Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Pecans

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When my grandparents retired they downsized to a small ranch house near where they were born in South Carolina. It was all one level, on a reasonable-sized lot and relatively new - a 1970s ranch. It was convenient and practical but it was about as far as you could get from the family farm house I had visited as a little kid. There was no wrap around porch, no wood burning stove. Heck, it even had running water. Where was the Southern charm? I was having a little internal pout, my five year old self missing a time that had gone by. 

Then they swung open the back door. And towering over the house was a pecan tree so tall and lush that it had surely stood before this house was built. Maybe even the house before it. We pulled up a couple of lawn chairs, my grandmother brought out some sweet tea, my grandfather scooped up a couple of nuts from the ground and cracked them between his gnarled but still vice grip-strong fingers. "You like our pecan, Sheree?" he asked in his long southern drawl. "I do, Pop," I said, "I like it a lot." And we settled in under the shade to sit for a spell.

A Brief History of Pecans

"As American as apple pie," is a common turn of phrase, but it's the pecan pie that is more deserving of that honor. For, unlike apples that were brought to our shores, pecans, Carya illinoinensis, are native to North America, thriving in the river basins of the central and southern United States and parts of Mexico. The climate of the central and southern Mississippi river is particularly well-suited to the nut. Pecans have long grown wild just beyond the flood plain of that mighty river, where the microclimate of that specific region has been populated by dense stands of trees. 

Native Americans have always valued the pecan as an important source of nutrition and shared it with the colonists. Fur traders brought the nuts back from their expeditions west, where they were introduced to the nuts by Native American tribes in the south-central part of the country. After touring the Mississippi basin, Thomas Jefferson brought the nuts back to the East Coast and shared them with his friend George Washington. Both presidents planted trees in their respective home gardens. 

Pecans were first cultivated in the late 1600s to early 1700s by Spanish colonists in Mexico. Further north, attempts to cultivate pecans in Long Island came along a bit later, in 1772. But it was an African-American slave gardener named Antoine that developed the first hybrid pecan tree. The "126 Centennial" pecan was created by grafting a wild specimen with superior qualities onto the stock of a cultivated tree to create a better variety of nut. The tree won the "Best Pecan Exhibited" award at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 and changed the course of the commercial pecan industry, which adopted his grafting methods to improve their crops. 

Louisiana, which is situated at the mouth of the Mississippi and on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, became a natural hub in the domestic and international transport of wild and cultivated pecans, shipping the nut north up the river and out to distant shores through the Gulf. 

The United States continues to dominate the pecan industry, growing wild and cultivated varieties that amount to eighty-five to ninety percent of the world's supply. 

Factual Nibbles

  • A "grove" is a naturally occurring stand of wild pecan trees. An "orchard" indicates an intentionally planted arrangement. 
  • The pecan is the state tree of Texas, Mississippi and Arkansas. 
  • The name "pecan" is a Native American word of Algonquin origin that was used to describe "all nuts requiring a stone to crack." 

Pecan Cultivation

The pecan is a member of the Juglandaceae family that includes hickory and walnut. It is not truly a nut but is technically a drupe, a fruit with a single stone or pit, surrounded by a husk. But like the peanut, which is actually a legume, it is commonly referred to as a "nut." 

Left to its own devices the pecan tree is a bit of a bully.  The size of the tree, which can grow to be one hundred feet high and over forty feet wide, gives pecans the ability to shade out the competition and dominate available resources such as sun and water. The root system is shallow and broad, blanketing its territory before committing the plant to vertical growth. 

It takes pecan trees five to ten years to become productive. Once bearing, however, trees can produce for up to three hundred years. Pecans must be cross-pollinated to bear. If you live in a community where the trees are popular the wind will do the pollinating work. But if there aren't any trees nearby then you will do best to plant two varieties in close proximity. 

The pecan tree is valued by home owners as much for its nuts as its ample shade and it is not uncommon to find one on the south side of a Southerner's house - where it not only fills pies but provides some natural climate control. 

The majority of commercially produced pecans are grown domestically in Georgia, New Mexico, Louisiana and Texas with a smaller percentage coming from Arizona. 

Pecans are alternate bearing, meaning that they offer a heavy harvest followed by a light one the next year. Harvest peaks around mid-October. The shuck, the green outer husk, will split and dry and the nut will fall to the ground. In areas that get an early freeze, the plummeting temperatures will aid this process causing the shucks to split and dry within days of the first freeze. In more temperate areas, the trees should be checked regularly. Once the nuts start falling, the tree can be shaken to encourage the nuts to drop. Fallen nuts should be collected as soon as possible. 

Environmental Impact of Pecan Growing 

Pecans perform well on the Environmental Working Group's food scores, which ranks foods across nutrition, processing and environmental concerns. Because they are grown domestically, pecans don't incur the shipping miles that tropical nuts rack up.  

Because the roots do not go deep, the trees do best in areas that offer consistent moisture. Pecans that are grown in arid climates require significant amounts of irrigation to thrive. 

There are thousands of varieties of pecan, such as Elliot, Candy, Sumner, Houma, Caddo, Oconee and Melrose and more being developed. Older varieties such as Stuart, Success, Mahan and Desirable are more susceptible to "scab," a fungal infection that affects the leaves and impacts the harvest. Such trees need higher applications of anti-fungals to combat the disease. 

Growers tend to plant a mix of wild and improved pecan varieties. However, increasing demand from foreign markets, particularly China, has skewed the market toward more uniform, cultivated varieties which are better suited to processing. The shift is threatening the stock of wild plants. Chinese demand is also spurring growth across the globe, in countries such as Australia where pecans are an expanding crop. 

Characteristics of Pecans

Pecans are oval shaped nuts that have a rich, buttery flavor. They range in color from tan to brown. Very dark nuts or shells indicate age or improper storage. Pecans can be purchased in the shell or shelled, as halves, pieces or meal. 

Nuts can range in size and shell hardness, neither of which indicate superior nut meats. Shelled pecans are graded in sizes that range from "Mammoth Halves," 250 or less per pounds to "Small Halves," which can have over 650 pieces per pound. 

Pecan Nutrition

One ounce of pecans contains three grams of protein, four grams of carbs, three grams of fiber and has 200 calories. Once ounce of pecans has twenty grams of fat, but unlike walnuts, pecans are not a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids. The same serving size contains sixty percent of your recommended daily allowance of manganese and fifteen percent of copper. Pecans also offer a number of vitamins and minerals including vitamin A, vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, several B vitamins and zinc.

What to Do with Pecans and How to Cook Them

The pecan pie was made famous by the Karo syrup company which printed a recipe for the confection on its widely distributed bottles in the 1920s. Pecans are essential in pralines and delightful in cookies such as pecan sandies. On the savory side, try them in salads, with wild rice, blended into pesto and as a tasty coating for fish or chicken

Off the table, pecan shells are used for mulch and in particleboard. The wood is used to make furniture and flooring. Pecan wood is also burned to impart flavorful smoke to grilled foods. 

Best Pratices for Storing Pecans

Unshelled pecans can be stored in a cool dry place for six to twelve months. Shelled pecans stay fresh for about three months stored at room temperature. They can be frozen for up to two years. 

Recipe: Curried Pecans

One of my favorite ways to serve pecans is in this easy to prepare snack. The spices are warm and assertive - great with fall cocktails or some apple cider - but don't overpower the flavor of the nuts. Buttery and spicy and delicious, they make a great host/-ess gift.

Ingredients: 

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup granulated sugar

2 cups pecan halves

Method:  

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Combine the salt and spices in a small bowl and set aside. 

In a medium sauté pan, heat the butter and sugar over medium heat. Heat, without stirring, until the sugar is melted and just begins to color, about three to five minutes. Add the pecans and stir until they begin to brown, about 2 minutes. Add the spices, stir and remove from heat (do not cook the spices for longer or they will burn in the hot caramel). Pour the coated nuts out onto the parchment paper and separate into one layer with a wooden spoon. Allow to cool completely. Gently squeeze the nuts in the parchment to separate any large clusters. Serve or store in a tightly covered container or screw top jar for up to two weeks.