Alan Tangren: Are pecans American?
Dear Alan: I love using pecans at this time of year, but I’d like to know a little bit more about them. I’ve heard they are native to America.
Alan: You are right; pecans are native to America and were a staple food, gathered from the wild before recorded history, from Iowa down to the Gulf Coast and Mexico. The name comes from the Algonquin.
Like most nuts, pecans are high in unsaturated fat and helpful in lowering “bad” cholesterol. They are also rich in protein and contain more than 19 vitamins and minerals.
Pecans are closely related to hickory nuts, another native food. They are only distant relatives of walnuts, which came to us from southeastern Europe and the Middle East.
Most pecans in the market are grown in the south central and south western U.S. Wild pecan trees may grow as large as 70 to 100 feet tall and spread as far as 40 to 75 feet across.
Cultivated trees are pruned much smaller, so they can be harvested by mechanical arms that shake the nuts off the trees when they are ripe.
You can find pecans in the shell in most well-stocked markets in the fall and winter, but because of their high fat content they don’t keep well.
Stale pecans will have an unpleasant rancid taste. Make sure the pecans you buy in the fall are from the current year’s crop. Ask the produce manager to make sure.
When you get them home, store in a cool place or the refrigerator, where they will stay fresh in the shell for several months.
Your own freshly cracked pecans will have better flavor than those bought already shelled. Use a nut cracker or a small hammer to crack open the shells and carefully remove the kernels.
A nut pick will help you pry small bits of shell from the kernels. Refrigerate or freeze until you are ready to use.
Since cracking a large number of pecans, say for a pie, can be a bit of a chore, you may want to use already shelled nuts. The best source is a busy, well-stocked bulk foods department.
One natural foods store in Grass Valley where I like to shop keeps the bulk pecans, as well as almonds and walnuts, refrigerated.
Ask for a taste to make sure they are fresh. I never buy shelled nuts in those little cellophane bags. They should be a last resort. Store shelled nuts airtight in the refrigerator for a short time or in the freezer.
Because of their rich flavor, pecans can be used in most recipes without roasting ahead. They are essential for making sticky buns or in cookies and pie.
But for eating out of hand, simply spread the kernels in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in a 350°F. oven. Check often and stir the ones at the edge toward the center. They should be lightly toasted in 5 to 10 minutes.
I love to add toasted pecans to a fall salad, especially one with citrus. Or sprinkle over a beet salad to emphasize the earthy flavor.
Spiced pecans are a simple and irresistible snack to have on hand for yourself or guests. I sometimes make up little bags of these for my host or hostess when I go to a holiday dinner.
Cinnamon Spiced Pecans
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
4 cups pecan halves (about 1 pound)
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. packed dark brown sugar
3 Tbsp. water
Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or heavy duty aluminum foil. Mix salt, cinnamon, black pepper and cayenne in a small bowl and set aside.
Place a 10-inch cast iron or heavy duty non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add the pecans and toast lightly, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula for 4 or 5 minutes, or until the pecans start to brown and smell slightly roasty.
Add the spices and stir for 30 seconds to coat the pecans. Add the butter and stir to melt. Add the sugar and mix completely. Drizzle in the water and stir for 2 to 3 minutes, until the sugar has completely dissolved and the pecans are glazed.
Spread the nuts out on the parchment, keeping them as separate as possible. When cool, break apart any clumps and store airtight for up to 3 months.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill St. in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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