Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

Pecans at their peak

The Good Book tells us that the last shall be first. And that, in a nutshell, is the story of the pecan.

With a harvest season that runs from October to December, the pecan is the last commercially grown nut to mature. Yet, it ranks above all other nuts, including walnuts and almonds, in antioxidants. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, the pecan is also among the top 20 most antioxidant-rich foods.

The good news these days out of Georgia–whose 140,000 acres of pecans make it one of the top pecan-producing states, along with Texas and New Mexico–is that the recent drought that plagued the southeast made for nearly ideal pecan growing conditions. “A good crop is 90 million pounds. It is greater than that this year. It may go up to 120 million,” said Darrell Sparks, a pecan specialist with the University of Georgia in Athens. In most years, farmers have to take pains to make sure the pecans are dry after harvest, to prevent them from getting moldy. “This year it’s been so dry that most of them just dried themselves on the ground,” said James Champion, a third-generation pecan grower who cultivates about 270 acres of pecan trees at Champion Groves in Sylvester, Ga., and chairs the Georgia Pecan Commission. One of the fastest growing states in the nation, Georgia has been losing farm acreage to development, “but right now pecan acreage seems to be stable,” noted Sparks.

Down in Georgia, the folks close to the pecan industry keep a supply of the nut in their freezer–where it stores best–for use throughout the year. But in the rest of the country, “there is a tendency to think of it as a seasonal thing for the holidays only,” said Champion.Locally, pecans are in high demand for the holidays, when they figure prominently in pies, cookies, and other baked goods, said Sandy Braverman of Newark Nut Company/Nutsonline in Linden. But overall, he added, pistachios, cashews, and almonds are more popular with customers. He carries two varieties of in-shell Georgia pecans: the hard-shelled Stuart and the so-called paper-shelled Schley, which can easily be cracked by squeezing one nut against another. They retail for $3.99 and $4.29 a pound, respectively. Braverman also carries large fancy pecan halves from Georgia and Texas for $8.99 per pound.

A type of hickory native to the Mississippi region from Iowa to Louisiana and Ohio to Texas, the pecan–which can live for more than 100 years and soar above 150 feet–is the most important native nut tree in North America. The most common cultivated varieties include Cape Fear, Desirable, Elliott, Schley, Stuart, and Sumner. Back in the days when pecans were harvested by hand, they were separated and sold by variety. Now the nuts are machine harvested, graded by size and color, and sold in blends.

Although pecans are relatively easy to free from their shells, they derive their name from the Algonquin paccan, used to describe nuts that required a stone to crack them open. An important protein source for the native Americans, pecans are rich in gamma-tocopherol, a form of vitamin E, and contain more than 19 vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and B1, calcium, folic acid, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.

Like all nuts, pecans pair beautifully with chocolate and they can enhance the aroma, taste, and texture of cakes, pies, and muffins. Whole or in pieces, they also are a healthful addition to tossed salads. Ground, they can be used to coat chicken and fish.

Since pecans are rich in oil content, they can turn rancid if improperly stored. For optimum taste, pecans should be kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator or in sealed plastic bags in the freezer. “The main thing is you don’t want to leave them in a warm sport for an extended period of time. They’ll lose their flavor. We discourage stores leaving them out in a room temperature display months at a time,” said Champion.