A lot of people start their New Year by going nuts, and not always in a healthy way! This year, though, let's go nuts in a good way — with the Missouri pecan, one of the best nuts around.
According to the USDA Agricultural Research Service, pecans provide calcium, iron, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, several vitamins and fiber and are also a rich source of antioxidants. All that in a very tasty package. Pecan trees grow naturally in moist, rich and bottomland soils principally in the bottomlands of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. According to the Forest Service, they occur naturally in 15 states and in Central Mexico and have been cultivated since the 1700's, because they are easy to harvest and process. According to forest ecologist Paul Nelson, there are 500 or more selections. Trees are selected based on one or more Individual trees that display one or more desirable traits. In Missouri, the Northern Organic Pecan Association promotes and sells local pecans that are smaller in size than other varieties, but sweeter in taste.
If you are planning to establish pecans, it is best to establish local selections or nuts collected from trees growing in Missouri. Local sources of bare root seedlings include the Missouri Department of Conservation George White Nursery, and commercial growers like Forrest Keeling Nursery and Starks Bros also offer grafted trees. Pecan can be grown as a backyard tree for its beautiful shape and sweet edible nuts, as well as commercially in larger plots. They can be established in agroforestry systems in combination of several of the native edible perennials that have been discussed in this column such as goldenglow, wild leeks, cup plant and nettles. All these species would thrive under the shade of pecans. Other native nuts related to pecans are hickories and walnuts. Another native is the hazelnut and all grow in Missouri.
At the Lincoln University Farmers Market we have a vendor that specializes in Missouri pecans and sells them for $10 a pound. during the winter market and throughout the year. Other commercial venues for Missouri pecans include King Hill Farms in Brunswick and the Missouri Northern Pecan Growers, whose specialty is certified organic pecans. As mentioned above, these nuts are smaller and sweeter than other pecans available in local markets. The nuts can be consumed raw or cooked, and pecans roasted in a pan or a toaster oven for 4 to 6 minutes can be the perfect snack without the addition of sugar or even salt.
If not used immediately, pecan kernels should be kept in cold conditions. According to growers in Brunswick pecans retain their flavor for up to 2 months if kept frozen. Refrigeration may suffice if kept in dry conditions. The following cookie recipe was developed by Native Plants Program staff at Lincoln University. These cookies are soft and moist and not overly sweet. They are perfect to eat with coffee or tea.
Dr. Nadia Navarrete-Tindall has been an associate professor and state native plant extension specialist for Lincoln University Cooperative Extension since 2008. She is the director of the Native Plants Program (NPP) and can be reached at by phone at 573-681-5392, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Navarreteemail@example.com or on Facebook: Lincoln University Native Plants Program.
SWEET POTATO COOKIES WITH PECANS
Makes: About 3 dozen cookies.
2 cups sweet potato* puree (garnet or jewel varieties are recommended)
1 cup pure Brown sugar or half cup honey
3/4 cup butter at room temperature
1/2 cup unbleached whole wheat **
3/4 cup oat flakes
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon powder
A pinch of nutmeg powder
Native fruit jam such as grape, wild plum or elderberry (optional).
1 cup minced Missouri pecans non-hybrids
1 cup dehydrated cranberries (optional)
Preheat oven at 350 F.
Place parchment paper on a baking sheet and set aside.
Mix dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
In a large bowl, mix the sugar or honey and soften butter.
Add sweet potato, eggs and dry ingredients, alternatively, to this mix.
Add pecans and dry fruit with revolving movements to incorporate all ingredients.
Take spoonfuls of this mix and drop on baking sheet every 1.5 inches.
Add approximately 1/4 tsp. of jam to the center of each cookie or half of a pecan kernel to decorate.
Bake cookies 10 to 15 minutes. These cookies should be stored in the refrigerator and can be frozen for a month or two.
This mix can be used to prepare sweet potato bread instead of cookies by cooking in baking pans instead of cookie sheets.
*Local sweet potatoes can be purchased at LU-Farmers Market.
**For a gluten free recipe, replace whole wheat flour with sweet potato and use baking power with no wheat flour. To make your own gluten-free baking powder mix 2 parts cream of tartar, 1 part baking soda and 1 part cornstarch.