Chile may be New Mexico’s most famous culinary ingredient, but the prized piñon takes a close second. This cherished pine nut may be small, but it’s packed with big, buttery sweetness. High in healthy fat content, this little nut has been a seasonal staple in regional kitchens for centuries and has made its way into delectable dishes served in restaurants across The City Different.
The piñon is deeply rooted in New Mexico. The fruit of New Mexico’s official state tree, Pinus edulis, piñons grow in the high-desert mountains and for centuries were eaten by ancestral Pueblo Indians. When Spanish settlers arrived in the region some 400 years ago, they were taught how to crack the little nut and eat it by the Pueblo people and from watching local wildlife.
Though piñons are easy to gather from the cones of the pine tree and to forage from the ground once they’ve fallen, they only show up every few years, and that number changes depending on whom you ask. Some people say a good year for piñons happens every three to five years, while others say as few as two or as many as seven. Much depends upon the spring rains, winter snowfall, drought, climate change and other factors, but one thing’s for sure: You can tell that it’s a piñon-producing season when parked cars line the roadsides, indicating places where piñons are plentiful and people are picking them.
Old-time foragers will often get on their hands and knees to gather the nuts that have fallen beneath the trees. It’s also common for people to spread a sheet beneath a tree and shake the branches to make the bronze-shelled nuts fall like rain. Once the nuts are collected, gatherers can crack them like sunflower seeds with their teeth, a tradition handed down through generations.
Piñons are a perfect snack eaten just as they are, but countless recipes incorporating them have been passed down through New Mexico families and become part of the traditional regional cuisine. These dishes include piñonate, a paste made by grinding piñons and sugar together, for instance, and empanaditas filled with piñons, sweet pork and raisins. Green chile and piñon apple pie is a fall favorite in Northern New Mexico, and green chile piñon stuffing often appears on the Thanksgiving table.
More than twenty years ago, New Mexico Piñon Coffee brewed up a brilliant idea: add the piñon’s unique flavor to coffee, creating a smooth and nutty beverage that’s long been a bestseller, even beyond New Mexico’s borders ($10 for a 12-ounce bag). In 1994, Santa Fe Culinaria opened for business with its Blue Corn Piñon Pancake Mix, which combines piñons and finely ground organic Hopi heirloom blue cornmeal. The mix is a big hit, not just in Santa Fe but across the country, and the resulting pancakes are so delicious that Joe’s Dining uses the mix to make its wildly popular Blue Corn Piñon Pancakes ($8 for 4).
Señor Murphy has added New Mexico’s favorite nut to several sweet treats, including their Piñon Toffee and Piñon Tortugas, handcrafted turtle-shaped treats, made with piñon nuts, draped in caramel and drenched in milk chocolate ($27.99 each for a one-pound box).
Like many other nuts, the piñon is versatile, blending well with ingredients both savory and sweet, which makes it popular with Santa Fe’s top chefs. At Terra, for instance, the upscale restaurant at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado, Chef Kai Autenrieth uses the nut in his dinner entrée, Piñon-Crusted Lamb, which is served with blue corn beet polenta, garlic roasted green beans, red wine demi and root-vegetable slaw ($48).
Joseph Wrede, chef and owner of Joseph’s Culinary Pub, has a favorite dish: Duck Breast on Piñon Dust with Dried Chutney and Corn Pudding. “When looking to capture the full flavors of the region, it’s hard to ignore ingredients that appear in the natural world around Northern New Mexico,” Wrede says. “The piñon brings visual appeal and pine sweetness forward, pushing the dish’s other accoutrements, like the corn pudding, forward without overly playing on a sugar-centric gastric usually associated with fowl and game.”
Louis Moskow, chef and owner of 315 Restaurant & Wine Bar, has a seasonal staple that incorporates the flavors of the piñon. “Fresh basil pesto is one of my favorite ingredients of the summer,” he says. “It’s a great way to keep my basil fresh and delicious. By blanching the basil and poaching the garlic, the flavors blend together to balance the toasted flavor of the piñons. Then I simply add the pesto to any neutral starch, like potatoes, rice or pasta, or tomatoes and other summer vegetable medleys.”
Acclaimed chef Rocky Durham, who’s cooked around the world, grew up in Santa Fe and knows a thing or two about piñons. He shared an easy recipe for a sweet treat that showcases the flavors of New Mexico’s favorite nut. Enjoy!
Chef Rocky Durham’s Piñon Shortbread
- 1 cup New Mexico piñons
- 5 oz (10 tbsp) unsalted butter, softened
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting)
- 1 egg yolk
- 1/4 cup turbinado sugar
Preheat oven to 350° F and toast piñons for about five minutes or until fragrant and slightly browned. Let cool. Cream together butter, powdered sugar, vanilla and salt. Add flour and mix until fluffy and fully combined. Do not over mix. Add piñons and combine. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and shape into a square log about 1 1/2-to-2” thick. Brush with egg yolk and roll in turbinado sugar. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes. Slice log into 1/4-inch pieces and arrange on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Bake at 350° F for 18–20 minutes or until golden brown.
Lynn Cline is the author of The Maverick Cookbook: Iconic Recipes & Tales from New Mexico. She has written for The New York Times, Bon Appétít and numerous other publications. She also hosts Cline’s Corner, a weekly radio show on KSFR 101.1 FM.