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Exploring Pecans: History and 10 Sweet and Savory Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Learn all about pecans and how to use them in both sweet and savory dishes!

Learn all about pecans and how to use them in both sweet and savory dishes!

What Are Pecans?

The pecan (one of 14 species of the hickory) is the only nut tree native to North America. Carya illinoiensis flourishes in the Mississippi and other river valleys of central North America but can be found as far south as Oaxaca, Mexico. In the United States, it is the second-most popular nut. (Peanuts are #1 and yes, I know that technically peanuts are legumes—but most people think of the peanut as a nut.)

"Pecane" is an Algonquin word used to describe "all nuts requiring a stone to crack." This distant relative of the walnut is, in comparison, easier to crack and produces a greater percentage of meat to shell.

A Brief History

The original botanical name for the pecan is Hicoria pecan (a nod to the hickory family), but fur traders who brought the pecan from Illinois to the Atlantic coast called them “Illinois nuts”. (So much for Latin botanical nomenclature.)

In the 1700s and early 1800s pecans were in such high demand that American Colonists supplemented the native groves with hand-planted orchards. The first planting was in 1772 on Long Island, New York. In 1775 George Washington planted several pecan tree seedlings at his Mount Vernon estate. The seedlings were a gift from Washington’s friend, Thomas Jefferson. Several of those trees are still living today.

A llovely, venerable pecan tree

A llovely, venerable pecan tree

The size and quantity of pecans varied from tree to tree—a problem for a “growing” industry, but in 1876 an African-American slave named Antoine perfected a method to graft superior wild pecan species to seedlings

However, long before the Colonists or even the fur traders, Native Americans recognized the value of the pecan. They used them not only as a food source but also to make nut milk good for drinking, cooking, and even fermenting. The name pecan is derived from the Algonquin “pacane,” meaning ‘a nut that needs to be cracked with a stone.’ The Algonquin tribe lived near the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers and for them the pecan was a valuable source of protein.

In fact, writer and historian James McWilliams has stated that the average harvest of the pecan carried the food value of 150,000 bison. He also posits that nuts might have made the human race smarter than it might have otherwise been. Here is an excerpt from his article "American Nut: A History of the Pecan" on the University of Texas Press website:

"Here is an intriguing hypothesis: nuts may have made our prehuman ancestors smarter. Smarter because the nut forms in a shell and our hominid forebears had to think a bit about how to extract it. Thought led to innovation. Innovation to nutrition. Nutrition to greater intelligence. That's the idea, anyway. Granted, finding a stone flat enough to shatter a nut doesn't really qualify as unique cognition—apes do it all the time. But not unlike the way a seagull, after multiple attempts, finally figures out how high to soar before dropping the clam, it required trial and error. Smash the nut too fiercely, whack it in the wrong spot with the wrong rock, and shell shards splinter into the meat. Get it just right, though, with the right rock on the right seam with the right pressure, and you've just opened a new chapter in culinary history. When the first nut was cracked, the history of eating, it seems fair to say, changed significantly."

Closeup of pecans growing on a tree

Closeup of pecans growing on a tree

Pecan Trivia

  • The United States is the largest producer of pecans.
  • Over 300 million pounds of pecans are harvested each year.
  • There are more than 1,000 varieties of pecans, but only 20 are used commercially.
Easy candied pecans

Easy candied pecans

1. Easy Candied Pecans

Our first recipe is the simplest and showcases the sweet creamy meat of the pecan. Brown and white sugars, butter, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt (and 10 minutes) are all you need to make these candied pecans. I must warn you, however, that these are extremely addictive. You'll want to make two batches, one for your family, and one for you.

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Pecan pralines

Pecan pralines

2. Pecan Pralines

Pecan pralines are synonymous with the South. For those of you who have never experienced the pleasure of eating a praline, I'll try to describe them to you. Pecan nuts are a bit softer than others, not quite as toothsome and they are fragrant and sweet. The praline part is brown sugar, cream, and butter cooked to a creamy fudge consistency. Imagine chocolate fudge, but with a caramel flavor and sweet nutmeats hiding within.

There is, however, one caveat. If you make pralines you will need to have a candy thermometer. For years (nay, decades) I shunned the candy thermometer. The thought of cooking sugar to a very specific temperature was somehow frightening to me. I avoided it like the plague. But one day, I was presented with the opportunity (requirement) to try out this recipe. I overcame my fears . . . and then wondered why I had waited so long to actually own a candy thermometer. There was no need to be afraid, and the candy was awesome!

Rosemary chicken salad

Rosemary chicken salad

3. Rosemary Chicken Salad

I originally made this as a filling for a cold sandwich (honey oatmeal bread is phenomenal with this!). Or, you can simply serve it as a cold salad on a bed of salad greens.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups cooked chicken, diced (I think white meat is best in this recipe)
  • 1/2 cup celery, diced
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 tsp. fresh rosemary, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chives, minced
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise, (I used non-fat)
  • 1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour to allow flavors to blend.
Brussels sprout salad with cranberries and pecans

Brussels sprout salad with cranberries and pecans

4. Brussels Sprout Salad With Cranberries and Pecans

Brussels sprouts seem to be one of those "love 'em or hate 'em" vegetables—there's no middle ground. But, have you ever tried them raw? When shredded, they make a great stand-in for lettuce (only crunchier and more flavorful, kinda like baby kale). In some grocery stores, you can find them in bags, pre-shredded. Or you can make your own; simply slice off the bottom of each sprout and load them into your food processor with the slicing attachment. Voila!

If you like a creamy dressing, but don't want the added calories of mayonnaise, the honey-mustard dressing in this recipe is your ticket. You might want to keep it handy for other salads as well.

And finally, this Brussels sprout salad with cranberries and pecans recipe, as written, is dairy-free, gluten-free, and vegetarian (I won't call it vegan because of the honey). However, I must make a small confession. My husband prefers this one with crumbled bacon tossed. in. {Sigh}.

Pecan berry green salad

Pecan berry green salad

5. Pecan Berry Green Salad

I chose this pecan berry green salad because it looks so beautiful! It's said that we first eat with our eyes, and the array of colors got my attention. Next, consider the contrasts of taste and texture. There's the delicate freshness of the salad greens, the tart-sweet berries, the sweetness and crunch of the pecans, and the tangy/creamy goat cheese. What a lovely salad to have for an early summer brunch/light dinner.

Five-minute rainbow carrot pecan salad

Five-minute rainbow carrot pecan salad

6. Five-Minute Rainbow Carrot Pecan Salad

Here we are with another pretty salad (I'm sorry, I just can't help it). I hope you can find rainbow carrots—they are available at my little produce stand. Although they taste like "regular" carrots, the variety of colors (cream, yellow, orange, and scarlet) make such an impressive display. If you can't find rainbow carrots, your standard orange ones will do quite nicely.

Crushed pineapple, golden raisins, and plain Greek yogurt add a creamy sweetness to this crunchy salad of grated carrots and toasted pecans. I hope you'll find a place for this rainbow carrot pecan salad on your table.

7. Skamania Lodge Oat Crusted Trout With Pecans

One of my family's favorite vacation destinations is Skamania Lodge in southwest Washington State. Skamania (the Chinook Tribe word for "swift water") is a magnificent mountain resort nestled on 175 wooded acres in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

The resort is aptly named, as there are over 70 waterfalls nearby, including the famous Multnomah Falls, which, at 620 feet, is the fifth highest waterfall in the United States. Situated on the Washington side of the Columbia River, Skamania Lodge is just 45 miles east of Portland; this grand retreat offers guests three nature trails ranging from 1 to 1 3/4 miles in length. mountain views, beautiful forests, and two small lakes. In the summer, Forest Service Rangers provide programs at the lodge.

I shared that bit of information with you as a way of introduction to the recipe for an amazing meal I had there about a decade ago. Sadly, the chef who created this dish has left Skamania Lodge, and so the oat crusted trout with pecans is no longer on the menu. But, he was kind enough to share the recipe with me.

Parmesan and pecan crusted halibut

Parmesan and pecan crusted halibut

8. Parmesan and Pecan Crusted Halibut

Unlike the Skamania Lodge trout, this Parmesan and pecan halibut is quite simple; dinner can be ready in 20 minutes. It's Keto, low-carb, and gluten-free. If you can't find halibut fluke, flounder, striped bass, and cod are all good substitutes.

Honey garlic pecan chicken

Honey garlic pecan chicken

9. Honey Garlic Pecan Chicken

If you shun boneless, skinless chicken breasts because in the past they've been dry and flavorless, this recipe for honey garlic pecan chicken might just change your mind. Start with a thin cutlet (or if the breast portion is thick, cut it in half horizontally).

By the way, if you have an allergy to tree nuts, one of the commenters mentioned that pistachios are a good option.

10. Pecan Crusted Pork Chops With Apple Chutney

Our final recipe is an easy weeknight meal; it only takes 30 minutes from start to finish to have these pecan crusted pork chops ready for your family. For me, there's something about the combination of pork and sweet-tangy fruit and just seems so perfect. It's a winning combination every time—just like peanut butter and jelly, salt and pepper, Sonny and Cher (well, OK maybe not that last one).

While the chops bake in the oven, the apple chutney comes together quickly on your stovetop, with bold pops of flavor from whole grain mustard, cinnamon, and shallots. Don't skip the chutney-—it truly makes the dish.

Sources

© 2022 Linda Lum

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