.
Varieties: There are several varieties of pine trees that produce pine nuts, including the umbrella pine or stone pine. Most edible pine nuts grow in Southern Europe, particularly Italy and France, although some also grow in Spain, Portugal, and the southern United States. Shelled pine nuts are widely available year-round.