Picture this: Some near-abandoned New Mexico back road, present day, Fall. The weather is just starting to turn and there’s a hint of a nip in the air, but you drive with the windows down because the sun is shining and somewhere someone is burning leaves. The two-lane road is in need of repair, but it is lined with skinny wild sunflowers and sage and mesquite and somehow a perfectly flat, smooth, black asphalt highway would just not work here.
You’re looking for somewhere to stop and stretch your legs and maybe grab a drink. A small town — not much more than a gas station — emerges on the horizon like a mirage. You slow the car. A makeshift roadside stand has been set up on the tailgate of an old beat-up Ford with rusted-out wheel wells. A hand-painted sign says: Green Chile & Piñon. An old man with a stoop and a young boy with a dusty baseball cap are roasting chile in a big black tumbler. Large burlap sacks of fresh green chile and small burlap sacks of piñon nuts line the tailgate. This is where you stop.
This is where you must always stop.
NM Piñon Nuts — the roadside delicacy — are an easy way to add some New Mexico flair to your dishes. Cookies, quick breads, pastas, and salads are some of my favorite places to use them. Roasted and shelled, they have a buttery, nutty flavor with a slightly crunchy texture.
In my opiñon (get it?), these little wondernuggets are the tastiest of all the nuts and seeds in the universe. And while other piñon or “pine nuts” (from California, Nevada, and Colorado) or the Italian “pignolias” are still super tasty, they just aren’t quite as perfect as the New Mexico Piñon. Oh and hey, they come from our state tree, the Piñon Pine. So, bonus. [ASIDE: I eat piñon nuts from the state tree. I would eat a cutthroat trout — our state fish. But I would never eat a roadrunner — our state bird. That just seems… wrong.]
Harvested in the fall, the entire piñon-ing process is done by hand. The entire pinecone is harvested before it completely opens up. (If you wait until the cones are fully opened, critters like squirrels and birds will take all the piñons because they know how good these things are.) You spread out a tarp or sheet on the ground below the tree. Then you use something long (like a broom) to whack the pinecones out of the tree down onto the tarp. Then, gather up the cones and empty them of their seeds. The piñon nuts are covered in a hard shell, which should be washed and dried thoroughly before roasting.
Harvests in the past 5 or so years have been much lighter than normal due to early/heavy snows and pests like the bark beetle decimating both the immature nuts in their shells and also the trees themselves. This causes supplies to diminish and prices to skyrocket. Anyone who has ever bought piñons or pine nuts or pignolias knows that they ARE going to be expensive. It’s just a matter of how expensive. You can expect to pay about a dollar an ounce or more. Trader Joe’s usually has a raw-shelled form of “pine nut” for about $8 for an 8 oz bag. These are not NM piñons, however. They are a smaller and blander variety imported from Russia! For true New Mexico piñon nuts, you can either buy them at a NM chile/farm store, farmer’s market, or roadside stand during the Fall, or you can order them online. A pound of roasted/salted NM piñons is currently selling online for about $30/pound. And that’s IN the SHELL. Which means more weight, less meat.
These delicious little bastards are super expensive, is what I’m saying. But they are worth it.
ON TO THE RECIPE
Whoa! I got carried away there and almost forgot this was a cooking & recipe post! Sorry about that. Here we go…
Banana Piñon Muffins
These muffins are based on a typical banana nut bread recipe, but with piñons added in place of (or in addition to) walnuts, to give it a little New Mexico flair. Usually I add green chile for NM flair, because it’s kind of a no-brainer, but I wasn’t sure it would work in banana muffins. Though, honestly, I really want to try it now.
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup stick butter, softened
2 large eggs
4 medium ripe bananas, smashed
1/2 c buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp brown sugar
2 & 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup piñons, or a mix of piñons and walnuts if straight piñons is too spendy
1/2 c piñons or mix of piñons and walnuts.
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 medium ripe banana, sliced thin
- Heat oven to 350.
- Grease bottoms only of cupcake tins or use paper liners.
- Mix sugar, brown sugar, and butter. Stir in eggs until well blended. Add smashed bananas, buttermilk, and vanilla, then beat until well mixed.
- Add in flour, baking soda, and salt until moistened, but don’t overmix. Stir in 1 c of nuts.
- Fill cupcake tins about 2/3 full.
- Stir together topping ingredients except for sliced banana.
- Sprinkle the top of each muffin with topping mixture.
- Top each muffin with one slice of banana — for looks. 🙂
- Bake muffins about 15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool muffins in the pan for 5 minutes, then remove and eat them all right there on the spot, if you’re me.
And there you have it! One of my favorite things baked into another one of my favorite things. Let me know if you try this recipe! I’d like to hear how you like it.
BONUS PHOTO: Don’t turn your back on your photo subject if your kid is hungry.