Pecan is one of the most nutritious, great tasting, and widely used nuts. Scientifically recognized as Carya illinoinensis, pecans are native to North America, and belong to the family of hickory trees. It is closely related to other hard shelled nuts like walnuts and almonds. However, unlike the other nuts from the hickory family, pecan nuts are much easier to crack. These nuts are characterized by a smooth, thin, and hard, tan colored shell, which encloses a bi-lobed, ‘brain-shaped’, brownish kernel with a beige flesh. Pecans have the highest fat content of any nut, which contributes to its rich buttery flavor. Though, best eaten out-of-hand, they are also used in several sweet and savory dishes. Some popular pecan recipes include recipes for pie, toasted nut caramels, and salted pecan.
History of usage of Pecans
Pecan trees are native to the Mississippi River basin. The English term Pecan is a derivative of the Algonquian Indian word, paccan, which refers to hard shelled nuts that require a stone to crack. Spanish explorer Cabeza da Vaca was the first person to describe the characteristics of this tree. These nuts were then, introduced to Europe, Asia, and Africa during the early 16th century by Spanish explorers. Though the Native Indians were aware of several pecan recipes, these nuts were harvested from the wild pecan trees. These trees were domesticated and commercially cultivated not until 1880s.
Today, USA is the largest producer and consumer of pecans, followed by Australia, Brazil, China, Israel, Mexico, Peru, and South Africa.
Culinary Uses of Pecans
Pecan, due to its rich flavors and texture, is best eaten fresh. However, they are also used in preparing several cooked recipes. They are especially popular in desserts such as pies, cookies, cakes, and candies. However, these nuts may be very well used as tasty additions to several savory dishes like stuffing, coatings for fritters, salad toppings, etc. Toasted and salted or caramel/chocolate coated pecans are a popular snack time treats. Pecan pie is probably the most popular pecan recipe and considered as the signature dish of New Orleans. Being a part of the hickory family and closely associated with other hard shelled nuts, in terms of taste and texture, pecans can be easily used as an alternative to hickory nuts or walnuts.
Pecans across the globe
Pecan has been traditionally known as the quintessential American ingredient. However, many other regions across the globe, including Mexico, Canada, France, Spain, Italy, and Latin America use this nut in their traditional cooking style. According to certain market surveys, the Chinese and other Oriental cuisines are fast opening up to pecan recipes.
Popular Pecan Recipes from Around the World
Pecan, as mentioned earlier, is considered as an American nut and here it is most commonly used in Southern cooking styles. However, many other cuisines include pecans in one form or the other in their traditional recipes. Some popular pecan recipes from around the world are given below.
American & Canadian: Other than, Southern pecan pie - is the most famous dish from this region, this nut is used in preparing a variety of cakes, breads, salads, soups, etc.
Latin American: Popular pecan recipes include recipes for preparing sweet and spicy nuts, evening snacks, fudge, puddings, crumb nut crust, Penuche, etc.
European: From the time pecans were introduced to Europe, several cuisines from this region have adopted this nut as their own. These nuts are popularly used for preparing pancakes, tea breads, dumplings, Flambé, pralines, French toast, etc.
Common Methods of Preparing Pecan Recipes
Pecan shells are not as rigid and hard to crack as other tree nuts. However, boiling them makes the shelling process easier. Once shelled, the pecans can be eaten or cooked according to the techniques suggested in the recipe. Toasting these nuts is known to enhance the aroma and flavors of these nuts. Toasting also makes the grinding and/or chopping of the nuts easier. Due to their close association, pecan and walnut can be interchanged in almost all recipes.
Nutritive Value of Pecans
Pecan has a high fat content; however, more than 90% of the fat is composed of unsaturated health fatty acids hence can be easily included in a weight reducing and/or heart friendly diet. Like other nuts, they are also a good source of proteins and provide all essential amino acids. They are loaded with antioxidant nutrients and are purported to prevent several disease conditions like CVD, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and certain types of cancer.
Tips for Buying and Storing Pecans
Pecan is available in several forms, including vacuum packed pouches, cans, shelled, in-shell, etc., in the market almost all year round. The whole, in-shell pecans are supposed to be the freshest and most flavorful of all. When buying these, look out for the nuts that are heavy for their size and don’t rattle when shaken. Also, the shells must be free of any cracks, holes, or other visible signs or damage.
Unshelled pecan nuts can be stored at room temperature for almost 3 months. However, once shelled, the nuts tend to absorb odors or turn rancid quickly. The best way to store these nuts after shelling is to refrigerate or freeze them in an air tight container.
Pecan : Trivia
Pecan is the state tree of Texas and Texas Pecan festival is celebrated every year in Southeast Texas, where dishes made using all kinds of Pecan recipes are displayed.