The other day the gearhead stood in the middle of the kitchen with an expression of worry on his face. It is rare to see the man stop moving for any length of time; a trait our daughter has inherited such that any photo of her includes a blur. “Is that fennel I smell?” the gearhead is suspicious, “I hate fennel”. Well Mr. Gearhead, that’s like saying you hate the colour mauve. With that passionate dislike the sunset is negated, as is the broiling sky before a summer storm. Fennel is such a gentle suggestion of black licorice, in both white bulb form and in seed. I concede that many loathe the black licorice flavour but gearhead you aren’t one of them. But I digress, this post isn’t about licorice or fennel. It’s about nuts (including the gearhead and I).
These pecans are addictive and remarkably effective for enhancing foods that otherwise might be under appreciated; fennel, for instance. The recipe was given to me by a friend who outright demanded it from one of my favourite restaurants in Whsitler, BC, The Rimrock Cafe. When we lived out there, the Rimrock was one of the many restaurants we could never afford to go into. There, these nuts adorn a crisp winter salad of shaved pears, roast beets, endive (or maybe it’s arugula) and blue cheese.
It’s essential to make these when you have fully concentrated control over the kitchen. It just won’t do to attempt these after a cocktail or two because you end up filling the kitchen with the acrid smoke of burnt sugar and nuts. Definitely not the ambiance you might be after when entertaining guests. So there’s your warning. Yes, of course I speak from experience. The sugar goes from a beautiful deep amber to blackest black in seconds, so pay attention. I think if you started by adding some water or juice to the sugar in the pan before heating, this process might be eased somewhat, but I prefer to stick to the original recipe, scrawled as it is on a lovely postcard featuring work by Quebec artist, Diane Brunet.
They are best eaten a few hours after they are made as the sugar softens with humidity in the air. I usually add them to salads, though they are good with roast squash or roast beets and some salty feta cheese to compliment flavours and soften the fire of the spices. Be sure to use fresh spices because the flavour depends on their quality. Old powders from the back of the pantry cupboard are lackluster and tasteless. Yes, again, I speak from experience. Really though, these nuts could be added to leather boots and people would declare them the most delicious footwear they had ever eaten. Shaved fennel and pears, with a mild vinaigrette and some crumbled blue cheese, become a miracle on the plate. Not least because the gearhead makes them disappear.
Spiced Pecans ( I have modified this slightly from the Rimrock version)
1 cup shelled pecans
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon oil (one that doesn’t mind high heat)
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder
salt and pepper
Have everything ready to go in pinch bowls beside the stove. Place a baking sheet beside the stove where you’re cooking; once the nuts are done you will be cooling them on the sheet – they’re hot so you may need to place a tea towel beneath the cookie sheet if you want to protect your counter.
In a heavy bottomed skillet, heat the oil and the sugar over high heat, trying not to stir. Instead, swirl the pan to get the sugar to mix in on itself. Keep a close eye. When the sugar is a beautiful amber colour, add the pecans and the spices and stir quickly with a wooden spoon or heat safe spatula. Try to get the nuts covered in caramel as best you can, then immediately pour the contents of the pan on to the baking sheet. Spread them out into a singe layer to cool completely. Once cool, you can break them up with your fingers into small clusters appropriate for adding to salad.
Hide them away until dinner time otherwise you, or somebody else, will eat them and then you’ll have to perform the whole exercise again, probably after a cocktail, and I tell you, it just won’t work.
You can see a video clip where I should have thought about my choice of apron, and done my hair properly before filming, here.