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Why I Take the Pecans to Paris

November 21, 2001|MARTHA ROSE SHULMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I was growing up in Connecticut, pecans were not on my radar. Maybe I'd tasted pecan pie, and if I did, I surely loved it; when you're young it's difficult not to like anything as sweet as pecan pie. But I have no vivid food memories from my youth of anything regarding that nut. Then, when I was 19, I moved to Texas. My pecan life began.

In Austin, everyone seemed to have a pecan tree (and a fig tree too, another wonderful food I discovered in Texas). Friends would come by with big brown paper bags full of pecans, some with thick shells and others the thin-skinned variety, and you'd set them out in bowls and idly shell them while you visited.

The harder the shell and the more difficult it was to pick out the meat, the sweeter the nut. I learned how to crack nuts against each other, putting one on the heel of my hand and closing the other against it in my fist. I learned the term "blower," a nutshell without a nut inside.

Not eating all the sweet, chewy nuts as we shelled them was challenging, but it was worth it to put aside enough to make a pecan pie.

I worked through many pecan pie recipes before settling on the one I now use. I never vary it--it's just so good. It's a far cry from the traditional Southern pecan pie, mainly because it's about half as sweet--there's no Karo syrup. While still very sweet, it isn't cloying--and that's the problem with most pecan pies. The sugar and syrup overpower the natural sweetness in the nuts. I use honey for my pie because I think it complements the nuttiness of the pecans so nicely, as long as the honey is a mild one, such as clover or acacia.

The rest is pretty simple: butter, eggs, a little nutmeg, vanilla and rum (Southerners might prefer Bourbon). When it bakes, it puffs up like a souffle, then settles when it leaves the oven. I use a traditional French pastry, sweetened with a little sugar; but if you want to use a more traditional American flaky pastry, you could.

When I moved from Texas to Paris, I took many ingredients along--baking powder and baking soda, Mexican spices and chiles, black beans and Masa Harina and pecans. After every trip back to the United States, I would return to Europe with pecans in my suitcase (and black beans and corn tortillas, but that's another story).

And every year at Thanksgiving ( le Fanksgeeving , Art Buchwald calls le jour du merci donnant in his famous column run every year in the International Herald Tribune), I would use them up, in pies, which the French adored, in "pucker-up cranberry relish," in wild rice and pecan salad, in turkey dressing.

I do wonder sometimes why I seem to focus on pecans only at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's a great nut at any time of year. Leaving Paris did have its compensations, and having pecans in my freezer year-round is definitely one of them.

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Martha Rose Shulman is author of "The Best Vegetarian Recipes" (William Morrow, $25).

Plate and placemat in cover relish photo and bowl, linens and spoon in salad photo from Williams-Sonoma.

Wild Rice and Broccoli Salad

Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour * Vegetarian

Sometimes I serve this salad as an appetizer--it would make a great starter for the Thanksgiving meal--or sometimes I eat it for dinner by itself. The red pepper is optional. It adds nice color and crunch, but if you don't want to chop one more thing the salad will still be colorful enough without it and will have plenty of texture. The salad is good warm or cold.

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3 cups water or chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup wild rice, rinsed

Salt

1 pound broccoli crowns, broken in florets

1/2 cup broken pecans

1/4 cup chopped parsley, or a mixture of parsley and other fresh herbs such as thyme, sage, tarragon, chives

1 small red bell pepper, cored and diced, optional

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or Sherry vinegar

1 clove garlic, minced or pressed

1/3 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons walnut oil

Freshly ground pepper

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Bring the water or stock to a boil and add the rice and 3/4 teaspoon salt if using water, or 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt if using salted stock. When the water comes back to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the rice is tender, 45 minutes. Check the rice by spooning out a few grains and rinsing them with cold water. They should be splitting and should be tender to the bite, with no hardness in the shells. Drain off any remaining liquid.

While the rice is cooking, steam the broccoli until just tender, about 5 minutes. Refresh with cold water.

Combine the wild rice, broccoli, pecans, parsley or herbs and optional red pepper in a salad bowl.

Mix together the lemon juice, vinegar and garlic. Add salt to taste. Stir in the olive and walnut oils and add freshly ground pepper. Combine well and taste. Adjust salt. Toss and serve.

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4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings: 286 calories; 72 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 26 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 3.83 grams fiber.

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