Alhambra Farmers Market
The Alhambra Farmer's Market is full of temptation. While I generally can distract myself with the myriad luscious fruits and vegetables, I still look longingly towards the bacon-wrapped hot dogs and pupusa revueltas frying up on the north side of the market. But over the sound of the sizzling pork fat, a constant cracking comes from the Gonzaga Farm Stand. I see Ron casually rolling brown shells in his hands, slowly revealing some pleasantly plump pecans.
Pecans are an all-American nut, originating from the central and southeastern United States. While wild pecans were cultivated as early as the 1500's, it wasn't until the 1800's that commercial pecan propagation began. Ron told me that their typical pecan harvest begins in late fall/early winter, and requires around two to three months to fully dry out before they are market ready.
While I've seen other nuts in their shells sold at the market before (walnuts, pistachios), this was my first with pecans. The shell itself is fairly thin when compared to its thicker shell nut cousins, and can be cracked easily — if you know how to do it. Ron took two unshelled pecans and squeezed them against each other until they begin to crack. He continued to roll and crack until he could then remove the pieces of shell. I had less success with this method, resorting to a pair of large pliers. Excessive force will break the nut, and while it will still be edible, it will not be as cosmetically appetizing (I was able to get decent results by cracking a single shell against the table, but the pliers method was much quicker). Watch Ron show off his cracking prowess below.
Pecans are a nutrition power pack, and overcooking may destroy some of their beneficial vitamins and minerals. This is why I tend to gorge on my pecans as is. After a good pecan-cracking session, you can lightly toast a cup or two worth, then puree it into a rich pecan butter. You can also add lightly toasted pecans as a textural compliment to gorgonzola in a salad. While eating healthy is always a priority, it's hard to deny pecan's true potential in desserts and sweets (and luckily for us pecan-cracking novices, these mostly use chopped pecans). Perhaps some delicate butter pecan cookies, a chocolate pecan pie, or the perennial classic pecan pie topped with butter pecan ice cream.
Have you cracked open a pecan shell before? Do you have additional tips or favorite preparation and recipes? Let us hear them in the comments, or send them our way at firstname.lastname@example.org