We Can Pecan!

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You say pe-cahn, I say pe-can; let's call the whole thing PIE! Get to know the very American history behind one of fall's tastiest ingredients. Portions of this post were published in the November, 2017 issue of Richmond Magazine.

HISTORY

The history of pecans is an American history, predating colonists and winding through the Revolutionary war, when General Washington sent troops to protect a nursery of American pecan trees; through the discoveries of Lewis and Clark to the cultivation of the tree crop during postbellum society; and as a vital part of today’s agricultural economy throughout southern states across the country, most notably in Texas, where it is the state tree. Today, the US produces 85% to 90% of the pecans consumed worldwide.

Part of the landscape at both Monticello and Mount Vernon, pecans are a member of the hickory family. From the Algonquian word, pacane, meaning 'to crack with a rock,' the pecan tree is native to North America and was a staple of the Native American diet and economy long before colonists arrived on the continent.

HOW TO BUY

Like all tree crops, pecans are seasonal, with harvests beginning in September and dwindling in the first weeks of November. Fresh, in-shell nuts have the best flavor and longest shelf life. Out of the shell, look for uniformly plump pecans. Store refrigerated for about nine months or frozen for up to two years. High concentrations of polyunsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants make pecans a nutrient-rich food source, beneficial for combating high cholesterol and other heart-related illnesses.

What began as a promising season in Georgia, the leading pecan producing state in the country, was cut short by significant damage from hurricane Irma. Lenny Wells, a horticulture specialist at the University of Georgia, called Irma, “the most damaging wind event ever seen by the Georgia pecan industry,” potentially making supplies scarce this fall and winter.

HOW TO PREPARE

A nutcracker will render two wrinkly halves from a thinnish, cylindrical shell; and from there, the pecan can be eaten raw or toasted. Toasting on a sheet tray in an oven preheated to 350 yields a more consistently toasted nut than does pan-toasting. Perhaps best known in pies and pralines, the pecan’s mellow, earthy flavor offsets the sticky sweetness of molasses and caramel. Pecans can also add healthy protein to salads, stuffings, and roasted brussel sprouts.

Looking for a new way to showcase pecans? Check out Whisk baker Arley Arrington's recipe for Salted Caramel Pecan Babka.

Stephanie GanzComment