Pecans are perfect compliments to the season

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 12, 2009

Pecans are the edible nuts produced by the pecan tree, Carya illinoinensis, a large deciduous tree native to the south central United States and portions of Mexico.

Cultivated pecans have been introduced to a zone stretching from North Carolina to parts of California. The name is Algonquian, a nut too hard to crack by hand, and was not species specific. Early Spanish explorers encountered pecans in Texas and referred to them as nueces and nogales, the Spanish words for walnuts.

Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were interested in the cultivation of pecans, but it was Antoine, a slave gardener at Oak Alley plantation upriver from New Orleans, La., who is credited with first grafting pecan trees, in 1846. Louisiana soon became known as the cradle of improved pecan production, mainly because of New Orleans importance as a market town and distribution point for pecans from Mississippi and Texas.

New Orleans is known for the pecan praline, a candy of sugar and pecans adapted from the French prototype made with almonds.

Pecan pie may have been developed in the latter part of the 19th century, and there are claimants from both Louisiana and Texas for the original recipe, but it was only with the development of Karo brand corn syrup in 1903 that the pecan pie known today became possible. It was only in the 1940s that pecan pie recipes became a staple in southern cookbooks.

Today, Georgia is the nation’s leading producer of pecans from cultivars, and Texas leads in the combined harvest of cultivars and seedlings. Pecan groves are agricultural icons throughout the American South.

I have been doing a lot of pecan shelling this past month. We have had a pretty good harvest this year. So looking for perhaps some new ways to use my bounty, I was happy to see the November 2009 issue of Southern Living which had some new ways with pecans. You might want to use one or more for your next party.

Turkey-Artichoke-Pecan Salad

Whisk together 5 Tbsp. red wine vinegar, 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley, 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil, ½ tsp. salt, and ½ tsp. pepper. Whisk in ¼ cup olive oil until blended. Toss with chopped cooked turkey; coarsely chopped canned artichokes hearts, thinly sliced green onions, chopped toasted pecans and feta cheese.

Pecan-Honey Butter

Stir together ½ cup butter, softened; ½ cup finely chopped pecans; and 2 Tbsp. honey. Store in refrigerator up to one week, or freeze up to one month. Cool pecans completely after toasting.

Chili-Lime Pecan

Stir together 2 Tbsp. lime juice, 1 Tbsp. olive oil, 1 tsp. paprika, 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. chili powder, and ½ tsp. ground red pepper. Add three cups pecans; toss. Spread in a lightly greased aluminum foiled-lined jelly roll pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-14 minutes or until pecans are toasted and dry, stirring occasionally. Cool completely.

Goat Cheese-Pecan Finger Sandwiches

Stir together 4 oz. softened goat cheese, 3 oz. softened cream cheese, ½ cup finely chopped roasted pecans, and 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley. Spread on seven bread slices. Spread seven more bread slices with 1/3 cup red pepper jelly and top with cheese-covered slices. Remove crusts; cut into desired shapes.

Pecan Pesto

Process 4 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves, 1 cup (4oz.) freshly shredded Parmesan cheese, 1 cup toasted pecans, 1 cup olive oil, 4 garlic cloves, 2 Tbsp. lemon juice, ½ tsp. salt, and ½ tsp. pepper in a food processor until smooth.

I had the good fortune to eat at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans the last weekend before Thanksgiving. Their jazz brunch is one of my favorite things to do after church at Trinity on Sunday. They have a price for a three-course meal and dessert is always one of the three. I chose pecan pie for the first time and found it to be the best I had ever eaten. Their recipe is in their Commander’s Palace Cookbook which I had purchased many years ago and had never used that much. The recipe was created by Chef Jamie Shannon, who is now deceased. The secret according to him is the long and slow cooking. He also says you should never refrigerate pecan pie. Always make sure your pie plate is clean and the dough has no holes. I did not have time to do the pie for Thanksgiving but I did it for relatives who came to visit this past weekend.

Pecan Pie

Pie dough, at room temperature (Recipe below)

Flour, for rolling out dough

6 medium eggs

1 1/3 cups sugar

1 1/3 cups light corn syrup

1 tablespoon butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon salt

2 ½ cups pecan halves (I actually used a lot less. I thought 2 ½ cups too much.)

Sprinkle the work surface with flour. Flatten the pie dough slightly with your hands into a round shape, sprinkle the dough and a rolling pin with flour, and roll out the dough evenly, working from the center out. Pinch the dough to eliminate cracks. If the underside of the dough or the rolling pin sticks, sprinkle with additional flour. Roll to about 1/8-inch thickness.

Place in a 9-inch pie pan upside down in the center of the dough. Add one inch for an overhang and cut out a circle of dough around the pie pan. Remove the pan, and brush off any excess flour. Push the dough in the bottom and against the sides of the pan, being careful not to tear the dough. Fold the edge of the dough under, and crimp the edges. Chill the crust while you make the filling.

Whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Add the sugar, corn syrup, melted butter, vanilla, and salt, and mix until smooth. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Scatter the pecans over the chilled crust, and pour the filling over the pecans. Use your fingers to blend gently until the pecans are evenly distributed. Be careful not to tear the dough. Bake for two hours and 45 minutes, until the center is set and the crust is golden brown. This is a long time. My oven tends to cook fast and I wound up not using the whole two hours and 45 min.

Pie Dough

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

5-6 tablespoons ice water

Combine the flour and salt in a medium bowl. Using your hands, gently work the butter into the flour until the butter pieces are each about the size of a dime. Make a well in the center of the mixture, and pour five tablespoons of the ice water into the well. Fold gently to incorporate, using the additional tablespoon of water if the dough is to dry and crumbly. Fold until the dough comes together. Do not overwork the dough. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Remove dough from the refrigerator and roll out according to the directions above.

Those relatives also got some more of my pecans, as the main course was a pork scaloppini with mint pesto. From my favorite chef — Frank Stitt.

Mint Pesto

1 heaping cup loosely packed mint leaves (plus a few sprigs for garnish)

2 cloves garlic, crushed

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ cup pecan halves toasted

¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano, plus shavings for garnish

¼ cup freshly grated pecorino Romano

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Roughly chop the mint leaves and transfer to a food processor with the garlic. Season with salt and pepper and reduce to a paste. Add ¾ of the pecans and save the rest for garnish. Pulse a little more. Add the grated cheeses and pulse again. Then add the olive oil and pulse again. Spoon the pesto on your scaloppini and garnish.