It’s high season for sweet treats like pecan pie and pralines. But the rich and buttery pecan has much more to offer. In an age when protein-rich foods and “good fats” are gaining attention in diners’ minds, it’s no wonder that pecans continue to find their way into everything from appetizers to desserts.
“Pecans are one of those things that make food special, so it’s natural that they’re especially popular around the holidays,” says Linda Hall, president of Culinary Strategy Network. She’s owned and operated her own restaurant and worked in corporate test kitchens, and she’s also developed many recipes using pecans. She has great appreciation for how pecans can add impact to a dish: “They’re sweet, but it’s almost like a savory sweet, and that oil they release coats your tongue and helps carry flavor.”
Spice it up
“If you’re looking for a great amuse bouche this time of year, I think spiced pecans are a great idea,” she says. “You can coat them with egg white, add a little sugar, salt and spices like chipotle powder or ground chilies, and then oven bake them. They’d be too expensive to use as a bar snack, but they’re a great treat for customers while they’re reading over the menu.”
Guess what? It’s not a nut
Pecans are members of the Hickory genus, so that technically makes them a drupe, which is a fruit with a single stone or pit, surrounded by a husk. Pull away the thick outer husk to reveal the thin-shelled edible seed, and you’ve just shelled your first pecan. Ready for more? Hall recommends toasting pecans to release the fragrant oils. “I like to toast them in an oven or in a dry skillet on the stove,” she says. “Toasting helps bring out that delicious caramelized flavor.” Successful toasting, she warns, is a precise activity, because pecans will burn easily. “I usually toast them until I can smell them. Once I get a whiff of that nutty aroma, they’re generally done.”
Nut butters are increasingly popular at breakfast service, and Hall suggests grinding pecans, then mixing the paste with butter and honey for a new type of toast spread. “It really brings out the sweet and savory quality of whole grain bread,” she says. Ground pecans can also be used, along with confectioner’s sugar, to add new dimensions to tart crusts. And, thanks to the continuing interest in gluten-free items, pecan flour can be the foundation for many new dessert or breakfast items. “When making flour, I have the most success using cool or cold pecans, and pulsing them in a food processor,” Hall says. “If you plan to use the pecan flour in a dough, add a little cane sugar or confectioner’s sugar when you’re pulsing to prevent it from reaching the paste stage.”