How do you pronounce pecan?
Is it PEE-can or pah-CAHN?
Kathleen Purvis has heard all the pronunciations. And they don’t bother her a bit. It’s not the word but the flavor that has made the nut a favorite of hers. She tells the story of the pecan — and her love of it — in a charming new book by the University of North Carolina Press. Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook ($18) is part of a new single-subject series that pays homage to the regional foods of the South.
Hers is a joyful — and very tasty — tribute to the ubiquitous Southern nut. Think pecan pie, pecan pralines, pecan tassies, sweet potatoes with pecans.
“It’s the No. 1 question I get at book signings,” she said with a laugh. “ ‘How do you pronounce pecan?’ I hear it within 10 to 15 seconds. People think it’s a regional difference, but it’s really not at all. It’s urban versus rural.”
Purvis grew up in a household where pecans were ever-present, if not in the baked goods then in a dressing or cheese ball or served up as a snack. As a Georgia native (the state is the leader in growing pecans) and longtime food editor at the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina, she grew into her authority on the subject one taste at a time long before she honed her sights on the history of the nut.
American Indians used wild pecans for sustenance. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson planted the trees. Early efforts in propagating pecans didn’t take off commercially until after the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 when a tree on display won a prize (in today’s terms, that would be like winning Top Chef). The Centennial pecan tree went on to become the basis for big-time production.
If there’s one pecan recipe to master, what would it be? “Pecan pie. It always makes people happy,” Purvis said in an interview. She offers four versions in her book: classic, crispy, cream and chocolate-maple. The crispy version uses cornmeal in the filling, an old Southern method, which adds a contrast — and nice buffer — to the intensely sweet flavor of the traditional pecan pie.
Pecan tips for cooks
• Toast pecans on top of the stove instead of the oven because they burn easily. Do so in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they become fragrant. If there’s a burnt one in the bunch, discard it.
• If you plan to use a lot of pecans, buy them in the shell (they are significantly cheaper). Once shelled, though, they should be stored in the freezer in heavy-duty resealable bags; they will last up to a year. Shelled pecans quickly get rancid at room temperature. If you have a lot of pecans to shell, Purvis recommends the Reed’s Rocket, a simple nut cracker available in hardware stores or online.
• Go beyond desserts in your use of pecans, Purvis says. They are also great in salads, side dishes and main dishes.
½ cup sugar
½ tsp. salt
1 tbsp. grated orange zest
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
2 large egg whites
3 tbsp. bourbon
3 cups pecan halves
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Mix the sugar, salt, orange zest and cayenne pepper in a small bowl.
Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until soft peaks form (they should curl over when the beaters are lifted). Beat in the bourbon.
Fold in the pecans with a rubber spatula until well-coated. Add the sugar mixture and fold to coat well.
Spread the pecans on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. The coating will foam up but will stir down, and the pecans will become crisp and separate as they bake.
Remove from the oven. Cool and break apart the individual nuts. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Makes 3 cups.
Note: Created as a nibble to go along with an Old-Fashioned. From Pecans, by Kathleen Purvis.
⅓ cup Boursin-style cheese (see note)
¼ cup toasted, chopped pecans
1 tbsp. chopped green onion tops
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
Combine cheese, pecans and green onions in small bowl.
Place chicken breasts on a work surface. Slide a knife point horizontally along the thickest part of the breast, making a pocket without cutting all the way through. Divide the cheese and pecan mixture between the breasts, filling the pockets.
Bring chicken breast edges together and insert a toothpick through to hold the pocket closed. Sprinkle each breast with salt and pepper.
Combine butter and oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until butter is melted. Add chicken, top-down. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes on each side, turning carefully with tongs. Remove from pan. Cover and let stand for 1 minute before serving.
Makes 4 servings.
Note: Either the herb flavor or the garlic flavor of Boursin will work for this dish. From Pecans, by Kathleen Purvis.
MICROWAVE PECAN BRITTLE
Nonstick cooking spray
½ c. light corn syrup
1 c. sugar
1 ½ c. pecan halves
1 tsp. unsalted butter
1 tsp. vanilla
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
Spray a rimmed baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. (As long as you have the spray out, spray the inside of a ½ cup measuring cup, too — it makes it easier to get the corn syrup out.)
Combine corn syrup and sugar in a 1½-quart microwave-safe baking dish. Stir until blended. Microwave on high for 4 minutes. Remove from oven and stir in the nuts. (Use oven mitts and handle the dish carefully. It will get hot as you continue to microwave the sugar mixture.)
Return to the microwave and cook for 4 to 6 minutes on high, until sugar mixture is light brown. Stir in butter, vanilla and salt. Blend well. Microwave on high for 1 to 2 minutes.
Add baking soda, sprinkling it quickly over the hot sugar. Stir gently just until foamy. Quickly pour out onto the prepared baking sheet. Let stand until completely cool. Break into pieces and store in airtight container.
Makes about 2 dozen pieces.
Note: Baking soda gives this a lighter, crispier texture than boiled-sugar brittles. Make sure you have the pan prepared and waiting before you start because as soon as you add the soda, it needs to be spread quickly. From Pecans, by Kathleen Purvis.