I really believe that there are a couple very simple things you can do to make your food seem startlingly more sophisticated. Not to make you a better cook, per se, but I also strongly believe that paying attention to what you’re cooking — to how it looks, to texture, to flavor balance — is the major factor in becoming a better cook. So just because you’re using a shortcut to do that — to make it prettier, to make it more complex flavor or texture-wise — doesn’t mean it’s not still a worthwhile pursuit.
As I’ve been stressing with occasional posts, and will continue to stress with a few more posts in that series, building a better kitchen — ie. having the right equipment and the right staples and garnishes at your disposal — is the first step to thinking harder, and smarter, about what you’re making. The second step, though, is knowing what to do with those items, particularly the garnishes, whose use may not be immediately obvious.
Nuts, I think, are a great place to start. And pine nuts are an even better one. I love pine nuts. They are amazing. And, if you track them down at Trader Joe’s (or the Park Slope Food Co-op), they’re not even that that expensive. Plus, you can keep them well in the fridge (as a commenter pointed out in my fridge post). I used to keep them in the cupboard. This is a bad idea. Most nuts have some oil and will go rancid at room temperature (or in the bizarre heat of a New York cupboard). Pine nuts have, it seems to me, even more oil, and will go rancid even faster. So just keep them in the fridge, and I promise you will use the whole bag before they even approach going over the edge.
Raw pine nuts are good for two things, as far as I can tell: pesto and toffee brittle. Toasted pine nuts, however, are good for, well, just about everything! Same goes for my opinion about most nuts. Raw nuts are good for a few things — particularly in baked goods. Toasting, though, brings out the nut’s natural oils and gives it a much more complex flavor. You can smell the difference, in fact, when you’re toasting them. I like toasting pine nuts in particular because I think they are so versatile — I put them mostly in salads and in pasta, and tomorrow you can see me use them in soup. They could also be used in eggs, on top of ice cream…the possibilities are endless.
There are three ways to toast nuts, all of them super easy: a dry frying pan on the stovetop, a baking sheet in the oven, or the toaster oven. If you toast them in the oven or toaster oven, arrange the nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet, and heat at 350 degrees F for 5-10 minutes, checking at 5 minutes and frequently thereafter to make sure they’re not burning. They should be golden brown and fragrant, and you may want to give them a little stir if you want them evenly browned, though I usually don’t care that much. Toasting nuts on the stovetop is a little trickier, just in that it requires a little more attention: heat a dry skillet over medium heat, add the nuts, and toast for 5-10 minutes. You will want to be stirring almost constantly after 5 minutes, as I find they move quickly from toasted to burned on the stovetop (and as you can see in my picture at top — also you can compare it to this photo of the raw pine nuts as they’ve just hit the pan).
Even if you slightly burn the nuts, they will still be delicious (or I think so, at least). If they are completely blackened, you will need to throw them out and try again, paying a little more attention.