No, not that season. The piñon season. Here in New Mexico the harvest period runs September through November every year, but only once every seven years do the trees produce a bumper crop like we’ve got now.
This is both good news and bad news. Some of my friends who have yards full of piñon pines have been invaded by swarms of poachers who not only strip the trees of the nut bearing cones, but also leave behind their trash. Not nice.
Fortunately for me, I have not got a single piñon tree in my yard, but since it’s a big yield year, I can buy the wonderful New Mexico piñon nuts in stores, parking lots and from vendors on the Plaza and the highways. Of course, they’re not cheap, and if you’ve ever tried to shell piñon nuts, it immediately becomes obvious why. So once every seven years I’m happy to pay for someone else’s labor to get these wonderful nuts (which are technically seeds.)
Reading some funny stories about piñon harvesting on the web reminded me of all the research I did when writing this scene in Isabel’s Daughter where Avery is allowed to skip school to go harvesting with Cassie and Amalia.
Amalia Sanchez drove the hulking brown pickup truck like she was born in the driver’s seat. One hand on the steering wheel, elbow resting on the open window. The other hand draped over the black shift knob. She and Cassie shoehorned themselves into the cab, chattering in Spanglish. Their laughter pealed out across the desert. I rode in back with the gear, periodically slammed against the rear window of the cab, choking in the clouds of dust that the truck kicked up.
At the Florales River, we veered northwest off the highway onto a narrow, unmarked strip of pavement that burrowed into the foothills of the San Juans. I leaned against the bedrolls, letting the sun warm my face and watching the landscape of greasewood bush and chamiso give way to dark clumps of piñon and juniper nestled in the folds of the hills. Higher up the flanks of the mountains, splashes of yellow and orange signaled stands of aspen. There were other pickups on the road, heading in the same general direction, back ends sagging from the weight of dogs, children, tools, camping gear.
After a while, we turned due west on an unpaved road, leaving the other vehicles behind. When the truck’s bald tires finally slid to a stop at the edge of a small canyon, I was thirsty, covered with dust, and bruised from the bouncing around. All business now, the two women jumped down, moving quickly to unload the gear and set up a campsite.Cassie handed me a pair of old canvas gloves.
“We’ll need a good pile of firewood. Why don’t you stack it by them rocks.” As I wandered off into the trees, she called, “Mind where you put your hands and feet.”
All day long we gathered the small piñon cones, stopping only briefly for apples and water. Some cones were on the ground, some still clung to the branches. Amalia knocked the tiny brown nuts out, her hands greased to avoid the sticky pitch. The cones that hadn’t yet opened we put into sacks to take home and lay out in the warm autumn sun. She showed me how to find and loot the ratoneras, the leaf-and-stick-covered caches of industrious little mice who stockpiled the nuts for the winter.
Cassie disapproved of this practice. “Mice worked for their piñones,” she said. They argued stubbornly for a few minutes, then compromised by taking only half the nuts. From the relaxed sound of their bickering, I gathered that they had this same discussion every year.”
There are lots of tasty things you can do with piñon nuts…toss them in salads or make a Southwestern version of succotash. There’s pesto sauce for pasta, of course, and baking—cakes, tarts, cookies, candy. Here’s one of my favorite (and simplest) desserts:
Ice cream with caramelized pine nuts and strawberries
The beauty of this recipe is that macerating the berries in balsamic vinegar and sugar brings a lively jolt of flavor to even the most boring, end-of-season strawberries. (also great with blackberries!)
In a mixing bowl toss 1 pint strawberries, hulled and halved, with 2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar and 2 Tbsp sugar and set aside. Combine 3 Tbsp sugar and ¼ cup piñon nuts in a small skillet and stir over medium low heat until sugar is completely melted and nuts are golden and coated with sugar. Dump out on a piece of buttered foil and spread while still hot and malleable.
When you’re ready for dessert, scoop some really good vanilla ice cream into four dishes, top with strawberries, break up the piñon brittle and divide between the servings. Then eat. Happily.