Deconstructing Italian dishes, ingredient by ingredient, manifests a richer appreciation for the cuisine. Some individual ingredients of cucina italiana can be used in dynamic ways; different flavors of an ingredient are emphasized according to other elements of the dish. Pine nuts, or pignoli, are an example of an ingredient that has been mixed and matched with other building blocks of Italian cooking.
What kind of flavor makes the pine nut so versatile? What textures and qualities does it have before being incorporated into a dish? A silky, rounded flavor characterizes this particular nut above common varieties like almonds or walnuts. The flavor is attributed to the healthy fats and nutrients that are packed into the tiny vessels. Among their health benefits, they are a source of fiber (1 oz. of nuts equals 1 oz. fiber), lutein (an antioxidant shown to improve eye health), and oleic acid (a monounsaturated fat that helps control cholesterol levels). As a result, pine nuts can bring these traits to both savory and sweet ends of the spectrum of Italian cuisine.
A savory example is pesto: from brightness of the basil, to earthy depth of the pine nuts, and the fruity richness of olive oil, the character of Italy is captured in this sauce. One of my favorite combinations of flavor in a dish is gnocchi with pesto and a glass of Orvieto Classico white wine. White wine cleanses the mouth of the fattiness from the pine nuts and olive oil, therefore balancing the flavors without one ingredient overwhelming the dish. However, greater ode to pesto is deserved than pairing it with a crisp white wine.
When was pesto first concocted? It seems to be the result of a culinary evolution. Some historians link the word’s etymology to ‘pounded,’ referring to the primative method of using a mortar and pestle. Genoa, the prominent port city of the Liguria region, is often accredited for creating the sauce. However, the Middle East claims older traditions to a garlic and coriander pesto. Ancient Romans also created their own pesto with vinegar, garlic, ewe’s milk and parsley. A Latin writer describes a farmer using a mortar and pestle grinding herbs, cheese, and garlic in the poem “Moretum” in approximately 45 BC. These early recipes, however, lack our spotlight ingredient. Today’s combination of basil, minced garlic, parmigiano reggiano and olive oil did originate in Genoa. Historians found archival documents in Genoa noting pesto, or battuto d’aglio (battered garlic) in the 1600’s. While the sauces’ ingredients vary according to region, pesto alla genovese has maintained popularity throughout the centuries.
While pine nuts are commonly associated with pesto, a baker’s perspective is just as relevant to the ingredient. Bakeries in Italy and Italian bakeries in the U.S. make the traditional pine nut cookie. These delicate sweets belong to Sicily’s rich culinary culture. Many times I’ve overlooked the small cookies, but after spotting them in numerous shop windows and market stalls, I became curious. In my own experimentation, I decided to look at the ingredients that are paired with pine nuts in this cookie. Almond paste is in (nearly) every recipe I’ve come across for the cookies. Usually canned, almond paste has a tacky, griddy texture, similar to marizpan. With better understanding of the ingredients, the flavor and texture combination makes sense. The crunchiness and mild flavors of the pine nuts balance the distinct almarretto flavor and chewiness of the paste. These flavors sent my mind right back to my days in Italy. The only other necessity to complete the indulgence is an after dinner espresso.
Anna Dini is senior at Temple University and majors in English and Italian Studies. She studied in Rome, Italy for the 2009/2010 Academic Year. During her stay, she traveled extensively throughout Italy and other European countries. Some of her favorite Italian cities are Florence, Siena, Orvieto, and Venice. She loves learning about the country’s culture and cuisine. Anna also works for the Education Abroad office at Temple.