Pecans are the nuts harvested from native hickory trees found throughout the north, northeastern ,southern, and southern south western United States, and Mexico. Pecans have been a part of the native American diet long before European explorers arrived in the Americas. These elegant native hickory trees can grow over a hundred feet tall and live for more than a thousand years. The name pecan comes from the Algonquin Indian word pacane, meaning a nut that needs to be cracked with a stone.
Thomas Jefferson planted native hickory trees at his home “Monticello” in Virginia and shared some of his hickory nuts with George Washington who planted them at his Mount Vernon home.
The first successful grafting of native hickory trees was done by a slave gardener named Antoine at Oak Alley Plantation in Southern Louisiana around 1846 and a pecan industry was born. Today Georgia, Louisianan, and Texas produce about 80% of the world’s pecan supply, while Mexico produces the remaining 20%.
Pecans still reign supreme with home cooks and bakers throughout the American south. Favorite recipes include southern pecan pies, pecan pralines from New Orleans, pecans topping baked sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving dinners, and of course butter pecan ice cream and gilato. All these southern delights go hand in hand with hickory wood smoked Texas barbecues, a Louisiana Cajun gumbo or jambalaya, or a Gulf Coast shrimp crab and crayfish boil. This is real southern food you’ve got to love!
Pecans pack a load of healthy benefits as well. They are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Organic pecans are available from specialty shops and online. Pecans are a must have essential to keep on hand in your larder. Pecans are delicious roasted and salted, dded to salads, ground for coating baked poultry or fish, and of course for heavenly baked goods.
These butter pecan cookies are easy to make and a perfect accompaniment when served with a butter pecan gelato or for a summery peach and strawberry pecan short cake.
Butter Pecan Cookies makes 24 cookies
preheat oven to 350 f/180 c with the rack set in the middle position
Have ready 2 baking sheets lined with parchment
For the pecans:
- 2 tablespoons salted butter
- 1½ cups whole pecan halves
- 2 teaspoons light brown sugar
For the cookies:
- ¾ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ¾ cup light brown sugar
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 large egg
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon corn starch
- ½ teaspoon flaked / or kosher salt
To prepare pecans melt 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter in a small sauce pan set over medium heat. Swirl the pan until the butter begins to color. Then lower the heat a bit and continue swilling the butter until it is a medium amber color. Add the brown sugar and swirl the pan until the sugar has melted. Promptly remove the pan from the heat and add the pecans. Gently turn the pecans in the browned butter until evenly coated. Set aside to cool for a couple of minutes.
Then give the pecans another turn in the butter mixture, and pick out the pecans and spread them out on a parchment lined baking sheet. Transfer to the preheated oven and toast the pecans for about 8 minutes.
Remove the toasted pecans from the oven and set aside to cool. Once the pecans have cooled set 24 pecans aside to use later. Then chop the remaining pecans and set them aside to use for the cookie dough later.
For the cookies:
Place the unsalted butter in a mixing bowl. Using a hand mixer whip the butter on medium speed until fluffy. Then add the brown sugar and granulated sugar and whip until the mixture is light and fluffy.
Place the egg in a small bowl along with the vanilla extract and whisk until combined.
Add the egg mixture to the butter mixture and mix on medium speed until incorporated.
Combine the flour, baking soda, corn starch, and salt in a bowl and mix with a spoon until combined.
With the mixer set on low speed add a third of the flour mixture and mix until combined. Ad the remaining flour mixture in two additions until combined. Scrape off the excess dough on the mixer blades and add to the dough.
Then using a silicone spatula fold the chopped pecans into the dough until evenly combined.
Take two tablespoons of the dough and roll it between the palms of your hands to form an even ball. Place on the parchment lined baking sheet. Form the remaining dough into balls and place them on the baking sheet, allowing about 3 inches between each ball of dough, generally 9 to 12 cookies to a tray.
Gently flatten the balls of dough just slightly and top with a pecan placed in the center of each cookie.
Transfer the cookies to the oven and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, rotating the tray after 5 minutes to insure even baking. The cookies will be lightly browned and will be soft, but not to worry. They will firm up as they cool. Be mindful of your timing s over backing will dry the cookies out!
Promptly remove the cookies from the oven and set them aside for a few minutes to firm up. Then transfer them to a cooling rack and set aside to cool to room temperature.
Store the cooled cookies in an air tight container for several days or refrigerate for longer storage.
Apple butter is essentially a slow cooked apple sauce with a few spices thrown in. As the applesauce cooks the sugar from the apples caramelizes and reduces into a thick deep amber “butter.” Traditionally spread on breads in place of butter, thus the name apple “butter.”
Apple butter is a household staple where I grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch (Deuitch) country although its origins are rooted in Europe. In Germany it is called Apfel Kraut, and in the Netherlands Appel Stroop.
Apple butter recipes came to America with German speaking Lutherans, Reformed, and Anti-baptist religious groups from Germany, France, and Switzerland when they immigrated to the United states in late 17th century. The settlers chose Southeastern Pennsylvania for is rich soil that was suitable for the farming practices they used in Europe. Both Amish and Mennonite farm communities were established which exist, mostly unchanged, to this day. Not only did these settlers introduce their sustainable farming methods in Pennsylvania, but also their hearty Pennsylvania Dutch cooking!
Apple butter is actually very easy to make and has endless applications beyond being spread on bread which is irresistibly good by the way. It is also a heady addition to pies, pastries, slow roasted meats, BBQ sauces, salad dressings, or served along with farm made cheeses. Try adding apple butter tossed in with your apples the next time you’re baking an apple pie. The results are transformative!
Traditionally apple butter is “put up” in the fall on Pennsylvania Dutch farms to last until the next apple harvest. Likewise, this is one pantry staple you will find you will want to have on hand year round, I promise.
Pennsylvania Dutch Apple Butter
Makes about 3 cups
- 2 lbs./1 kilo firm crisp juicy apples
- 2 cups/500ml apple cider or apple juice
- 1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon flaked sea salt
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon Saigon cinnamon (or other variety) Note: about Saigon Cinnamon (click here)
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Peel, core, quarter, and chop the apples and place them in a nonreactive oven proof braising pan. Add the cider (or apple juice), the brown sugar, and salt and stir to combine. Place over medium heat on the stove top and when simmering partially cover the pan and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the apples are very soft, about 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 250f/130c
Remove the pan from the stove and allow to cool for a few minutes. Then blend the apples along with the liquid using a hand held immersion blender, or transfer the apples and liquid to a blender, and blend until the mixture is completely smooth with the consistency of apple sauce.
Stir in the lemon juice, cinnamon, and cloves until combined and transfer the pan to the oven, uncovered, and bake for several hours, stirring every 30 minutes. The mixture will slowly turn an amber color as the sugar caramelizes and the liquid reduces. I’ve found it generally takes about 3 hours, but every oven is different, so keep an eye on it until apple butter reaches a deep amber color with a thick spreadable consistency.
Remove the pan from the oven and set on a wire rack to cool to room temperature.
For storage: Sterilize a couple of jars along with their lids with boiling water. Spoon the apple butter into the jars, seal tightly, and refrigerate for up to about a month.
For longer storage follow standard hot water bath canning procedures and when sealed and cooled to room temperature, store in a dark place in your pantry for up to a year.
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Quick and Easy Midsummer Meals
Here we are in the middle of summer, already!
With a month long hiatus sequestered in the studio working on a large painting that seemed to go on and on, I realized that with the summer heat and little time to spare, cooking light nourishing fare with the added perk of reheating for a repeat performance was the way to go.
No need to be slaving away in the kitchen while summer passes you by!
Dukkah, “to pound” in Arabic, is a traditional Egyptian spice mix that is trending across the globe thanks to the Australians who took to this exotic blend, brought to Australia by Arabic immigrants, and beamed it to the rest of the western world. You can even find Dukkah at Trader Joe’s in America for $26 for 3.3 oz., but why not have some fun and make your own at a fraction of the cost?
Dukkah is a blend of pounded dry roasted nuts, seeds, spices, pepper, and salt. From there you can expand the mix with additions of dried herbs, chilies, chick pea flour (also lentil flour), and pinches of aromatic spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, or clove. This really is a cook’s moment to get creative and come up with your very own house blend. Wonderful sprinkled over soups, salads, vegetables, grains, and as a spice rub for meats and seafood.
I would suggest trying the basic recipe the first time around and then expand the recipe to suit your own taste preferences. You will surely become addicted to Dukkah and want to keep some on hand to dress up those quick summer meals.
While the recipe that follows may seem complicated, it actually is not, and once you’ve put it up you are all set to try it out in a myriad of ways. A quick summer meal with Dukkah roasted chicken breasts will follow in my next post.
Za-atar, a regional spice mix that has been used throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa for centuries has suddenly become the it condiment of the moment. Popularized by cookbook authors and restaurateurs including Paula wolfort, Nigella Lawson, and Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi in their Jerusalem Cookbook.
Za’atar is as elusive as it is exotic! The essential ingredients are sumac, sesame seeds, and salt. Simple enough, but from there added regional ingredients vary widely, so attempting to make za’atar at home can be a western cooks conundrum. I have tried various variations without actually encountering an authentic za’atar from the region. Thankfully, a dear friend, who was off to London, armed with a sourcing list, went za’atar shopping for me and returned with a treasure trove of authentic za’atar and sumac from Comtoir Libanais. The Comtoir Libanais za’atar is robust, colorful, delightfully tasty, and addictive. I highly recommend a visit to their website.They also recently released a cookbook for those of you eager for further explorations into the foods of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The key ingredients in the recipe that follows are sumac, with a tart citrus taste, and wild thyme (similar to hyssop), with a sharp almost astringent flavor, found mostly in the Eastern Mediterranean. Neither is readily available other than from online spice purveyors, but some reasonable substitutes of my own are listed below.
- 1/4 cup fresh wild thyme leaves (lemon thyme, hyssop, or oregano are reasonable substitutes)
- 2 tablespoons powdered sumac powder (sour mango powder a reasonable substitute, available at South Asian purveyors)
- 1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt+ more to taste
- 1-2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- ½ teaspoon ground red chili powder (or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne), optional
Preheat the oven to 250F/130C
Strip the fresh wild thyme leaves off the stem, discarding the stems. Place the leaves on a baking sheet in a single layer and dry roast just until they crumble easily between the fingers and are still green in color; about 10 to 12 minutes, being careful not to over dry roast the leaves, which will turn the leaves brown and bitter.
Toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium low heat, tossing the seeds so they toast evenly. Set aside to add to the mix later.
Place the toasted wild thyme, sumac powder, and salt in a mortar and grind together into a fine powder. Add the toasted sesame seeds and coarsely grind into the mix, leaving some seeds whole. Taste and add more salt if needed and the chile powder if using.
Serve with toasted, or grilled, breads generously brushed with olive oil, or use as a condiment with just about anything else you can imagine. The flavor is addictive and you will find that za’atar will find a permanent place as a must have seasoning on hand at all times in your kitchen!