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Sweet Pining

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A staple in the diets of Great Basin tribes, pine nuts enhance many dishes, from salads to desserts

The sweet, buttery flavor and delicate texture of pine nuts make a savory addition to many recipes. The nuts, which are the edible seeds of pine trees, can be eaten raw, or toasted to enhance their rich taste and crunch.

Pine nuts have many uses—tossed raw in salads, served toasted with roasted vegetables like butternut squash, crusted on a filet of white fish, cooked in breads and cakes, or chopped with garlic and fresh basil to make pesto. Pine-nut soup is also a prized Native food. Personally, I love toasted pine nuts sprinkled on desserts, like a peach or apple crisp.

I use pine nuts frequently, so I buy them in bulk and freeze them. This cuts back on cost; pine nuts can be expensive, as they are harvested by hand. While they may be picked from fallen pinecones, they are rarely good for human consumption, as insects may have tampered with them on the ground.

Pine nuts are most commonly harvested in late summer through fall from wild trees, like the Colorado pinyon, single-leaf pinyon and Mexican pinyon (although about 20 tree species produce pine nuts), in high elevations between 6,000 and 8,500 feet. The trees generally grow for 15 to 25 years before they produce their nuts, and pine-cone production is sensitive to environmental conditions.

For at least 7,500 years, pine nuts have been essential to tribal diets in the Great Basin region, which spans Nevada and parts of Oregon, California, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah. According to, it is often said that pine nuts are as important to the Native people of the Great Basin as the buffalo is to the Plains tribes. Hopi, Shoshone, Paiutes, Washo people and others have long harvested this food, storing it for winter sustenance. The crop is, and was, incorporated into their stories and traditions—like the pine-nut blessing, a spiritual ceremony celebrating life and the harvest, reported the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Besides imparting their warm, buttery essence to a number of foods, pine nuts are healthy. They contain the highest amount of protein of any nut—31 percent by weight, to be precise.

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Studies also show that people who eat nuts on a regular basis—that is, five servings, i.e. handfuls, a week—can significantly reduce their risk of developing coronary heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other chronic illnesses. In general, nuts are high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, folic acid and vitamin E.

Fast and Fantastic Pine-Nut Bread

¾ cup pine nuts
½ cup cornmeal
1 cup flour (white or whole-wheat)
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup water
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon oil (corn, canola or walnut)

Combine all the dry ingredients in a large bowl, then add the liquids. Form into an oval loaf and bake on a flat baking sheet for 25 minutes at 350 degrees.

Pine-Needle Tea

All trees in the pine family produce needles that make wonderful tea. I like hemlock and white pine.

2 tablespoons conifer needles
3 cups boiling water
Lemon or honey to taste

Put the needles in a warm pot and cover with boiling water. Let steep for eight to 10 minutes. Strain and serve with honey and lemon.

Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with them and her husband in Madison, Connecticut.