“For starters, I have a great weakness for little bites that don’t leave me stuffed before the main event. The idea is to serve something provocative, to coax the appetite, to develop a tantalizing unrequited hunger, not to satiate it.” – Frank Stitt’s Southern Table
As I have mentioned before (click Here), I spent many summer days with my uncle Charles at his farm just outside Opelika. When I was about eleven or twelve, one of my autumn jobs was to climb his huge pecan trees that were all over his farm and shake the limbs so that the nuts would fall to the ground. When the weather turned cold, I remember spending afternoons in front of the fire with my dad, using a hammer to crack pecans on top of an old brick. The buttery-rich kernel is golden-brown on the outside and beige inside. Pecans were as much a part of my family’s diet as okra, tomatoes, and corn on the cob. We ate them in pies, fruit cakes, salads, candied, or just for snacks throughout the rest of the year.
The pecan is a species of hickory native to northern Mexico and along the rich, fertile banks of the many rivers flowing throughout the plains of the southeastern United States. With their mighty trees taking root more than 100 million years ago, pecans are the only major tree nut indigenous to America and have not been found growing naturally anywhere else in the world.
Wild pecans were a staple in the diets of Native Americans, who originally referred to them as pecanes and relied on their nourishing kernels as a major food source in the fall months. After centuries foraging wild pecans, they began planting pecan trees and trading their harvest to European explorers, who quickly became enamored and helped spread the lore—and seed—of this local delicacy.
I am sharing a recipe today that I found in Frank Stitt’s Southern Table cookbook. Frank Stitt is the owner and chef at the Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama. I first dined there in the early eighties after reading its rave reviews in (the now discontinued) Gourmet Magazine. On a trip to visit my family, we stopped in Birmingham to experience “New Southern” cooking for ourselves. The restaurant was comfortable, unpretentious, and anchored in Alice Waters’ farm-to-table ethic. They served unfussy food that married French techniques and traditions with Southern cooking and ingredients. Chef Stitt’s latest of many, many accolades was having the Highland Bar & Grill being named the 2018 James Beard award winner for Best Restaurant and Chef. I will go into more details about this restaurant in a future blog post.
I have made these sweet, spicy pecans for many years and, over time, tweaked things here and there to suit my personal taste but it is essentially Chef Stitt’s creation. Everyone who has tasted them has asked for the recipe, so here it is:
Alabama Spicy Pecans
- 4 cups pecan halves
- 1½ teaspoons Kosher salt
- Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 heaping tablespoon dark brown sugar
- 1 heaping tablespoon freshly minced (almost to a powder consistency) rosemary leaves
- 1 ½ tablespoons melted butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Heat the oven to 350°F.
- Line a baking sheet with non-stick foil and spread the pecans on it in a single layer. Bake for 13 minutes (adjusted for my own stove – just don’t burn them). Remove from the oven.
- While the pecans are baking, mix all of the dry ingredients in a small bowl.
- When the pecans are out of the oven and cooling slightly, stir the melted butter and oil together in another small bowl.
- Pour liquids over the dry ingredients and stir until most of the dry ingredients are dissolved, or at least well blended.
- Remove the cooling pecans to a large bowl and pour the seasoning mixture over. Toss until all pecans are thoroughly coated.
- Return the pecans to the oven on the same baking sheet for another 3 to 4 minutes, until toasted and fragrant but, again, be careful not to burn them.
- Let them sit out for an hour or so until they are totally cool and most of the liquids have soaked in (not all will).
- Enjoy as an appetizer or snack.
- Store any remaining pecans in an air tight container. They can be stored for a long time (fat chance of that).
Try not to burn your tongue while tasting them because they smell so good that you won’t be able to resist. If I make this dish for company, the rule is that my wife and I can eat the broken pecan pieces but the whole ones have to be saved. Yeah, right!