Flat side down, pecans look like wooden angel wings cut by a country carver. Deep, almost parallel grooves run top to bottom, creating crunchy flavor troughs in the nutmeat. Flat side up, crisp, fiord-like grooves snake from a central furrow, creating more crisp, barely brittle surface areas.
Every little crease seems to capture sweet nuttiness. Wrinkles fold around buttery richness. No wonder these North American nuts, members of the hickory family, are delectable in everything from appetizers and salads to main courses and desserts. They offer the pizazz of walnuts, without any trace of walnut-like astringency.
Pecans rank among the nuts highest in fat. But many nutritionists contend that it is “good fat,” and when eaten in judicious amounts, can help to lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol while not affecting “good” HDL cholesterol.
Not all agree, but the good news is that you don’t need to use a lot of them to add substantial flavor and crunch to a wide variety of dishes. Here is a sampling of some of my favorite ways to use pecans.
Candied Spiced Pecans
Spiced candied pecans make a delicious garnish on tossed salads (made with robust greens such as romaine, spinach, or watercress), dressed with a simple oil-and-vinegar dressing. For extra interest, add a little crumbled blue cheese or goat cheese and sliced fruit, such as apples, pears, or oranges. They also make a wonderful snack or cocktail nibble.
Yield: 1 1/4 cups
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 1/4 cups pecan halves
1. In a small bowl, combine sugar and pepper. Set it next to the stove, along with a rimmed baking sheet and spatula.
2. In a wok or deep skillet, heat 1 1/4 cups pecan halves, about 1 minute on medium-high heat, tossing occasionally. Add half of sugar mixture and stir constantly until sugar melts, about 1 minute. Add remaining sugar mixture and stir constantly until sugar melts. Immediately turn nuts onto baking sheet. When cool enough to handle, break nuts apart and cool completely. Store airtight at room temperature. They will keep 1 1/2 weeks.
Pecan and Panko Chicken Breasts
Recently I purchased a package of chicken breasts that weighed 2 1/3 pounds. I couldn’t see through the packaging and assumed that it contained 4 boned and skinned breasts, each weighing in at around 6 to 7 ounces. But to my surprise, there were only three in the package — three very large breasts. I increased the baking time to 30 minutes due to their girth and gave guests half-breast portions. Note that this recipe called for a large deep ovenproof skillet. It’s important that it is ovenproof because the process starts on the stovetop but finishes in the oven.
Yield: 4 servings
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 cup panko (Japanese-style breadcrumbs)
1 cup finely chopped pecans
4 tablespoons butter
Coarse salt to taste
Garnishes: 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley and lemon wedges
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a rimmed plate or pie plate, stir panko and pecans to combine.
2. Melt butter in large deep ovenproof skillet on medium-high heat. Remove skillet from heat. Brush both sides of the chicken breasts with melted butter and press both sides into the panko-pecan mixture, pressing the coating onto the chicken (don’t panic if some falls off).
3. Return skillet with remaining melted butter to medium heat. Add chicken in single layer. If top portion of chicken (not the part that in against the surface of the pan) has some naked spots, cautiously press a little of the remaining panko-pecan mixture on that part. Cook chicken on one side until it browns, about 3 to 4 minutes. Turn using a thin spatula. Place skillet in preheated oven for about 22 minutes (or about 30 minutes if breasts are very large). Check for doneness; chicken breasts should be 165 degrees.
4. To plate: Place chicken breasts on 4 plates. Taste a crunchy morsel left in the pan. If it tastes yummy, spoon some over chicken. Sprinkle each serving with parsley. Add a wedge of lemon to each plate for optional use.
Gougeres with Pecans
Gougeres, French cheese puffs, are hard to beat when it comes to a tasty hors d’oeuvre to accompany cocktails or aperitifs. They are easy to prepare and very convenient if you have freezer space. I like to serve some and freeze some of the scooped dough on a parchment-lined baking sheet to bake and serve at a later time. I freeze them and then pop them into a zipper-style plastic bag and put them back in the freezer.
This recipe is augmented with chopped pecans, which adds pleasing richness to the gougeres. Its source is “Everyday Dorie” by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin, $35). Greenspan notes that her formula has a structural tweak. Instead of the usually 5 eggs used to make the dough, she uses 4 plus a white, a change that makes the puffs sturdier. In addition, she uses a small cookie scoop to form the puffs, a time-saving tip.
Yield: 55 to 65 small gougeres
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup water
4 ounces (1 stick) butter, cut into 4 pieces
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 large egg white, room temperature
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 cups coarsely grated cheese, such as Gruyere, Comte, or sharp cheddar
2/3 cup pecans, chopped
1. Position oven racks to divide oven into thirds and preheat it to 425 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats.
2. Bring the milk, water, butter and salt to a boil in medium saucepan over high heat, stirring to melt butter. Add flour all at once, lower the heat to medium and immediately start stirring energetically with a heavy spoon or whisk. The dough will form a ball and there’ll probably be a light film on the bottom of the pan. Keep stirring another 2 minutes or so to dry the dough: Dry dough will make puffy puffs.
3. Transfer dough to bowl of stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or work by hand in a large bowl with a wooden spoon and elbow grease). Let the dough sit for a minute, then add eggs one by one, followed by the white, beat until each one is incorporated before adding the next. The dough may look as through it is falling apart — just keep going and by the time the white goes in, the dough will be beautiful. Beat in mustard, followed by the cheese and pecans. Give the dough a last mix-through by hand.
4. Using a small cookie scoop (1 1/2-teaspoon size), scoop out dough (leave some extra dough on top of the scooped dough, don’t level it off) and place scooped dough on parchment lined baking sheets, leaving 2-inch spaces between them. I often find that it makes as many as 70 small gougeres.
5. Place baking sheets in preheated oven and immediately lower heat to 375 degrees. Bake 12 minutes. Rotate pans from front to back, top to bottom. Continue baking until gougeres are puffed, golden brown and firm enough to pick up, about 10 to 15 minutes. Keep an eye on them because sometimes they take as little as 8 minutes of additional baking in my oven. Serve immediately if possible, or at room temperature.
Source: Adapted from “Everyday Dorie” by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin, $35)
Cooking question? Contact Cathy Thomas at [email protected]