Source: Georgia Pecan Commission, georgiapecans.org
In “The Pecan: A History of America’s Native Nut” (University of Texas Press, $20), writer and historian James McWilliams chronicles the fascinating rise of the familiar and delicious foodstuff known as the buttery main ingredient in Southern staples such as pralines and pecan pie.
It turns out, pecans were an essential part of the Native American diet — by some calculations, an average pecan harvest had the food value of 150,000 bison. And because of its quirky habits and ease of harvesting, the pecan was left in its natural state longer than any other commercial fruit or nut crop in America.
But once it was selected for agricultural “improvement” in the 19th century, it took less than a century for it to become almost totally domesticated. Most dramatically of all Southern pecan-growing states, Georgia went from 30,000 trees in 1900 to 2,368,000 in 1925.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the pecan is native to Texas and Louisiana, but not Georgia. Asked about that, McWilliams, who grew up in Atlanta and graduated from Marist before earning degrees from Georgetown, Texas and Johns Hopkins, laughs a bit.
“I think what’s really fascinating is that people do associate pecans with Georgia,” McWilliams says. “Probably even more than Texas. It says a lot about our agriculture and food culture. A tree that never grew naturally in Georgia became one of the most economically and geographically significant aspects of the Georgia landscape.”
Of course, McWilliams also recounts how the “gold standard for pecan pie” came from Georgia, specifically, the Magnolia Room in Rich’s Department Store in downtown Atlanta.
“The tearoom served a pecan pie so immensely popular that a baker — an African-American woman named Callie Williams — was employed full time six days a week to do nothing but bake pecan pies. In 1948, she pulled 28,960 pecan pies from her oven.”
More than six decades later, pecan pie is still on restaurant menus all over Atlanta. But with contemporary explorations of Southern cooking and an emphasis on regional and seasonal ingredients, the pecan has found a place in many new recipes and dishes, from imaginative starters and soups to entrees and even cocktails.
E.J. Hodgkinson, executive chef at Atlanta’s JCT Kitchen & Bar, is a California native who has embraced Southern food while becoming especially fond of the pecan.
“I grew up where there are tons of walnuts,” Hodgkinson says. “I didn’t get much experience with pecans until I came east. But I remember tasting pecans when I was younger and thinking they were one of the better nuts.
“They are round and tasty, and from variety to variety they are slightly different. Every walnut is tannic. That’s basically what you taste. But pecans can be sweet and dynamic.”
We asked Hodgkinson to come up with some recipes using pecans. He decided to go one better and create a three-course pecan feast, including Pecan Apple Soup With Oyster Mushroom Garnish, Pecan Pork Schnitzel With Beet and Pecan Confiture, and Pecan Blondies With Candied Pecan Ice Cream. JCT beverage manager Eduardo Guzman helped start the party with a pecan cocktail recipe.
These pecan recipes from JCT Kitchen & Bar executive chef E.J. Hodgkinson celebrate America’s native nut in savory and sweet dishes with Southern twists.
Pecan Apple Soup With Oyster Mushroom Garnish
Hands on: 20 minutes
Total time: 60 minutes
Inspired by late winter, Hodgkinson blends pecans, apples and brandy with bacon and cream, recalling the flavor of classic chestnut soup with a Southern twist. Local oyster mushrooms provide an earthy garnish.
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
6 strips bacon, roughly chopped
3 apples, peeled, seeded and diced
3 tablespoons honey
1 cup toasted pecans
1/4 cup brandy
4 cups chicken stock
2 sprigs thyme
1 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1-2 tablespoons salt
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter, add onion, garlic and bacon, and saute until soft, 8-10 minutes. Add apples, honey and pecans, and saute until light brown and beginning to caramelize. Remove from heat and add brandy to deglaze the pan. Immediately add chicken stock and thyme sprigs, and bring to a simmer. Cook until all ingredients are soft, about 20 minutes. Add heavy cream, cook an additional 5 minutes and remove from heat. Working in small batches, place cooked ingredients in a blender, and puree until smooth. While blending, add remaining butter, and cider vinegar and salt for seasoning. Keep warm, and top with Oyster Mushroom Garnish to serve.
Oyster Mushroom Garnish
Makes: 1 cup
Hands on: 15 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 pound oyster mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 strips bacon, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 sprig thyme
1/4 lemon, juiced
Salt to taste
In a saute pan, add butter, oyster mushrooms and bacon, and saute until bacon is rendered and becoming crispy. Drain fat. Add garlic, thyme sprig and lemon juice, allow to cook until the liquid in the pan has almost dissipated, and season with salt to taste.
Per serving (for soup with garnish): 540 calories (percent of calories from fat, 70), 14 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 44 grams fat (18 grams saturated), 90 milligrams cholesterol, 1,338 milligrams sodium.
Pecan Pork Schnitzel With Beet and Pecan Confiture
Hands on: 40 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes plus 4 hours for brining
Hodgkinson’s dressed-up take on classic German schnitzel uses local Gum Creek Farms Berkshire pork, but other pork may be substituted. Toasted pecans are incorporated for flavor and texture in the crust. And pecan pieces add another dimension to a sweet, bright beet confiture.
For the brine:
1/2 gallon water
1/2 cup salt
1 bunch parsley
3 sprigs thyme
1 lemon quartered
3 cloves garlic
For the schnitzel:
1 1/2 pounds Berkshire pork loin cut into 4 equal piece slices
1 cup pecans
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 cup flour
3 eggs, whisked
1 quart canola and olive oil blend, for frying
In a large stockpot, combine the water, salt, parsley, thyme, lemon and garlic. Bring to a boil, strain and cool. Place pork pieces in brine and refrigerate for a minimum of 4 hours.
In a food processor, pulse the pecans and panko breadcrumbs until smooth.
Set up 3 equal-sized containers. Fill one with flour, one with eggs and one with panko-pecan mixture. Season each container lightly with salt and pepper.
Remove pork from the brine, pat dry with paper towels. Place 1 piece of pork at a time into a plastic bag, and using a mallet or bottom of small saute pan, pound as thinly as possible — approximately 1/8 of an inch. Dredge in flour, followed by egg, and, finally, panko-pecan mix and transfer to a sheet pan.
In a large skillet, add oil equal to 1 inch and bring to medium high heat. Gently drop 1 pork piece at time into the oil and fry until golden brown, turning once during cooking process. Transfer to a paper towel-lined pan and keep warm.
To serve: Season with salt to taste, garnish with Beet and Pecan Confiture and Candied Pecans, and serve with grainy mustard.
Per serving: 1,017 calories (percent of calories from fat, 60), 47 grams protein, 55 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 67 grams fat (13 grams saturated), 503 milligrams cholesterol, 1,338 milligrams sodium.
Beet and Pecan Confiture
Makes: 3 cups
Hands on: 40 minutes
Total time: 60 minutes
1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
6 medium-size baby beets, peeled and diced
1/2 onion, small dice
1/2 cup pecan pieces
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/8 cup capers
1 teaspoon dry mustard
Salt to taste
In a small saucepan, combine canola oil, beets and onions, and sweat until onions are softening. Add pecans and continue to sweat as beets begin to soften. Add brown sugar and slowly begin to caramelize. Once sugar has caramelized, add cider vinegar, capers and dry mustard. Cook until all ingredients are homogeneous, and season with salt to taste. Serve at room temperature with Candied Pecans as garnish to schnitzel.
Per serving: 234 calories (percent of calories from fat, 53), 3 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 15 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 139 milligrams sodium.
Makes: 3 cups
Hands on: 40 minutes
Total time: 90 minutes
Hodgkinson’s master recipe for candied pecans begins by blanching in order to soften the nuts and remove the bitter tannin. The result is a sweet, crispy delight.
3 cups pecans
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
Preheat oven to 225.
Bring 2 quarts water to a boil, drop pecans into water and simmer until soft, about 25 minutes. Drain water, place pecans on baking tray, and place in oven approximately 25 minutes until dry but not toasted. Remove from oven. Heat oven to 330. Place pecans in metal bowl and toss with sugar and salt, return to baking tray and place in oven. Using rubber spatula, stir every 7-10 minutes for 35 minutes. Pecans should appear golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool, break apart and serve.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 114 calories (percent of calories from fat, 68), 1 gram protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 9 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 267 milligrams sodium.
Makes: 16 (2-by-2-inch) squares
Hands on: 10 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Hodgkinson’s chewy “bake sale” blondies are simple, sweet, salty and delicious topped with Candied Pecan Ice Cream.
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
Preheat oven to 350.
Grease 8-by-10-inch pan with pan spray.
In a mixing bowl, stir together melted butter and sugar until smooth. Add egg, vanilla extract and salt and stir to combine. Add flour and pecans and stir to combine. Pour batter into greased baking pan and bake for 20 minutes. Allow to cool and cut into squares.
Per square: 181 calories (percent of calories from fat, 52), 2 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 11 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 24 milligrams cholesterol, 83 milligrams sodium.
Candied Pecan Ice Cream
Makes: 1 quart
Hands on: 30 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes plus 4 hours for freezing
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/8 cups sugar
3 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 cup Candied Pecans
In a large bowl, cream milk and sugar until sugar is dissolved. Add heavy cream and vanilla extract, place in ice cream freezer canister, and spin until semi-hard consistency is achieved. Add 1 cup Candied Pecans and spin to incorporate until ice cream is thick and creamy.
Pack ice cream into storage container and seal with airtight lid. Freeze until firm, at least 4 hours.
Per 1/2-cup serving: 544 calories (percent of calories from fat, 71), 4 grams protein, 37 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 44 grams fat (22 grams saturated), 129 milligrams cholesterol, 56 milligrams sodium.
Cabin Fever Cocktail
Makes: 1 cocktail
Hands on: 5 minutes
Total time: 5 minutes
This spicy, aromatic cocktail from JCT beverage manager Eduardo Guzman starts with oranges and Cathead pecan vodka and ends with a freshly grated nutmeg.
2 orange slices
1 1/2 ounces Cathead pecan vodka
1/2 ounce Jim Beam white label bourbon
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1 bar spoon King’s Ginger liqueur
3 dashes Fee Brothers Aztec chocolate bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Freshly grated nutmeg for garnish
In a mixing glass, muddle 2 orange slices. Add remaining ingredients with ice and stir until combined. Strain into a rocks glass with ice. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.
Per serving: 151 calories