Pecans — think beyond the pie

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and author of “The Slim Down South Cookbook.” Email her at carolyn@carolynoneil.com.

Traditional pecan pie may have met its match because creative cooks are introducing new ways to showcase the popular nut. Pecans can be used from soup to nuts. Gathered at a culinary event organized by the National Pecan Shellers Association (NPSA), professional chefs rose to the recipe challenge. Think beyond sugar-laden pecan pies and pecan praline candies. “Europeans often ask me, ‘Why is it you take such a healthy product and turn it into such an unhealthy product?’ so I’m very interested in the recipes developed here,” said Bruce Caris of the Green Valley Pecan Company and chairman of the NPSA. The second culinary challenge — rather than relying on perfect pecan halves — invent sweet and savory dishes using pecan pieces and pecan meal. “We need to educate culinarians how to use the lesser known pecan ingredients,” said Christian Hallowell, executive chef for Delta Air Lines.

Some of the first recipes demonstrated by Leif Eric Benson, chef for Oregon’s Department of Agriculture, included a soup of pureed pecan pieces flavored with chipotle peppers and roasted lamb with a topping of pecan pieces cooked with garlic and thyme.

“Pecan pieces are very absorbent and pick up the flavors of spices when cooking,” said Benson.

Other inventive uses in the culinary world include using pecan meal as a meat extender or substitute. “Pecans can be used as a protein ingredient and we made a meatless, all pecan pate today,” said Hallowell. “You roast and grind the pecan pieces to make a plant-based protein dish.”

Trent Page, chef for Google at the company’s You Tube headquarters, created a recipe for a miso pecan vinaigrette salad dressing using pecan pieces and pecan oil. But, when menu changes affect thousands of employees, he’s aware allergies must be considered. “You have to be transparent in menu signage because tree nut allergies are very serious,” said Page.

Pecans, like other tree nuts including walnuts and almonds, are an excellent source of heart healthy fats and are rich in protein and a good source of fiber as well as other nutrients including vitamin E and potassium. What sets pecans apart from the rest of the nut pack is that they are the only nut native to North America and compared to other tree nuts have the highest concentration of antioxidants, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Count 196 calories for one ounce of pecans, about 15-20 halves or a handful.