In autumn, my mother's friends always came visiting with baskets over their arms. That was in North Carolina, where the pecans fell from the trees, and friends who wanted a supply for the holidays would help themselves.
We had the two main varieties -- native pecans (roundish, with a hard shell) and papershells, which are longer and have thinner shells. Demand was high for our papershell pecans: They were large and meaty, and not so pesky to shell as the native variety.
Happily, the biggest tree in the yard was the papershell pecan, and until it grew very old, the crop was always abundant.
As a child, I watched those pecans grow from the vantage point of a rope swing suspended from one of the tree's lower limbs. First the tree would put out little tassel-like blossoms, which caused a drift of yellowish pollen that reached and covered the back porch and steps. It put me to work with a broom. Then the small pecans formed, and as they grew in their greenish, leathery shells, they looked like miniature footballs. In the fall, when the nuts were ripe, the outer shell would spread apart and the pecans would fall to the ground. Stiff wind would hasten the harvest, and so would climbing the tree and shaking the limbs. That was a pecan-related job that was more fun than sweeping pollen off the porch. (Prudent pickers would first spread old sheets under the tree to simplify the harvest.)
Pecan trees grow to great sizes, and they are popular not only for their rich yield of nuts, but for their splendid shade. It is a rare farmhouse (where growing conditions are right) in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas that does not have a few pecan trees in the yard.
At one time pecans were practically unknown outside the South and Southwest. Pecan groves in the South and Southwest ship pecans all over the world. The American Indians gathered pecans in the wild and not only ate them at once, but stored them for the hard winter months. In fact, "pecan" comes from the Indian pakan, meaning "hard-shelled nut."
It is said that Thomas Jefferson planted pecan trees at Monticello, and gave pecan saplings to George Washington for planting at Mount Vernon. Today, there are hundreds of varieties growing in the pecan groves of America.
Pecans deserve their widespread and growing popularity, as they are high-energy food, rich in protein, phosphorous, thiamine and unstructured fats; they also provide iron, Vitamin A, calcium and traces of Vitamin C. Besides being an excellent food to eat as is, pecans are adaptable in a great range of main dishes, salads, breads, cakes, cookies and desserts, snacks, relishes, candy and more.
Although fall is harvest time for pecans, they are available all year 'round -- in the shell and shelled, salted and canned, and in a variety of prepared foods. Because of a fairly high fat content, improperly stored pecans will become rancid. However, pecans in the shell, stored at 32 to 38 degrees, will stay fresh for up to a year. Pecan meats freeze perfectly, and will keep almost indefinitely in your freezer. Shelled pecans in covered jars or containers will also stay fresh for months in the refrigerator.
If you're wondering how many pounds of pecans you need to buy for your purposes, here is a rule of thumb: 2 1/2 pounds of native pecans in the shell will yield 1 pound of meats: 2 pounds of papershell pecans in the shell will yield 1 pound of meats. Picking out pecan nutmeats takes time but is not difficult. (It is a "busy work" task often assigned to youngsters during the holidays.) Most papershell pecans can be cracked by squeezing two of the nuts together in one hand, or by using a nutcracker. If it is important that the pecans be picked out in perfect halves, it is easier to accomplish this if the nuts are covered with boiling water and allowed to stand about 30 minutes. But it isn't foolproof -- picking the pecan halves out perfectly requires patience.
In addition to traditional recipes such as pecan pie, pecan stuffing for poultry and butter pecan ice cream, a look at regional cookbooks shows that pecans are popular in a wealth of dishes, from border to border. As my mother and her friends gathered pecans in our back yard, they swapped recipes -- everything from soup to, yes, pecans. PECAN STUFFING FOR TURKEY, CAPON OR ROASTING CHICKEN (Makes 12 cups) Turkey, capon or roasting chicken 4 cups water 2 stalks celery 1 peeled carrot, cut into 1/2-inch slices 1 small onion, cut into quarters 1 cup butter or margarine 2 cups thinly sliced celery 2 cups chopped onions 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley 1 cup long-grain rice 4 cups small torn cornbread pieces 2 cups small torn whole-wheat bread pieces 2 cups chopped pecans 2 4-ounce cans mushroom stems and pieces, undrained 3 teaspoons poultry seasoning 1 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper
Combine turkey, capon or roasting chicken neck and gizzard, water, stalks of celery, carrot slices and onion quarters in saucepan, cover and simmer gently until gizzard is tender. Set aside to cool stock. Discard vegetables and neck piece. Cut gizzard into small pieces.
Melt 1/2 cup butter or margarine in frying pan. Add sliced celery, chopped onions and parsley; cook over low heat until tender but not brown. Set aside. Brown rice in remaining 1/2 cup butter in frying pan or dutch oven. Add poultry stock and enough water to make 3 cups liquid.
Simmer 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Combine in large mixing bowl the breads, celery-onion mixture, rice and stock, pecans, mushrooms and seasonings. Mix well. Season cavity of bird with salt; stuff loosely with dressing; skewer and roast poultry as desired. MEAT LOAF WITH PECAN STUFFING (10 servings) 1 1/2 pounds ground beef 1/2 cup chopped green pepper 1/2 cup chopped onion 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce 1 cup white bread crumbs 1/2 cup milk 2 eggs 1/4 cup butter 2 cups whole-wheat bread crumbs 1/2 cup chopped celery 1/4 teaspoon black pepper 3/4 cup meat stock or water 1/2 cup chopped pecans
Combine beef, green pepper, onion, salt, worcestershire, white bread crumbs, milk and 1 egg. Mix thoroughly. Place half of this mixture in bottom of greased 9-by-5-by-2 1/2 inch loaf pan.
Combine 1 egg, butter, whole-wheat bread crumbs, celery, black pepper and meat stock or water. Add chopped pecans and mix thoroughly. Spread on top of meat mixture. Arrange remaining meat mixture on top of pecan stuffing. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 1/2 hours and cool slightly before removing from pan. PECAN STUFFED PEPPERS (6 servings) 6 green peppers, seeded and cored 1 1/2 cups cooked rice 1 1/2 cups chopped pecans 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 3/4 cup tomato juice 3 tablespoons shortening 2 pounds ground beef 1 1/2 tablespoons minced onion 3 tablespoons celery, chopped fine 3/4 cup water or 3/4 cup tomato juice
Boil green peppers, which have been seeded and cored, until just tender enough to prick with a fork. Drain and keep warm. Make stuffing by combining rice, pecans, salt and tomato juice. Melt shortening and saute' beef, onion and celery.
Mix meat mixture with rice mixture, stirring thoroughly but with minimum handling. Stuff peppers and place in greased baking pan. Pour 3/4 cup of water or 3/4 cup tomato juice into pan around peppers. Bake for 1/2 hour and serve with a chili or tomato sauce. FRENCH BUTTER PECAN SAUCE (Makes 1 cup) 1/2 cup butter, melted 2 tablespoons chives 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1/4 teaspoon marjoram 2 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice 1/2 cup chopped pecans
Combine all ingredients; heat to blend flavors. Serve over cooked vegetables. PECAN-CRANBERRY RELISH (Makes about 6 cups) 4 cups fresh cranberries 2 seeded, quartered unpeeled oranges 2 cups sugar 1 cup fresh pecans, broken
Put cranberries and oranges through coarse grinder or chop coarsely in blender or food processor. Add sugar and pecans, mixing well. Store in covered container in your refrigerator. Relish will keep several weeks. BANANA PECAN CAKE (Makes 2 9-inch layers) 1/2 cup shortening 1 1/2 cups sugar 2 eggs 3/4 cup mashed bananas 2 cups sifted cake flour 1/4 teaspoon baking powder 3/4 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/4 cup buttermilk 3/4 cup chopped pecans Whipped cream or 7-minute frosting for top and sides of cake
Cream shortening. Add sugar gradually; cream well. Add eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Add bananas. Sift together flour, baking powder, soda and salt. Combine vanilla with buttermilk and add to banana mixture alternately with dry ingredients. Stir in pecans.
Pour into two greased 9-inch cake pans and bake for 30 to 35 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove from pans and cool. Spread whipped cream between layers and on top and sides of cake, or frost with 7-minute frosting. PECAN PIE CRUST (Makes a 9-inch crust) 2 cups flour 1 teaspoon salt 2/3 cup shortening 4 tablespoons cold water 1 cup finely chopped pecans
Sift flour and salt together. Cut in shortening, sprinkle water over mixture. Mix with a fork. Press into smooth ball. Divide and roll two crusts. Sprinkle pecans over top and roll again lightly, being careful not to tear pastry. Fit one crust into a 9-inch pie pan and pour in filling. Top with the other crust. Good for apple pie. ORANGE PECAN BREAD (Makes 1 loaf) 1 egg 1 cup orange juice 1 cup raisins, finely cut 1 tablespoon grated orange rind 2 tablespoons shortening, melted and cooled slightly 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 cups sifted flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 cup sugar 1 cup pecans, chopped
Beat egg, stir in orange juice, raisins, orange rind, shortening and vanilla. Sift flour, baking powder, soda, salt and sugar into liquid mixture. Mix well. Stir in pecans. Pour into well-greased 5-by-9-by-2 1/2-inch loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. PECAN WAFFLES (Makes 6 to 8 waffles) 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 3 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 3/4 cup chopped pecans 2 eggs, separated 1 1/2 cups milk 6 tablespoons shortening, melted
Sift together dry ingredients and add pecans. Beat egg yolks until light; combine with milk and melted shortening and add to dry ingredients, mixing just until smooth. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into batter. Bake in hot waffle iron. BARBECUED PECANS (Makes 2 cups) 1 tablespoon butter or margarine 2 cups pecans 1/3 teaspoon hot pepper sauce 1/2 cup worcestershire sauce 1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
Heat butter or margarine over low heat; add pecans and parch slightly. Combine hot pepper sauce, worcestershire sauce and garlic salt. Add 1 tablespoon of sauce and salt mixture slowly to saucepan and stir. Continue adding sauce slowly until pecans have absorbed most of liquid and are well coated.