Key Ingredient

Eleanor Nakama-Mitsunaga


Whether you refer to this nut as "PEE-can" or "pe-KAWN" is purely your choice, although a national survey by the National Pecan Shellers Association revealed that "PEE-can" is the overwhelming choice across the United States. However you choose to say it, the pecan is a favorite nut this time of the year.

The basics: Pecans are a member of the hickory family native to North America. The name is a Native American word used to describe nuts requiring a stone to crack open. The nut was used by many native tribes in the United States and Mexico as a major source of food in the fall.

Pecans are grown throughout the United States, doing best in the temperate climates of the southeast and southwestern states of Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas, to name a few.

The nut is encased in a smooth, light brown, oblong shell that is thin and relatively easy to crack. The nut itself is golden brown and marked with distinctive ridges. It ranges in size from mammoth to midget, depending on variety. Pecans have a mild, sweet, buttery flavor that is prized in many southern states.

The nut has also been found to be a heart-healthy source of unsaturated fat, with some studies showing it can also help to lower cholesterol.

Selecting: Shelled pecans are found throughout the year, but the unshelled variety is popular during fall and winter.

Unshelled pecans are sold by the pound and are usually found in a mix with walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and Brazil nuts. Look for shells that are clean and unblemished. Watch out for cracks, as those nuts may be decayed. Also, pecans shouldn't rattle when their shells are shaken.

Storing: Because of their high fat content, pecans will go rancid faster in hot and humid conditions. Store unshelled nuts in an airtight container in a cool and dry area for several months. Shelled nuts may be stored in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for a month or two, or freeze nuts for up to six months.

Use: Pecans are most often associated with the classic pecan pie and other desserts and candies, such as pralines and turtles. But they also can be used in salads and stuffings, or finely chopped as a crumb topping for chicken, fish or pork dishes.

Where to buy: Pecans are available year-round in most supermarkets, with unshelled nuts available now through December. Prices range from $6 to $9 for various shelled packages and $5 to $7 a pound for unshelled.

Eleanor Nakama-Mitsunaga is
a free-lance food writer. Contact her
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