Pine nuts are usually confined to pesto, but bake them with sardines or stir them into a chocolate cake and you'll find this useful golden nugget is a real treasure
There is more to the pine nut than pesto. Botanically, the slender, torpedo-shaped nugget is a seed. In a culinary sense, however, it is considered a nut. Extracted mostly from the cones of the Stone Pine tree, the pine nut has a waxy texture and crunchy, almost spiky quality. Rich in oil, this nut has a high oil content and a short shelf life. They are best stored in the dark.
The finest quality is the most slender, from the European Stone Pine. The chubbier, round-ended version, mostly from northern Asia, is more common and cheaper in price. Neither is what you might call a bargain. The cost is around £3 per 100g and can be more, depending on their provenance. The most expensive contain more protein and are less fatty to eat.
Heaven knows I have burnt enough nuts in my life, but these little chaps are the easiest of all to blacken. Their high percentage of oil means they go from a delicate, toasty brown to charred in a matter of seconds. But toasted they must be. Like the almond and the hazelnut, their real flavour only comes to the fore when the nut is nicely browned, toasted over a low heat without any extra oil.
I use a dry, heavy, cast-iron pan, slowly shaking the pan over a low to moderate heat, ignoring the tempting ping of texts and phone calls until the nuts are deep honey coloured, fragrant and out of the pan.
Their uses go way, way beyond pesto. Scattered in a leaf salad they provide a welcome crunch; chopped and stirred into a dressing they bring a nutty bite to coleslaws and green salads; they can be introduced into a romesco sauce instead of almonds or treaded through the pistachio filling of a baklava.
I like to scatter them through a spinach salad, add them to a rice pilaf and use them to top a rice pudding with honey and rosewater. I use them with pasta, toss them over a pizza (especially one with wild mushrooms and fontina cheese) or tip them into the filling for a calzone.
In a baking sense, the possibilities are almost endless. This week I stirred toasted nuts into a chocolate marzipan cake, but they can be just as much fun when added to a cheesecake, where they provide a welcome change of step among the clotted curds. You can, of course, toast them, salt them and eat them with a cold beer, but that might become an expensive habit.
Baked sardines with pine nuts and parsley
You need boned and flattened sardines for this. Don't even think of boning them yourself. That's what your fishmonger is for. But ask them when they aren't too busy, or order them in advance. Boning a little fish is a time-consuming process.
sardines 10, butterflied
For the paste:
fresh white bread 100g
garlic 3 cloves
pine nuts 100g
olive oil 4 tbsp, plus a little extra
Turn the bread into coarse, soft breadcrumbs using a food processor or a hand-held grater. Pluck the leaves from the parsley and add them to the crumbs. (Drop the stalks into a stockpot or keep them for soup.) Peel the garlic and drop the cloves into the crumbs together with the pine nuts, then blitz briefly, leaving the pieces of garlic and pine nuts slightly larger than the crumbs. Finely grate the zest of the clementines into the mixture, season with salt and ground black pepper, then pour in the olive oil and mix to a thick and knubbly paste.
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Put the paste into a shallow pan and let it cook for two or three minutes over a moderate heat, then set aside. Place the sardines, skin side down, on the work surface, then spread thickly with some of the pine nut and parsley paste. Roll up each sardine and secure with a cocktail stick or two to stop them unravelling, then place them in a baking tin, open end up and trickle with a little more olive oil. Bake the sardines for 20 minutes until sizzling. Serve two or three per person.
Chocolate pine nut marzipan cakes
I made these shallow cakes in two small cake tins, about 18 x 12 x 7cm deep. Use two 20cm round cake tins if you prefer. The inside of the cake should be moist and sticky. It will keep very well for a few days in a cake tin.
caster sugar 180g
eggs 2, lightly beaten
plain flour 80g
almonds 150g, ground
pine nuts 100g
dark chocolate 100g
icing sugar a little
Line the cake tins with baking parchment, so that it comes 1-2cm above the rim. Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4.
Using an electric mixer or hand-held blender, beat the butter and caster sugar until pale, soft and fluffy. Break the eggs in, one at a time, and continue beating. Then add the flour and the almonds. Once they are mixed, stop the blending immediately.
Tear the marzipan into small cubes about the size of a halved walnut. Chop the chocolate into small pieces, no larger than a postage stamp. Drop the lumps of marzipan and two-thirds of the nuts and chopped chocolate into the cake mixture then divide it between the cake tins.
Drop the remaining pine nuts and chocolate on to the surface of the cakes then bake for 40-45 minutes. The cakes will be still be a little wet in the centre at this point; they will firm up a little on cooling, but should remain moist and gooey when cut. Slice each cake into 10 or 12 small pieces.
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Photo: Crunch time: Nigel Slater's baked sardines with pine nuts and parsley. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer