Pecan Pickin'

Pecan Pickin'

I've spent a lot of time this fall doing the stooped dance of the pecan picker: Head bent, eyes focused on the ground, hands darting down to the ground here and here to snatch a striped brown treasure. So far I've picked up 50 pounds.

In my opinion, pecans are simply the best tasting nuts in the world. No nut is better straight from the shell, and toasted. . . . .ohhhhhh. . . .well, few flavors surpass it. Pecans have the perfect combination of buttery richness and hint of sweetness that makes them perfect for sweet and savory dishes alike, not to mention just plain snacking.

The only problem with pecans is getting them out of their shell. That's why I took my bounty with me to Thanksgiving dinner.

You see, my family has a tradition of assembling at one another's houses for a Thanksgiving project as well as the big meal. It's a time to make use of all those hands gathered in one place and it makes you feel, well, more like you deserve that feast.

It's a tradition I like. Not only do you actually spend productive time with your relatives--chatting and working instead of sprawled in front of the TV--laboring together brings you closer. We've painted, we've cleared brush, and this year, we shelled pecans.

We gathered around the kitchen table and over two days shelled enough pecans for everyone to take home a gallon or so (not including the pounds we all carried home internally). The sore fingers and hours of labor made the six bucks a pound you pay for shelled pecans seem quite reasonable.

Fall is harvest time for pecans and now is the best time to buy them. When choosing shelled pecans, look for plump, not wrinkled ones. Select unshelled pecans with clean, uncracked shells that don't rattle when shaken. Because of their high oil content, pecans become rancid if stored at room temperature for more than a few months, so store shelled or unshelled pecans in the refrigerator for several months or freeze them for up to two years.

Add some from your stash to your next piecrust for an unexpected treat. They are incredible with cheese--try some with bleu cheese, Brie or sharp cheddar. For a twist on pesto, puree them with garlic, parmesan and olive oil and toss with pasta.

Chop them finely and roll a pork loin in them before roasting or mix them with the flour for nutty fried chicken. They make a delicious coating for baked fish when mixed with equal amounts of breadcrumbs and your favorite seasonings.

To toast pecans for salads and snacking, put them on a baking sheet and bake at 300 degrees for about 10 minutes, stirring several times so that the nuts toast evenly.

These two recipes exploit pecans' savory and sweet sides: the first one is a chicken salad with some delicious differences and the second an elegant twist on traditional peanut brittle.

Chicken Salad with Pecans

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon paprika
3/4 cup pecan pieces
2 cups diced cooked chicken or turkey

Mix the mayonnaise, yogurt, onion, garlic powder, salt and paprika together. Stir in the pecans and meat until they're well coated. Serve with crackers or atop lettuce.

Pecan Brittle

2 cups sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups coarsely chopped pecans
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

Butter a baking sheet (one for thick brittle or two for thin) to pour the hot syrup on to spread and cool. You'll also need to butter the sides of a heavy three-quart pot to help prevent the sugar from sticking.

Combine the sugar, corn syrup, water, butter and salt and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. When it boils clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pot. Keep stirring. The syrup will begin to froth and bubble and will gradually turn a golden color.

When the temperature on the thermometer reaches 275 degrees (this will take about 25 minutes), add the vanilla and the pecans. Stir, making sure to coat the pecans with the syrup and watch the thermometer closely. When it reads 295 degrees, add the baking soda, stir like crazy and then pour the brittle onto the baking sheet(s). Let it cool for several minutes then use well-buttered fingers to flip the brittle over and stretch the brittle thinly, if desired.

Once it has cooled, break it into pieces. Store your brittle in a tightly closed container at room temperature for several days or freezer for up to two months.

One last tip--this one for those of you born north of the Mason-Dixon line--when in the South, please pronounce the nut "pahCAHN" not "PEEcan." Down where I live, they're two entirely different things.

Entirely.

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