When traveling in the Southwestern United States, wild piñon nuts are everywhere. The landscape in many areas is dominated by a mixture of piñon pine and juniper, but many don’t realize that these pines bear delicious and edible pine nuts like the ones you buy at the grocery store. For me, that realization was a gift from the Sleeping Ute.
It was my first assignment as a squad boss trainee, and we were sent to southwestern Colorado. The fire was burning on a piece of land sacred to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, a small mountain range called the Sleeping Ute. When viewed from a distance, this range is said to look like a Ute Chief laying on his back, with mountains making up his head, belly, knees, and toes. If you are ever in Mesa Verde and look west, you should be able to see it. Specifically, this fire took place somewhere between his knees and toes.
As often happens in piñon-juniper forest, the fire ripped through the area in a single wind-driven event, and by the time most of us got there, it had lost all of its steam. We spent a couple days mopping up around the edges of the fire before we were relieved and sent elsewhere. Mop up tends to be a fairly slow process, you move slowly across the fire’s edge, dealing with any areas where there is still enough heat to potentially spread. Your head is down, and there is plenty of time to think and talk to each other.
Everywhere we went on this hillside, the ground was littered with these little reddish husks. I don’t remember how long it took, or who first pointed it out, but someone (probably one of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Firefighters we were working with) finally let us know that those husks each housed a pine nut.
As the fire ripped through, cones must have fallen and scattered their seeds, with the fast-moving fire not lingering long enough to destroy the nuts. Needless to say, after that transfer of knowledge, our snacking increased markedly for the rest of our time on that fire, short as it was.
Now, not all pine nuts come from the two-needle piñon (Pinus edulis) which is the dominant species in the American Southwest. There are around twenty species of pine globally that produce nuts large enough to eat, with four of those being the most commonly cultivated. But for this article, I will talk mostly about the two-needle or Colorado piñon.
This tree exists all over the Southwest, typically living in tandem with Juniper trees. As you might expect, the needles of the two-needle pine come in pairs. The tree itself is on the shorter side, typically growing only ten to twenty feet tall. Identification is relatively easy, as when you find it, you probably only need to be able to tell the difference between a pine and a juniper, and only one of them has needles or proper cones.
The cones of the piñon pine can be harvested in late summer or autumn. Most commonly, mature cones are plucked from the tree or gathered from the ground nearby. Another method is to gather the green cones earlier in the season and store them while they finish maturing and release their seeds. This method helps protect your harvest from the birds and mammals that love to make a meal of these nutritious seeds.
But once you have the cones, your harvest troubles are far from over. Piñon cones often do not fully open, meaning that they need to be painstakingly split apart to remove the seeds. On top of that, they tend to be quite resinous, so your hands are likely to be a mess at the end. And even once you gather all the husked seeds, you still face quite a bit of work.
In low-water years, many of the seeds in a cone will not be viable. Often, when you split that husk open expecting a nice, fat nut you will be met instead with nothing but a papery, non-viable seed. Add the cone-burrowing, nut-eating worms to the mix, and you can start to see that this is a painstaking harvest. But that is the way of nature. Pine nuts are an absolutely wonderful wild edible, so there are a lot of critters out there trying to get their fill.
While we were in Sedona, Arizona this past autumn, we hit what I thought to be an absolute paydirt on piñon cones. The ground around our campsite was littered with hundreds of cones. With enormous excitement, I grabbed a grocery bag and filled it in minutes.
We sat down, cracked a couple beers, and started cracking cones with a few recently-made friends who also live in converted school buses. Over the next two hours the crackers left one by one until it was only me left. With a sore back and sap-covered hands, I finally finished the bag and surveyed the results: around half a cup of pine nuts.
It turns out that it was quite a dry year in that part of the country, and there were very few viable seeds. But that’s how it often goes with foraging, hours of work often result in a meager harvest of something very special.
I chose to stretch these piñon nuts by making a brittle. I love toffee, and its sweet, salty, and buttery flavor serves as a wonderful backdrop to allow toasted pine nuts to shine. Not to mention that a half cup of nuts can actually make a pretty sizable batch. Large enough, in fact, that we are still snacking on it now, about a month after I made it. Not bad.
This recipe is delicious by itself, but would also be wonderful crushed up over vanilla ice cream.
Piñon Nut Brittle
Vegetable oil spray
1 cup sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
3 tbsp butter
¼ tsp baking soda
½ cup toasted piñon nuts
¼ cup water
½ tsp salt
Toast the pine nuts in a skillet over medium heat. Be sure to flip them often, and keep a close watch. Toasting nuts is one of those things in the kitchen that happens fast. One second they look raw, and the next they are burnt. And if you’ve spent an afternoon harvesting these pine nuts, you definitely don’t want to burn them.
Add the sugar, water, salt, and corn syrup to a large saucepan and put over medium-high heat. Stir regularly and keep an eye on the temperature as it heats. A candy thermometer or a digital meat thermometer is necessary for this recipe. I just use a simple one like this.
The candy will go through many phases as it heats, but just stay patient, stirring it regularly and watching the temperature climb. When it hits 240 degrees F, add the pinon nuts and butter, and stir until the butter is melted.
Continue stirring regularly as the mixture increases in temperature. When the mixture reaches 300 degrees F, remove from heat and immediately stir in the baking soda. When the baking soda is mixed throughout, pour the candy onto a greased baking sheet and spread it out as much as possible.
Allow the candy to air cool. When cool to the touch, break it into more manageable pieces and store in an airtight container to keep its crunch.