LET US TURN, now, to pine nuts.

Pine nuts?

"We really don't hear much about pine nuts," said Pat Pelletier, who works for the major nut processors trade association in Washington? "Do people eat them?"

The answer is definitely yes -- those who can afford them, eat them. Pine nuts in Washington area markets range in price from $5.87 to around $11 a pound, and sell for much more when packaged in 2- and 3-ounce bottles or packages.

They come from three distinct regions, but there is disagreement as to the legitimacy of two varieties.

Pine nuts, as any Italian cook can tell you (or pignoli, as any Italian cook will call them), are indispensible and delicious. The nuts are large seeds, extracted with some difficulty from the cones which grow on a wide variety of pine trees. They grow in mountainous regions in dry climates through the world, including the United States, where the pinus cembroides, pinus quadrifolia, pinus monoplylla and pinus edulis -- all pines with short stalks and few scales on their bark and cones -- serve as nut pines.

The mainstream pine nut in the United States comes from Western Europe -- Portugal, Spain and Italy, according to Karl Kessler, one of the owners of Barcelona Nut Shop in Takoma Park, which both retails and packages pine nuts for wholesale distribution in the metropolitan area. "The cheaper ones are Chinese. They're a little more bland than the Europeans," he said.

Kessler also deals in the domestically produced pine nut -- better known as Indian nuts or pinyon nuts -- selling them in the shell as a snack nut. In all, Barcelona runs through some 2,500 pounds of pine nuts each year. "But I couldn't exist on pignoli," Kessler is quick to add. "They're an off-the-wall item, like macadamias, that a few people want, so we stock them." Because they are imported and are shelled through labor-intensive methods, the prices are higher than most nuts, he said.

Eddie Dicker of Durey Libby Edible Nuts Co. in Carlstad, N.J., says his company handles both the Mediterranean and Chinese nuts, which he says are sweeter. "Italians won't buy them. The rest of the country, will buy either one -- they don't know the difference," he said.

Dicker's firm also handles the larger Indian nuts, so-called because they are harvested by Navajo and Pueblo Indians in the forest of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Although he considers them in interchangeable in taste with the Chinese nuts, he sells Indian nuts only in the shell.

"You pitch a handful in your mouth, then break the shells with your teeth and spit them out. In Jewish and Russian neighborhoods, they're called khai and schpai -- it means 'chew and spit'," said Dicker. Once a popular vending machine item in the days when pine nuts were 25-cents a pound, now they are sold mainly in small packages in delis.

Frances Garcia, whose New Mexico company buys domestic pine nuts and distributes them both shelled and unshelled, takes issue with those who consider the Indian nut inferior. "Around here, everybody munches on them," she said. "We put them into cookies, into chiles rellenos (a Mexican stuffed pepper dish), into everything."

Garcia's Valley Distributing Company in Albuquerque has traded in Southwestern pine nuts for more than 20 years. It's our main item -- this year we've purchased about 68,000 pounds for wholesale distribution, mainly in the Southwest and Midwest," she said. They buy from trading posts which, in the best capitalist tradition of the frontier, buy them cheap, from the Indians.

"We pay $2.75 to $3 per pound for them and wholesale them in the shell raw for $3.90 a pound, roasted for $4.50 and shelled for $8 a pound. But the trading posts only pay the Indians about $1.50 a pound, and they often cheat them on the weight and the price," she added.

Valley Distributing has developed an unpatented shelling machine which can shell 400 pounds a day, Garcia said. Shelling has, traditionally, been slow and has raised the cost of shelled nuts.

Dicker says that most dealers double the price of the pine nuts he distributes to them. He said the cost of importing any kind of nuts has risen dramatically because of the devalued dollar, inflation and, "I guess greed, too." As a result, he said, many Italian families in the New York area who once used pine nuts in holiday meatloaves and other dishes have turned to peanuts.

American cooks have taken to throwing a few pine nuts into salads and vegetable dishes, or substituting them for almonds in pastry dishes. Many American home freezers by now contain containers of homemade pesto to go with the homemade pasta that has also become part of the American kitchen. The Navajos use pine nuts as a grain, grinding them into a coarse mush that can be fried and eaten like scrapple or baked into sort of a waffle. PESTO (makes 2 1/2 cups) 2 cups fresh basil leaves, washed, dried and packed down 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped 1/2 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper 1/4 teaspoon salt 3 tablespoons pine nuts 1/2 cup olive oil 1/2 cup freshly grated romano or parmesan cheese, or both

Place the basil, garlic, parsley, salt, pepper and pine nuts in a blender or food processor. Turn on low and pour in the oil. As a mass forms, increase the speed and blend until the basil is in tiny fragments -- not a paste. Do not allow to become heated. Scrape into a bowl. Serve on celery or crackers, as a sauce on spaghetti or linguine, as a stuffing for fresh mushrooms or ripe tomatoes and in a hundred other ways. RICE WITH PINE NUTS (4 servings) 1/4 cup pine nuts 3 tablespoons butter 1/4 cup onion, chopped 1/2 teaspoon garlic, finely minced 1 cup uncooked rice 1 1/2 cups chicken broth Salt and freshly ground pepper

Place the pine nuts in a skillet and cook, shaking, until the nuts are browned; be careful because they burn easily. Set aside. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a saucepan and add the onion and garlic, cooking until the onion wilts. Add the rice and stir. Add the broth, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes. Stir in the remaining butter and the pine nuts and serve.