Pecans, pronounced either "pea-CANS" (
mainly in the Southern United States)* or "pea-CAHNS" ( in the rest of the world)* are the most common kind of nut grown on a tree. The pecan tree is native to the Mississippi River valley region in the United States. Pecans were a staple of the early Native Americans who ground the nut in breads and stews. Pecans were an important source of protein and kept well throughout the winter when food was scarce.
The United States is the largest producer of pecans in the world. Other producers include Australia, Mexico, and Brazil. Pecan trees are grown mainly in the Southern United States and are most prevalent in Georgia and Texas. Georgia is the largest producer of hybrid forms of pecans while Texas is the largest producer of native pecans. In 1919 the Texan government named the pecan tree as the Texan state tree.
Pecan trees (Carya illinoinensis) are part of the walnut and hickory family. The species name came from combining Carya, the ancient Greek word for walnut and illinoinensis for the state of Illinois where the species was first discovered. The trees grow to be about 100 to 200 feet tall, making them the tallest nut tree. The trees begin producing pecans when they are about 10 years old. The pecans are surrounded with a soft green inedible husk called a shuck. The shucks dry and peel back from the nuts as they grow. Nuts are generally harvested by shaking the tree branches, which dislodge any ripened nuts from their shucks. The nuts have a thin, oblong, brown shell that is generally removed before selling. Leftover shells are commonly used as filler for plywood.
Pecans have a wonderfully mild nutty flavor and are sweeter than walnuts. The nut can range from a light to dark brown depending on how long it was allowed to mature. Pecans are tasty on their own, but can also be used to add flavor, protein, and other nutrients to a variety of recipes. They go well with many different kinds of sweet baked goods. Pecans also mix well with a variety of grains and cheeses. If you have some extra pecans around the house you can:
Pecans are best when they are toasted, which brings out their nutty flavor. Place the nuts in a shallow baking pan and toast the nuts in a 325 degree oven. Stir the nuts often and bake until they are golden brown, about 10 minutes. Pecans can also be roasted in a dry fry pan on low heat for about 10 minutes. Be careful not to let the pecans burn, if they do toss them and start over. Roasted pecans can also be purchased but I think it's cheaper and tastier to roast your own.
Roasted, sugared pecans are also easy to make using the fry pan method. Roast about a cup of pecans as described above. Toward the end of the roasting add a couple tablespoons of sugar to the pan and stir continually for a couple of minutes. The sugar will melt and form a nice glaze that hardens when it cools. These pecans are damn good as a snack or as toppers for salads or desserts.
Pecans are very high in fat, with about 18 grams of healthy unsaturated fat per one ounce serving. They should be refrigerated or frozen to prevent spoilage.
* Both Oolong and sneff have informed me that the "pea-CAN" pronunciation is also commonly used in England, Canada, and Australia, so it would appear that those who say "pea-CAHN" like me are actually in the minority.
The Joy of Cooking