Pecan Artists

Five top Texas chefs pay tribute to our state tree with a totally nutrageous holiday feast.

November 2009By Comments

Photograph by Tom Schierlitz

We know what you’re thinking. You’ve read the subhead to this story, promising a holiday feast that focuses entirely on pecans, and at this very minute you are saying: Who in his right mind would want to eat a meal with pecans in every single dish? Well, we have a question for your question: Who wouldn’t?

Pecans are fantastic! Not only are they nutritious but, unlike walnuts (troublingly bitter) or cashews (as eccentric as your weird Uncle Louie), they taste marvelous alone and play well with other ingredients. Their texture is not too hard, not too soft, but just right, and their shell is so yielding that a three-year-old could crack it (well, that’s true of modern hybrids; the same cannot be said of the native pecan, which requires a reinforced steel nutcracker or perhaps a ten-ton boulder to smash it). Finally, pecans give back to society by providing a meaningful occupation for squirrels, keeping them from driving yappy little dogs to the brink of insanity.

Therefore, in recognition of the ninetieth anniversary of the pecan’s being declared the state tree of Texas, we called on five top chefs—Nick Badovinus, of Neighborhood Services, in Dallas; Josh Cross, of Oloroso, in San Antonio; Molly McCook, of Ellerbe Fine Foods, in Fort Worth; Larry McGuire, of Perla’s, in Austin; and Randy Rucker, formerly of the Rainbow Lodge, in Houston, and now in the process of starting his own restaurant—to create a festive pecan-centric holiday dinner.

The fab five responded with an outpouring of imagination that starts with a fancy pecan, fig, and goat cheese “log” and finishes with scrumptious ice cream sandwiches made with pecan shortbread cookies and crumbled pralines. By the time you finish salivating over these recipes, far from wondering how anyone could eat so many nutty dishes, you’ll be wishing we had included more.

Fancy Pecan-Fig Goat Cheese “Log”

Larry McGuire, Perla’s Seafood & Oyster Bar, Austin

Toasted Pecans

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups pecan halves
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons brown sugar, light or dark

Melt butter in a large, heavy-bottomed sauté pan. Add pecans and toast over medium heat until brown and fragrant, 5 to 10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and toss to coat evenly. Pour pecans onto paper towels to drain and cool.

Arugula and Pecan Pesto

1 cup arugula
1 cup basil
1/2 cup toasted pecans (see preceding recipe)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Place first 4 ingredients in a food processor and process until finely chopped, about 30 seconds. With processor running, add olive oil in a slow stream. Add lemon juice, season with salt and pepper, and run a few more seconds until thoroughly blended.

Fig Jam

1 1/2 cups dried figs, halved
3 tablespoons Madeira or port, plus a bit more if needed
3 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Place all ingredients in a small, heavy-bottomed pot and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring frequently, until most of liquid is absorbed and figs are soft. Pour into a food processor and purée until mixture has a jammy texture, adding Madeira or water to make spreadable.

Goat Cheese

1 1/2 pounds goat cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon honey
juice of 1 lemon
1 cup buttermilk
2 packets unflavored gelatin
1 teaspoon kosher salt

In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat first 3 ingredients on low speed until smooth. Set aside. Heat buttermilk in a medium saucepan until warm to the touch, add gelatin, and stir to dissolve. Pour into goat cheese mixture, add salt, and beat on high speed until very smooth and light.

To assemble, line a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with plastic wrap, allowing enough overhang to cover the top. Divide goat cheese mixture into 3 portions. Layer the ingredients in order from bottom to top: pecans (curved side down), goat cheese, pesto, goat cheese, jam, goat cheese. Cover with overhanging plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

To serve, invert onto a platter and peel off plastic. Surround with crackers or crudités. Serves 20 to 25.

Turkey With Deviled Pecan–Sausage Cornbread dressing

Nick Badovinus, Neighborhood Services, Dallas

Roast Turkey

Nick’s mom’s recipe for roast turkey.

1 twelve- to fourteen-pound turkey
kosher salt and black pepper to taste
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
1 to 3 cloves garlic
1/2 bunch fresh sage
2 lemons, halved
2 sticks (1/2 pound) butter, at room temperature
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups chicken stock

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rinse turkey and pat dry inside and outside. Generously season cavity with salt and pepper. Stuff bird with onion, celery, carrots, garlic, sage, and lemons. Gently rub butter under skin of breast and on exterior of legs and thighs. Truss butcher’s twine and place on a rack in a roasting pan, breast side up. Season with additional salt and pepper (and don’t be shy).

Place turkey in oven. After 30 minutes, lower temperature to 325 degrees and add white wine and chicken stock to pan. In 20 to 30 minutes, baste with pan juices and continue every 30 minutes until done. If bird is browning too quickly, place a foil tent over breast. Cook 3 1/2 to 4 hours, until a meat thermometer inserted into a thick part of thigh reads 180 degrees. Remove from oven and let rest 20 minutes before carving.

Deviled Pecans

3 cups pecan halves
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1/4 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (available in most Central Market stores)
1/2 teaspoon Spanish paprika
1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
1/2 cup turbinado sugar
2 egg whites, beaten to soft peaks

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and toss, using a wooden spoon. Spread pecans evenly on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 6 minutes, remove pan from oven, and stir pecans. Return to oven and bake until thoroughly dried and toasted, about 18 more minutes, but check every 5 minutes to avoid burning. Allow to cool.


1 1/2 to 2 sticks (3/4 to 1 cup) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 tablespoon chopped fresh savory
2 pinches kosher salt
2 pinches black pepper
1 pound bulk spicy Italian sausage
6 cups cornbread (your favorite recipe or store-bought), half crumbled,
the other half cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
3 cups Deviled Pecans (see preceding recipe)
1/4 cup good-quality bourbon (can substitute chicken stock)
1/2 to 3/4 cup chicken stock, or enough to moisten the mixture

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add onions and cook until translucent; do not brown. Add celery, rosemary, sage, and savory. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring as needed, for about 5 more minutes. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. In same skillet, cook sausage over medium heat for approximately 10 minutes. Crumble and transfer to onion-celery mixture. Add cornbread, parsley, Deviled Pecans, bourbon, and stock and gently mix. Adjust seasoning. Transfer dressing mixture to a greased casserole dish and bake until heated through, about 30 minutes.

Put dressing in bowls alongside turkey. Serves 10.

Frisée-Pomegranate Salad With Pecan Vinaigrette

Josh Cross, Oloroso, San Antonio


1/4 cup pecan halves
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon chopped shallot
3 ounces (about 1/4 cup) grated Grana Padano or Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons walnut oil
1/2 cup mild-flavored oil, such as grapeseed or canola

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toast pecans on a baking sheet for about 10 to 13 minutes. Check frequently, as they can burn quickly. Cool and coarsely chop. In a blender, purée the pecans with vinegar, honey, shallot, and cheese, then slowly drizzle in oils. Add warm water to thin to desired consistency.


6 handfuls frisée
2 handfuls arugula
10 branches chervil, leaves only (optional)
1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced
seeds of 1 pomegranate

To serve, combine salad ingredients and toss with vinaigrette. Serves 8.

Savory Butternut Squash—Gruyère Bread Pudding With Spiced Pecans

Molly McCook, Ellerbe Fine Foods, Fort Worth

Baked Squash

6 cups butternut squash (approximately 1 1/2 squash), peeled, seeded, and cut
into 1/2- to 3/4-inch cubes
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves (removed from stems)
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, gently toss ingredients to coat with oil. Scatter squash on a baking sheet and cook 15 minutes. Remove from oven and turn. Continue cooking until lightly browned, about 10 more minutes.

Spiced Pecans

2 cups pecan halves
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon light brown sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss ingredients together in a medium mixing bowl. Spread pecans on a baking sheet and toast for 10 to 13 minutes. Check frequently, as they can burn quickly. Allow to cool.

Bread Pudding

4 eggs
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves (removed from stems)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
8 cups stale Italian bread (the kind sold in supermarket bakeries is fine), cut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch cubes, crusts removed
8 ounces Gruyère, grated
baked squash (see preceding recipe)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, and cream. Add thyme, sage, parsley, salt, and pepper. Place bread in egg mixture and allow to sit for 30 minutes (stir occasionally to thoroughly moisten). Mix in Gruyère and Baked Squash. Transfer to a greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Arrange spiced pecans on top (curved side up) and press lightly into surface. Bake on middle rack of oven until center is just set, 30 to 35 minutes. Serves 12.

Brown Sugar Ice Cream Sandwiches

Randy Rucker, Formerly of the Rainbow Lodge Houston

Pecan Sablé (Shortbread Cookies)

Note: Both recipes should be made at least a day in advance.

1 1/2 cups pecan halves
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup powdered sugar
2 large egg yolks
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toast pecans on a baking sheet for 10 to 13 minutes, checking frequently, as they can burn quickly. Allow to cool, then roughly chop. Lower oven heat to 325 degrees. In a medium metal mixing bowl, thoroughly cream butter. Then gradually cream in sugar, egg yolks (one at a time), and vanilla. Add flour and salt to form a dough. Fold in toasted pecans. Transfer dough to work surface and flatten into a disk before wrapping in plastic and refrigerating until chilled, about 2 hours. Roll out dough on a floured surface to 1/3-inch thickness. Cut into as many sandwich tops and bottoms as needed. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake until pale golden brown, approximately 20 minutes. Allow to cool.

Brown Sugar Ice Cream

2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 whole vanilla bean
1 cup packed light
brown sugar
4 egg yolks, beaten
crunchy-style pralines, crumbled

In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, combine cream, milk, vanilla bean, and brown sugar. Cook until mixture is hot and sugar has dissolved. Remove vanilla bean. Temper egg yolks into hot mixture and continue to cook until liquid coats a spoon. Refrigerate until completely chilled and then pass through a fine sieve. Freeze in an ice cream maker, following manufacturer’s instructions. Fold the crumbled pralines into the ice cream and store in freezer.*

(*Use Randy Rucker’s praline recipe or use store-bought pralines, about 1 per serving.)


1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) frozen butter, cut into chunks
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 cup pecan halves

Place sugars and milk in a heavy-bottomed pan and cook to soft-ball stage (238 degrees). Remove from heat and stir in frozen butter, vanilla, and pecans. Spread mixture onto a large sheet of parchment paper and let cool. Break into pieces to use in recipe.

To serve, give guests 2 cookies and a scoop of ice cream each and let them make their own sandwiches (best if ice cream is a little soft). Serves 6 or more.

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