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Pecans: Fresh ways to use the nut of the moment

| Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 9:00 p.m.

Pecans are nature's last generous gesture before the frigid arrival of winter.

When other tree crops have been exhausted, the pecan harvest is still going on — in some places, into December.

The pecan is a quintessential American nut. It's native to North and South America; surprisingly, its popularity hasn't spread much beyond there.

That might be changing, says Kathleen Purvis, author of “Pecans” (University of North Carolina Press, 2012). “They're becoming very big in China.”

Pecans are fresh right now, although possibly not in their usual abundance. “The supply has been very tight the last couple of years,” Purvis says, a result of drought and other climactic extremes.

But Georgia and Texas, the two biggest pecan-producing states, report improved harvests this year.

For best storage, Purvis says, buy pecans in the shell and crack them out as needed. They'll keep for a year that way. Or, shell them, wrap them tightly and stash them in the freezer, where they'll last for years, she says.

Jane Touzalin is a staff writer for The Washington Post.

Pecan-Crusted Cod With Rosemary

Southerners love pecans, and pecan-crusted fish is a Southern classic. The nuts are a bit sweet, and they give the dish a great texture. Serve plain or with the optional Mustard Sauce.

You'll have leftover pecan crust, so you could easily increase the number of fillets if you need to.

Make ahead: The pecan-crust mixture can be made several hours in advance and held at cool room temperature, or made up to 1 month in advance, sealed in an airtight container and frozen. The Mustard Sauce can be made a day in advance, covered and refrigerated; reheat gently, adding a little water if needed to thin and recombine it.

From “American Flavor,” by Andrew Carmellini (Ecco, 2011).

For the cod:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

12 medium Vidalia onion, or other sweet onion, coarsely chopped ( 12 cup)

1 14 teaspoons salt, plus a pinch, divided

34 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus a pinch, divided

2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

2 cups pecans

1 cup panko bread crumbs

7 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary

2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning

14 cup parsley leaves

4 to 6 cod fillets, 6 to 8 ounces each

For the Mustard Sauce:

2 teaspoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons cold water

34 cup chicken broth or water

2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard

2 tablespoons stone-ground or coarse-grain mustard

1 tablespoon honey

Pinch salt

Pinch freshly ground black pepper

To prepare the cod: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Have ready a baking dish large enough to hold the fillets in one layer, and a rack that fits into the baking dish.

Heat the olive oil in a small skillet or saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper and cook for 5 or 6 minutes, until they soften, stirring frequently so they don't color or stick. Add the mustard, stir to coat the onions, and remove from the heat.

Place the pecans and bread crumbs in the bowl of a food processor and pulse for 15 seconds or until they form a fine meal. Add the butter, the onion-mustard mixture, rosemary, Old Bay, parsley, 12 teaspoon of salt and 14 teaspoon of pepper. Pulse for 15 to 20 seconds, until the mixture has a soft, pebbly texture.

Blot the fish with a paper towel to remove excess moisture. Season on both sides with the remaining 34 teaspoon of salt and remaining 12 teaspoon of pepper.

Use your hands to top the fish with a thick layer of the pecan mixture, about 2 tablespoons for each fillet. (You want to pat it on as if you were making a sand castle.) Lay the fillets on the rack and place the rack in the baking dish. Bake for about 12 minutes, until there's some bounce-back to the touch and a fork or knife will go in easily and will feel warm when inserted in the center; or until the temperature at the center measures 115 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. The baking time could be shorter or longer, depending on the thickness of your fillets.

Serve immediately, with Mustard Sauce, if desired.

To prepare the mustard sauce: Stir the cornstarch and water together in a small bowl to combine.

Heat the broth in a small saucepan over medium heat. After it boils, give the cornstarch mixture a good stir. Begin to whisk the broth as you drizzle in the cornstarch mixture. After you have added all of the cornstarch mixture, reduce the heat to low and continue whisking to achieve a smooth mixture. Cook for about 2 minutes, adjusting the heat so the mixture is barely bubbling, until the liquid thickens. Remove the saucepan from the heat, and add the mustards and honey, whisking to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Nutrition per serving, based on 6, using half the pecan crust: 320 calories, 23 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 65 milligrams cholesterol, 23 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams dietary fiber, 580 milligrams sodium

Cider-Braised Cabbage With Apples and Pecans

The pleasant sweetness of apples and cider complements fresh cabbage, and pecans add crunch. The cabbage is cooked only until it is barely tender, before it gets slick.

To turn this side dish into a warm, filling entree salad, add shredded roast chicken or browned slices of apple-chicken sausage, and crumble blue cheese over the top.

You can use a ripe, firm pear in place of the apple. You can also cook a thinly sliced fennel bulb along with the onion.

Adapted from “The New Southern Garden Cookbook,” by Sheri Castle (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large onion, halved from top to bottom and thinly sliced

12 cup apple cider (sweet or hard cider)

1 medium-size red cabbage, quartered, cored and shredded (about 12 cups)

2 large crisp apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

12 cup pecan halves or pieces

Heat the oil and butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until softened and slightly browned, for about 10 minutes. Stir in the cider, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

Stir in the cabbage, apples, sugar, salt and pepper. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is barely tender, for 10 to 15 minutes. Add the vinegar and cook, stirring, until most of the liquid boils away. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Top with the pecans and serve warm.

Makes about 12 cups (8 servings).

Nutrition per serving: 180 calories, 11 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 10 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams dietary fiber, 520 milligrams sodium

This salad dates to the middle of the 20th century. It was popular in Southern tearooms, at ladies' lunches and for church suppers because it was a refreshing cross between a dessert and a salad, and handy for making in advance.

Frozen Fruit Salad

Here, Nathalie Dupree has updated the salad, using dried cherries rather than maraschinos. Adapted from “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” by Dupree and Cynthia Graubart (Gibbs Smith, 2012).

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened

14 cup maple syrup

1 cup heavy whipping cream

20 ounces canned crushed pineapple, drained

1 ripe but firm banana, cut crosswise into rounds

12 cup chopped dates or dried figs

12 cup dried cherries

12 cup chopped pecans

1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest (no pith)

Lettuce leaves, for serving

Line an 8-inch square pan with plastic wrap.

Use a hand-held mixer to beat the cream cheese and syrup in a medium-size bowl until well blended and fluffy.

Whip the cream in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held mixer until soft peaks form. Add to the cream cheese mixture and fold to thoroughly combine. Gently fold in the fruits, pecans and lemon zest.

Spoon the mixture into the lined pan. Cover with plastic wrap and aluminum foil, and freeze for at least 8 hours or until firm.

To serve, line individual plates with lettuce leaves. Unwrap the frozen salad, cut into portions and place them on the leaves.

Makes 12 to 16 servings.

Nutrition per serving (based on 16): 200 calories, 13 grams fat (7 grams saturated), 35 milligrams cholesterol, 2 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams dietary fiber, 50 milligrams sodium

Fig and Pecan Tapenade With Goat Cheese

Dried figs pep up dips and spreads. Cream cheese long has been the base for many decorative spreads, but soft goat cheese has crept up in popularity.

Serve with crackers or toasts.

Make ahead: The tapenade can be made up to 3 days in advance, covered and refrigerated.

Adapted from “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart (Gibbs Smith, 2012).

1 cup chopped dried figs

13 cup water

13 cup chopped, pitted black olives

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar

1 12 teaspoons chopped thyme leaves

12 cup chopped toasted pecans (see note)

12 tablespoon chopped green olives, optional

Salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 logs (5 12 ounces each) soft goat cheese, cut crosswise into 12-inch-thick rounds

Cover the figs with the water in a heavy medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Heat to just below the boil and cook until the figs are soft and the water has almost evaporated, adjusting the heat so the water is bubbling gently, for about 7 minutes.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the figs to a medium-size bowl. Stir in the black olives, oil, vinegar, thyme, pecans and the green olives, if using. Season with salt and pepper.

Spoon the fig mixture onto a small platter and add rounds of the goat cheese.

Note: To toast the pecans, spread them on a baking sheet and place in a 350-degree oven, for 8 to 10 minutes, shaking the sheet occasionally. Watch carefully; nuts burn quickly.

Makes 20 servings.

Nutrition per serving: 90 calories, 7 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 5 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram dietary fiber, 80 milligrams sodium

Wheat Berry Salad With Oranges, Cherries and Pecans

This salad is sweet and savory. A mixture of fresh herbs works best, rather than just one variety.

Adapted from “Vegetarian Cooking at Home With the Culinary Institute of America,” by Katherine Polenz (Wiley, 2012).

1 orange, peeled and cut into supremes (see notes), juice reserved

1 teaspoon each chopped thyme, sage and rosemary (1 tablespoon total)

14 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

14 teaspoon salt, or more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 cups wheat berries, cooked according to the package directions (to yield about 4 cups) and cooled to room temperature

1 medium-size red onion, cut in half from top to bottom and thinly sliced

12 cup dried cherries, plus more for garnish

12 cup coarsely chopped toasted pecans, plus more for garnish (see notes)

Whisk the juice from the orange, herbs, oil and vinegar in a large bowl to thoroughly combine. Season with the salt and the pepper. Add the wheat berries, onion, cherries, pecans and orange segments, and toss to combine. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Transfer to a serving bowl or to individual plates and garnish with additional cherries and pecans, if desired.

Notes: To cut the orange into supremes, slice off the bottom and the top. Stand the fruit on a cutting board with one of the cut sides down. Use a serrated knife to cut the peel and the pith away from the fruit, top to bottom, exposing the flesh. Then, holding the fruit in your hand, cut the orange segments away from the membrane. (The idea is to leave behind the membrane and white pith.)

To toast the pecans, spread them on a baking sheet and place in a 350-degree oven, for 8 to 10 minutes, shaking the sheet occasionally. Watch carefully; nuts burn quickly.

Makes about 5 cups (4 servings).

Nutrition per serving: 630 calories, 24 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 0 cholesterol, 14 grams protein, 92 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams dietary fiber, 150 milligrams sodium

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