a test kitchen dossier
Having in my life been bitten by the jaws of both victory and defeat, I must rush to add that success is to failure as butter pecan ice cream is to death.
Etymology: From the Algonquin paccan or pakan, meaning “nut requiring a stone to crack” or “nut with a hard shell”
Area of Origin: Central, Eastern and Southern United States and Central Mexico
Pecans are part of the hickory and walnut family, and what a happy family it is! The pecan itself, like many nuts, is a seed. Adored for their rich, sweet and buttery flavor, pecans grow in a shell that must be cracked open to release the edible meat of the nut. Over time, growers have cultivated trees that produce thinly shelled pecans, making them easier to crack open (and thus releasing their edible goodness for us to enjoy without too much anticipation).
Rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, pecans are sodium-free and contain over nineteen vitamins and minerals, most notably zinc, which helps the body to produce testosterone (and we all know what that means). The pecan’s essential oils are thought to stimulate the immune system, and studies have shown that eating pecans and other foods with monounsaturated fats might reduce the risk of heart disease.
Of course, we just really love their taste and texture, so the rest is gravy to us.
Pecans were first enjoyed by the Native Americans inhabiting what is now the United States of America. America’s early dwellers recognized that pecans were an excellent source of energy (which in modern times we might say is due to their high protein content), and would pack them to eat during hunts when food became scarce. One Spanish explorer reported that some tribes would survive solely on pecans for two months during each year. The Native Americans were also among the first to cultivate the nuts: Several tribes would strategically plant the trees along their trading routes so they would have food to eat as well as nuts to trade with the Europeans. Many tribes also used pecans to spice up their diets. Some ground up the nuts and used the powder to thicken their stews, while others created a milky beverage by mixing the pecan powder with water.
Around the time that the U.S. was founded, pecans became increasingly popular, and Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are said to have been particularly fond of them. In fact, it is rumored that Washington often traveled around with a handful of pecans in his pocket in case he wanted a little snack. As the popularity of pecans increased, New Orleans became one of the main ports through which they were transported, and today the super-sweet pecan-based praline is one of New Orleans’ most famous treats.
There are thousands of varieties of pecans growing wild and cultivated throughout the world. Despite attempts to increase their popularity, however, North America remains their primary target audience for consumption. Pecans grow wild around much of the U.S., and particularly in Texas, whose state tree is – you guessed it – the pecan tree. The San Saba River Valley in Central Texas is the Pecan capital of the world, and those lucky Texans are allowed to pick as many pecans as they desire each autumn – for free – from the state’s 70 million wild pecan trees. There are over 1200 varieties of pecans, and growers, particularly those in Texas, crossplant varieties near each other in blocks, depending on the wind to cross pollinate the trees to develop varieties with the best characteristics. Pecan trees, when continuously cross-pollinated, can continue to produce nuts for up to 200 years.
The U.S. produces about 80 percent of the world’s pecan supply, with about 350 million pounds each year, and despite Texan devotion to the nut, Georgia is the leading producer of pecans within the country. Internationally, pecans are grown in Australia, South America and South Africa.
Pecans can be enjoyed fresh, toasted, roasted or ground into powder. When you purchase pecans, make sure they are plump and firm, and avoid ones with excessive wrinkles, as this is a sign that the nut hasn’t been stored properly or that it has low oil content. Pecans freeze well, and can be kept frozen in a plastic bag for a year or two. When defrosting the nuts, make sure you do so slowly: First place the nuts in the refrigerator and then put them out at room temperature in order to avoid condensation that might affect their texture. Fresh or defrosted pecans will keep for two to three months, and are best stored in a plastic or glass container in the refrigerator or at temperatures below 70 F. Pecans in the shell will keep for a bit longer, about four months at room temperature, and should be refrigerated or frozen for any storage period longer than four months.
Today, debates over the correct pronunciation of the word “pecan” are widespread among nut lovers. Some argue that “pea-can” is clearly the true pronunciation, while others swear “pa-cahn” is the only acceptable way. However you pronounce it, and whatever chastisement you receive, you can’t go wrong with the rich taste of pecans: Use them in everything from salads to pies, or even follow the ways of the Native Americans and grind them to thicken your dressings and soups. You can even create unique beverages, such as Damian Sim of Provocachic™ did with this month’s Gaia cocktail.
We are exploring the pecan for its texture, as well as its smooth flavor in dishes both sweet and savory, and in a luxurious cocktail. Don’t miss Chef Mark’s upcoming interview with Larry Newkirk of the Great San Saba River Pecan Company on the ReMARKable Palate Podcast for more insights about this delicious little nut.
Champagne Sabayon with Roasted Strawberries and Honey Pecan Twists
Red & White Salad with Candied Pecans, Figs and Chèvre
Pasta with Brussels Sprouts, Prosciutto and Pecans
Dossier by Ava Tramer