It's pecan season

Illinois-grown pecans a hit at farmers markets

Pecans have a special place in Karen Voss's heart. "I should have known what I was getting myself into when my husband and I were dating 44 years ago. We'd often go out and pick up pecans on nice fall Sunday afternoons." The hobby grew into a family business, and Karen and her husband, Ralph, now own 140 acres of pecan trees in southern Illinois near Carlyle. Of those, 120 acres are native. "In this area there are a lot of pecan trees in the timbers, so he cleared out all other trees and underbrush and just left the pecan trees. That's where all our small native pecans come from." Additionally, they have 20 acres of grafted pecan trees that produce large, specialty varieties of pecans.

A seasonal product, the Voss family begins harvesting pecans in November and continues through Dec. 31. The nuts are stored whole in the shell in walk-in freezers and are taken out and cracked as needed for sale at farmers markets, restaurants and mail order. "We've been doing the Springfield farmers market for almost 20 years," Voss said. "It's a very good market for us."

Voss says that the color of pecans is a good indicator of freshness. "If they're really dark," she says, "the oil in them is turning bad. Most stores don't refrigerate or freeze them like they should." Pecans are rich in protein, fiber, antioxidants and good fats. Storing nuts in the freezer is the best way to protect the delicate monounsaturated fatty acids and other compounds that make pecans such a nutritional powerhouse.

A truly local product, Voss says she often reminds folks that the pecan's scientific name is Carya illinoinensis. Their locally raised pecans have a substantially lower footprint than many other similar food products. For example, almonds require over a gallon of irrigated water for each nut produced, but the pecan trees on Voss's farm do not need to be irrigated. That makes them a product ideal for both health-conscious eaters in search of sustainable plant-based proteins and for avid bakers eager to augment their holiday baking with the best ingredients around.

Voss Pecans can be purchased at the Springfield Winter Indoor Farmers Markets held at Anvil and Forge Brewery on Dec. 21, Jan. 18, Feb. 15, March 21 and April 18. They can also be purchased at the Apple Barn in Chatham, and can be ordered directly from Voss Pecans through their website: Their farm store, located in Carlyle, is open Tuesday through Sunday. Voss Pecans can be contacted at 618-594-4122.

Pecan-Cranberry Turkey Salad

2 cups chopped, cooked turkey

¼ cup turkey broth

1/4 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons whole grain mustard

2-3 tablespoons minced red onion

¼ cup minced celery

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup dried cranberries

½ cup toasted chopped pecans

Combine all the above ingredients and mix well. You many want to add additional mayonnaise or mustard to taste. If making ahead, wait until just before serving to add the nuts.

Pasta with Pecan Sauce

Inspired by the walnut sauces traditionally served in the northern Italian region of Liguria

1 pound pasta, such as bowtie, penne or orchiette

6 ounces shelled pecans

1 clove garlic

1 slice good quality bread, crusts removed, cubed

2/3 cup whole milk

1 ounce grated Parmesan

¼ cup olive oil

Salt and pepper

½ cup minced parsley

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Toast the pecans on a sheet pan in a 325-degree oven until golden brown and aromatic, about five minutes. While the pecans are toasting, place the milk, garlic and cubes of bread in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Let the toasted pecans cool slightly, then add all but a handful to the blender (reserve some to sprinkle on top of the finished dish). Process 30 seconds, then add the grated Parmesan and continue to process until very smooth. Season with salt and pepper, then with the machine running, slowly drizzle in the oil. Set aside.

When the water is boiling add the pasta and cook according to the package directions. When done, reserve a half cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta before transferring to a large bowl. Drizzle a bit of olive oil over the pasta to keep it from sticking, then toss in the pecan sauce. Add pasta water as needed to thicken the sauce. Toss with the chopped parsley and sprinkle the remaining toasted pecans on top. Serve with additional grated Parmesan.

Pecan Tassies

For the dough:

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

8 ounces (two sticks) butter, softened

2 cups flour

A pinch of salt (omit if using salted butter)

For the filling:

2 eggs

1½ cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons melted butter

Bourbon or rum (optional)

1 cup chopped pecans

A pinch of salt

Combine the cream cheese, butter and salt in a mixer fitted with a paddle. Beat on medium speed until smooth. Reduce speed and add the flour, then stop the machine and scrape down the sides. Beat another 15 seconds on low to combine. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling. Combine the eggs, brown sugar, melted butter, bourbon or rum (if using), and salt. Mix well and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the dough from the fridge and scoop small spoonfuls of dough into the cups of a mini muffin pan that has been lightly coated with cooking spray. Use your fingers to press the dough up the sides of each cup to make a shell. Spoon the egg mixture into the cups, filling them 2/3 full. Sprinkle the top with chopped pecans. Bake for 25 minutes until golden brown and bubbly. Let cool 5 minutes before removing from tins.

Ashley Meyer is a writer, cook and mom. She lives in Springfield in her great-grandmother's family home, under the shade of several 80-foot-tall pecan trees.