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David Lissner
for restaurants

Eat this! Pine nuts, savory seeds from the pine

Al Teatro's pollo con olive e pignoli. Photos ©2011 Leah A. Zeldes.

Al Teatro's pollo con olive e pignoli. (Photos by Leah A. Zeldes.)

What it is: The edible seeds of pine trees, found inside pine cones, pine nuts, also called pignoli or pinons, are small pointed kernels with a buttery flavor and a delicate crunch.

Where it comes from: Archeological evidence found in the ruins of Pompeii show pine nuts were widely used in the ancient world before 79 A.D. North American varieties of pines have also grown in the Southwestern United States for some 10,000 years, and their seeds are thought to have been a staple food of indigenous peoples.

About 20 species of pines grown around the world have seeds large enough for culinary purposes, including the Italian stone pine (Pinus pinea); New Mexico pinon (P. edulis); chilgoza (P. gerardiana), which grows in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and Korean (P. koraiensis) and Siberian pine nuts (P. sibirica) from Asia.

One species grown in China, P. armandii, has recently been identified as the cause of “pine mouth,” which creates lingering off-flavors after consumption.

Steve Rife, left and Dominick Geraci.

Steve Rife, left, and Dominick Geraci.

What to do with it: Pine nuts benefit from toasting, either in the oven or in a dry frying pan over medium heat. Cook until they achieve a nice golden color, but stir frequently and watch them carefully as they burn easily. Store the nuts in the freezer as they do not have a long shelf life and can become rancid quickly.

They enhance almost any dish, from savory to sweet, and can be used in place of walnuts, pistachios or other nuts in salads, baked goods, pastas and with meat or seafood.

At Dominick Geraci’s Sicilian-inspired Ristorante Al Teatro in Pilsen, Chef Steve Rife slowly braises chicken on the bone before adding olives and pine nuts for a seasonal special.

Ristorante Al Teatro’s pollo con olive e pignoli
Chicken with olives and pine nuts
Chef Steve Rife

4 pounds chicken pieces
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
1/4 cup ripe oil-cured olives
1 cup brine-cured green Italian olives
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
Fresh thyme sprigs to taste

Rinse the chicken pieces, and pat dry with paper towels. Trim off excess skin and all visible fat. Cut drumsticks off the thighs; cut breast halves into two pieces each. Season the chicken all over with the salt.

Put the olive oil and butter in the pan over medium-low heat. When the butter is melted and hot, lay in the chicken pieces, skin side down, in a single layer; drop the garlic cloves and bay leaves in the spaces between them.

Cover the pan and let the chicken cook over gentle heat, browning slowly and releasing its fat and juices. After about 10 minutes, uncover the pan, turn the pieces, and move them around the pan to cook evenly, then replace the cover. Turn again in 10 minutes or so, and continue cooking covered. While the chicken is browning, pit the olives (if they still have pits in them) with the blade of a chef’s knife, and break them into coarse chunks.

After the chicken has cooked for 30 minutes, scatter the olives onto the pan bottom around the chicken, and pour in the wine. Raise the heat so the liquid is bubbling, cover, and cook for about 5 minutes.

Remove the lid, and cook uncovered, evaporating the pan juices, occasionally turning the chicken pieces and olives. If there is a lot of fat in the bottom of the pan, tilt the skillet and spoon off the fat from one side.

Scatter the pine nuts and thyme around the chicken, and continue cooking uncovered, turning the chicken over gently until the pan juices thicken and coat the meat like a glaze.

Turn off the heat, and serve the chicken right from the skillet, or heap the pieces on a platter or in a shallow serving bowl. Spoon out any sauce and pine nuts left in the pan, and drizzle over the chicken. 6 to 8 servings.

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