Friday, April 15, 2011

Pinyon Nuts

As kids, much more so than now, we used to enjoy going "pine cone hunting" in the fall. Not every fall; because, as it turns out, the little fellows are a capricious lot – not un-similar to those Joshua Trees. They don't seed (or bloom) every year – and they pretty much keep their intentions and motivations close to the vest.

Once in awhile you might hear an old timer say out loud: "'S lookin' like it'll be a good yar fer pine nuts!" But just let those trees not produce a crop this year, and that same codger is just as likely as not to give you a disgusted look like: "you must be nuts" when you remind him about telling you that later on if it doesn't happen.

Of course, even though most call them "Pine Nuts," it's only the specific Pinyon Pine which produces the nuts we are talking about. As nutrition goes, they are full of it. No wonder they were the dietary staple of the Paiute tribe as well as most other Native American groups throughout the southwest.

Indigenous peoples ate them both raw and roasted, and they often made Pemmican by mixing ground pinyon nuts with animal fat to make a calorie rich, nourishing and easy to carry "trail mix."   [See other information and photos at: Offroading Home - Resources.]

My forest ranger grandfather used to be able to tell me the proper name for nearly every species of tree in the Manti-LaSalle forest. Unfortunately it didn't stick, but I do remember that there are about a dozen different species of Pinyon Pine.

However, only four of the species are found in North America, north of the US-Mexico border; and of those, only one, the Single Leaf Pinyon Pine, Pinus monophyllia, is found in pretty much the entire southern Great Basin where it is the predominant small pine tree, often with Utah Juniper and sagebrush. They are "mountain-mates" with White Fir and Limber Pin at upper elevations and Joshua Trees at the lower.

If you are in the Great Basin or Sierra Nevada's, identifying a pinyon pine should be a piece of cake. It will be the only pine tree (you know those green things with needles instead of leaves, even in the winter snow) which has a single needle attached to each brachlet. The other pine species (Ponderosa, Lodge Pole, etc.) have their needle attachments in groups of twos, threes or fives.

Huntin' and Catchin'

The Pinyon was probably the most important tree for Great Basin native groups. The Owens Valley Paiute called the nuts "Tuvap" or "Tuvah" and the ever present pitch "Son-o-pee." [Most city-slickers, who have their hands, face and hair full of it, call it son of something; but it's not "pee."]

Families and even groups of families would gather in good stands of trees in the fall to gather nuts. Good crops occured only irregularly every few years, so they had to move from place to place. Sometimes trees were even pruned and encouraged to produce by beating and thrashing.

Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable.”
Mark Twain
Some accounts were of 30-40 bushels being gathered by an individual for winter storage. They are rich in carbohydrates with lesser amounts of fat and protein but yield about 2,215 calories per pound. Collecting experiments showed that the "energy return rate" for pinyon nuts ranges from 840 to 1400 calories per hour of collecting and processing. I'm just going to have to trust old Julian Steward who says that "it's relatively high for plant foods" in his book "Ethnography of the Owen's Valley Paiute."

Luckily for us, Harry Reid-Sierra Clubbers haven't yet made it illegal to forage our forests for wild berries and pine nuts – and there isn't even a permit required, as long as they are for personal consumption and NOTsold (even if you don't make a profit.) The way things are going, many of us may yet need to go back to foraging the land in order to survive.

Even though September is the month the books say is the time to "nut" (if the trees decide to do it at all) there may or may not be a crop, they may ripen early or later and/or they may be gone when you get there – depending upon how hungry the squirrels are. If there's a good crop, with abundant cones, October could even be good too.

You want to pick the cones only after they are ripe, but before they fully open and the nuts fall to the ground. Some birds are adapted to hunt down and extract the nuts from even the most recalcitrant cone (Pinon Jay's come to mind); but, once they fall to the ground there are hundreds of "beasties" that make them fair game – it's a wonder that any of them ever survive to germinate!

From experience, you definitely CAN eat nuts which have fallen to the ground; but, the chances of finding one that doesn't have a tiny hole in the shell, and has an actual nut left inside, is almost so slim that it isn't worth the trouble of bending over. Native Americans used to painstakingly create gathering poles with little crook's at the end to help make the job of picking the cones a bit easier.

They are nearly always still full of pitch when you go a-gathering, so the process pretty much ruins any clothes you are wearing, and your hands (as well as anywhere they touch) become "super-glue" magnets by the end of the day.

Greenhorns, novices, kids wet-behind-the-ears and other wannabe authorities will tell you that the best way to clean your hands of the pitch is with "most any brand of mechanic's waterless hand soap." But you know what's the best? Plain ol' margarine! Yep, you heard right – margarine. It doesn't even need to be real butter, just cheap, easy to find, margarine in a tub.

Now, in case this all sounds glamorous and you are wondering why most "civilized" people quit pine hunting long ago, let me jog your memory. September-October in Pinon country is cold. Gathering nuts is done at 5800 to 8500 feet and often in the snow! Pinon pines grow on mountains, not in parks, so getting to them isn't a stroll along a bike path. They love drainage and prefer gravelly soil on an incline – 30 to 45 degrees!

Additionally, cones grow most profusely in the "growth" areas of the tree (think top) which are much more accessible by birds than by your species; and it takes a whole lot of 'em to fill a gunny sack!

Cookin' and Eatin'

If you are lucky enough to get a sack home – the work is just beginning. They will likely still be green, so spreading them out on a tarp and letting them dry out may help. But the last thing you want to do is put them in a plastic bag or container – they will mold up and be ruined faster than you can blink. Believe me, we know.

Then, only someone who is trying to sell you a book or something will advise: "simply shake the seeds out of the cones onto an opened newspaper." If someone tries to sell you that, simply smile and walk away in the knowledge that "this guy has never picked a pine cone." There is nothing "simple" about it. It's mostly the spoiled seeds that simply drop out of the cone, the rest don't come out without some form of a fight!

You'll eventually win, but you will definitely invent some finger-numbing strategies to extract them before it's over. And, remember the margarine? Once the seeds are de-coned they may be stored in a dry, well ventilated environment for up to a year. Remember, don't store in a sealed container.

The battle still isn't over. They've been de-coned, but there's still the shell. If you're eating them directly, it's pretty much like eating a sunflower seed. It may take some practice but your tongue and teeth can become pretty skillful at extracting the nugget; but, most still use a bit of help from a thumb and fore-finger.

Eating them raw can be done, and is a great tasting snack; however, nothing beats the taste of a roasted pine nut. If you are going to roast them, the time to do it is BEFORE you take them out of the shell. To do otherwise can easily turn them to rocks (or dust.) No bueno! You can even roast them while still in the cone.

We've used a baking sheet, in a low 200 degree oven until done, for both cones and nuts; and even the microwave – although, that's really best for just cones, and still be prepared to stand there with your hand on the switch for when they start exploding. It takes a lot of trial and error to get the settings and timings just right, but it can be done.

The best way however, is the original way: dig a hole in the back yard, build a fire, let it die to coals, cover with leaves, then nuts, then leaves, then dirt. Leave them to cook and come back when they're done. Dig them up, shake off the dirt, then de-cone and shell them to eat around a fire after a long day of "pine cone hunting."

To use them for pesto or in other cooking, they still need to be de-shelled. Unfortunately, there really isn't any more simple and accurate way to crack the shell than with your front teeth; which really isn't "good eats" if you are doing it for someone else or for cooking.

I've seen people roll them gently with a rolling pin between two towels - paper or dish. And believe it or not I've even seen someone meticulously set the limit screw on his vise-grips to just barely crack a pine nut shell! Either way, it's pretty much one nut at a time; which, to me, just isn't worth it for baking. Much more simple (and cheaper) to just go to the store and buy a bag of generic pine nuts to use. "Hunted" and "caught" nuts are for mouth-crackin' and eatin'.

For use in pesto's, baking or even roasting for snacks it needs to be done fairly quickly, before they dry out. Once dried, they don't re-constitute well and are ground for flour. Once they are roasted and shelled they can be refrigerated in a sealed container.   They are used in baked goods, beverages, cereals, fish dishes, meat dishes, pasta, pilaf and salads — if you have to.

Learn A Little More

All this talk about food has made me thirsty.

I found this little ditty while I was working on the web the other day. It's been around awhile but was new to me and pokes a little fun of those "got milk" commercials in an odd sort of way.

Got Pop?


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