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Recipes and Stories

9 November 2015: Roasted Pecans

Slow-roasted pecans make an ideal savory nibble for fall and holiday entertaining: they're simple to make, keep well, and are pretty much irresistible. Photography by John Carrington

One of the best features of the house where we live is an enormous old pecan tree that canopies our entire back yard. Despite its age, that tree is still prolific, although we’re lucky to get more than a few handfuls of its nuts. Mostly that tree just shades the yard and helps me mark the seasons from my office window.

The problem is that the yard it shades is also a playground and free cafeteria for a motley assortment of spoiled, fat, urban squirrels. They greedily start chewing into the green pecans long before they’re ready to eat, spoiling more of them than they consume – and they each easily put away several times their weight in them.

Fortunately, they do miss a few, and the ones we glean are fat, meaty, and delicious, perfect for eating right out of their shells. They would also lovely for cooking, but since we rarely beat the squirrels to enough of them to use in the kitchen, we mostly just pile them into a bowl and save them for snacking.

The pecans that I do cook therefore come mostly from a store, so it’s a good thing that we live in Georgia, one of the largest producers of this native nut in America. They’re already shelled and cost a bit more than the time and effort of cracking, shelling, and picking them, but they’re still not quite the expensive luxury that they are in other parts of the country. I can afford to use them almost as generously in my kitchen as my mother did when I was growing up.

It may surprise you to know that pecan pie is not one of the ways that I do use them. While it may be to the South what baklava is to the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, pecan pie is not my favorite thing. Actually, although I do occasionally use this quintessentially Southern nut in fruitcakes, shortbread, salads, and sometimes in the dressing for the Thanksgiving turkey, I mostly just offer them slowly roasted in butter as a before-dinner or between-meals nibble for company. Simply sprinkled with salt and perhaps a little chopped rosemary, they’re pretty much irresistible, especially when they’re still warm from the oven.

Roasted Pecans

The secret to successfully roasting pecans or any other kind of nut is the very same as the secret to good barbecue: low and slow. They may take longer than the quick, hot roast that is more usual, but the time they do take is mostly unattended. It’s a method I learned from friend and colleague Martha Nesbit.

You can roast up to 4 pounds at one time. Choose a large, deep-rimmed pan that will hold the nuts in no more than two layers. A 9-by-13-inch sheet-cake pan is perfect for up to 2 pounds. For larger quantities, choose a large rimmed baking sheet or use two smaller pans side by side. Sometimes, especially when they’ll be served warm, I’ll add a tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary during the last few minutes of roasting.

Makes 1 Pound, serving 4-8 people, depending on how polite they are

1 pound whole pecan halves (or other nuts; see note)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (no substitutes)

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat to 275° F. Spread the pecans on a wide, deep-rimmed pan. Roast them in the center of the oven, stirring occasionally until they begin to color, about 45 minutes to an hour. The nuts will continue to darken and crisp as they cool, so don’t let them get too dark

2. Cut the butter in bits, and add it to the pecans. Stir until it has just melted and the nuts are evenly coated. Return them to the oven and toast for about 10 minutes more.

3. Salt the pecans to taste while they are still hot and toss them until they are uniformly coated. Usually, the pecans are allowed to cool completely before serving, but in the winter, I serve them still toasty-warm from the oven. To store them (assuming you have very strange company and actually have leftovers), make sure the pecans are completely cool and place them in a tightly sealed container, such as a glass jar, a plastic storage bowl, or a tin box.
Note: You can follow this recipe to toast almost any nut—almonds, cashews, filberts, and walnuts all work well. The cooking time is the same for all of them.

Recipe adapted from Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches (2nd Edition, Globe Pequot Press), copyright 2014 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved.

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