UC Food Blog
This time of year, you're probably thinking “Ahh, pecans!”
And particularly, “Ahh, pecan pie!”
We do love our pecans. The U.S. produces 80 to 95 percent of the world's pecans, and most are grown in Georgia, according to the UC Davis Fruit and Nut Research and Information Center (FNRIC). In 2014, the U.S. produced 133,165 tons of pecans (in-shell) valued at more than $400 million. Of that, California contributed 2,500 tons, valued at a little more than $10 million, or less than 2 percent.
“Although pecan trees have existed in California for more than a century, the first commercial orchard in California was established in the mid-1970s in the Clovis area," FNRIC relates on its website. “Since then, pecan production has spread throughout the Central Valley, but it is not nearly as widely cultivated as other nut crops (almond, pistachio and walnut) in California." The nuts thrive on long, hot summers for proper maturation.
The pecan (Carya illinoinensis), native to Mexico and the southcentral and southeastern regions of the United States, is a member of the Juglandaceae family, which includes hickory and walnut. "Remains of pecans were found in archaeological excavations in Texas with human artifacts dating back to 6100 B.C.," according to the Nutcracker Museum. "The pecan, which is native only to North America, was found in or near river beds, and was a staple in the diets of both the natives and the early settlers."
“What's great about pecans is that they are delicious!” says Amy Block Joy, emeritus UC Cooperative Extension specialist, who, true to her name, finds "joy" in pecans. “They are one of my favorite nuts.”
“Pecans are an excellent source of vitamin E and other antioxidants, fiber, some B-vitamins and are also good sources of potassium, copper, iron, manganese and zinc,” says Joy, who holds a doctorate in nutritional sciences from UC Berkeley. “They are a rich source of oleic acid, a mono-saturated fatty acid. Pecans do not contain any cholesterol.”
And nuts are good for you, she said, noting that a study published recently in the journal BMC Medicine reported that having a daily amount (at least 20 grams) of nuts "cut people's risk of coronary heart disease by nearly 30 percent, their risk of cancer by 15 percent, and their risk of premature death by 22 percent.”
Meanwhile, all over the country — especially the South — pecan pie is synonymous with the holidays. It's an iconic Southern cuisine, a 19th century invention, that probably originated in the 1800s. Harper's Bazaar published the first known pecan pie recipe in 1886. Today, cooks clamor to make it their own — adding everything from bourbon to rum to chocolate to orange zest.
My late mother, born and reared on a Texas ranch where pecan trees flourished, treasured the pecan pie. She always pronounced it “Peh-CAHN” (never PEE-can) and prefaced it with "rich." Not “rich,” as in wealthy, but rich as in “don't-eat-too-much-of-this-or-you-will-engage-in-a-hate-relationship-with-your-scales.” If you're thin and have to "stand up twice to make a shadow," as the Southern saying goes, then no worries!
Did you know that pecan pie is the state dessert of both Texas and Oklahoma? And that the pecan is the "state nut" of Alabama and Arkansas? In Tennessee, it's known as the "state health nut." That's because it is!
In the Garvey household, our favorite pecan pie recipe is loaded with nuts — two cups. That's 66 pecans per cup or a total of 132 pecans, says nutritionist Amy Block Joy, who knows how to put the "nuts" in nutrition. We know how to put the pie in the pantry, and then to the holiday table.
Garvey's Unforgettable Southern Delight Pecan Pie
Makes 9-inch pie
3 eggs, large
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup dark corn syrup, Karo
3/4 cup loosely packed brown sugar (don't press down)
1 tablespoon of white sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons of good quality dark rum (we used Myer's original dark Jamaican rum)
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups toasted pecans, halves only
One 9-inch unbaked pie crust (recipe below)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread pecans on baking sheet and toast at 350 degrees for 6 to 10 minutes. Set aside. In medium bowl, beat eggs with a fork or wire whisk. Add cornstarch and mix until blended.
Add corn syrup, sugar, rum, butter and vanilla. Stir in toasted pecans. Pour mixture into pie crust. Cover outer crust with loosely placed, crimped aluminum foil to prevent excess browning.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 50 minutes. At 40 minutes, remove aluminum foil from outer crust and cook for another 10 minutes, or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. The center should be slightly firm to the touch but a bit jiggly.
Place pie on wire rack and let cool at room temperature for two hours before serving.
Crust for 9-inch pie:
1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick or ½ cup of cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/4 cup ice water, plus an additional tablespoon if needed
In a medium bowl, combine flour, salt and sugar. Cut butter into flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. Gradually sprinkle the water over the dry mixture, stirring until dough comes together enough to form a ball. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour. Roll the dough out into a 12- to 13-inch circle. Place in pie plate and let it overhang 1/2-inch. Crimp the crust.
For many youth in California, agriculture is becoming part of their urban experience. Urban farms, edible parks, and garden education programs are thriving in cities across the state. These places grow food, teach youth job skills, create community green space, and help build food security.
Steven Palomares is one of those youth. As an intern at WOW Farm in 2016, Steven grew and harvested produce, delivered it to local restaurants, and participated in a weekly business management class.
"I like to think of this garden as very important to the community,” said Steven. “Since most of [Oakland] is low income neighborhoods, this farm provides access to fresh organic produce. It also teaches the youth a set of job skills they can apply to other jobs, and teaches them a bit more about nutrition.”
Many youth echo Steven's sentiment, finding skills, purpose, community, and good food at the sites they are a part of.
The UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (UC SAREP) and UC Cooperative Extension Los Angeles County have been working together to better understand the ways the University of California can support urban agriculture through the lens of youth participants.
These two videos, funded by the UC Global Food Initiative, are part of an ongoing effort to build strong connections between the University of California and urban agriculture programs. They highlight the community-based work of these programs and show some of the challenges they face.
In this video, Bay Area youth share their experience at urban agriculture programs, and program manager share their goals and challenges.
In this video, youth give us a tour of Southern California urban agriculture programs, their visions, and needs.
Currently, UC Cooperative Extension has two advisors dedicated to working with urban agriculture. Rob Bennaton works as an urban agriculture advisor in the Bay Area, and Rachel Surls works with urban farms as Los Angeles County's sustainable food systems advisor. UCCE hosts a growing website of resources for urban farmers, urban agriculture advocates, and policy makers.
"Our hope is that, by listening to people working in urban agriculture and building partnerships with them, we can find long term, meaningful ways to support their work,” said Gail Feenstra, deputy director of UC SAREP. “They share so many of the same goals as the UC — they're really focused on developing leaders who will make our cities healthy, prosperous places to live."
Steven Palomares may just be one of those leaders. In fall of 2015, Steven began his freshman year at UC Davis majoring in biological sciences and political science, interested in pursuing work that integrates science and policy. Also on his mind: someday Steven wants a home garden growing all the necessary produce for salsa and guacamole.
“The goal of our study is to provide organic farmers with science-based strategies that effectively limit food-safety risks when using raw manure-based soil amendments,” said Alda Pires, UC Cooperative Extension urban agriculture and food safety specialist in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis.
To study the survival of pathogens in soil and soil health, UC scientists are recruiting California growers who use raw or untreated manure in organically grown crop fields.
Pires is leading the project in California with Michele Jay-Russell, a veterinary research microbiologist and manager at the Western Center for Food Safety at UC Davis.
The researchers will visit participating farms eight times over the 2017-2018 growing season.
“We will collect produce, water, soil and manure samples,” said Jay-Russell. “All of the samples will be tested for bacterial indicators such as nonpathogenic E. coli and pathogens. We will ask the farmers to complete a short survey. The study is voluntary and all locations and names will be kept confidential.”
Eligible California farms must be certified as organic by the National Organic Program or California Certified Organic Farmers and fertilize with raw manure or untreated manure from dairy cattle, horses or poultry. The farms can grow any of the following produce: lettuce, spinach, carrots, radishes, tomatoes or cucumbers.
This study is being conducted in other states by the University of Minnesota, University of Maine, USDA Agricultural Research Service's Beltsville Agricultural Center, USDA Economic Research Service's Resource and Rural Economics Division, Cornell University and The Organic Center. The project is funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Organic Research and Extension Initiative grant.
Before you gobble down that Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie, take a moment to maximize your enjoyment.
The University of California has experts on every topic imaginable, including food and the science of taste and sensory experience. Here are their pro tips on making the most of your holiday meal.
1. Slow down and pay attention
People get the most pleasure from their food when they take the time to savor it fully, said UC Davis sensory scientist Michael O'Mahony. Try having everyone at the table taste the same food and then describe all the sensations they get from it. Everyone can write them down and then share their lists with each other. The person who finds the most sensations wins.
2. Smell your food
Flavor comes from both smell and taste, but the brain makes it difficult to tell the difference. When you smell your food while eating it, the volatile molecules go up to the nose through a back passage and stimulate the smell receptors. That's one of the ways the brain knows there is food is in your mouth. But rather than triggering a smell sensation, it feels like a broadening of taste.
Here's an experiment to show how much smell contributes to flavor: Hold your nose while putting some food in your mouth. Concentrate on the taste sensations you are getting. As you swallow, release your nose and notice how the flavor expands. The experiment works best with foods that have a strong odor such as a wine, sweet fruit drinks or gravy.
“Every time you eat you experience an illusion,” O'Mahony said.
3. Add salt in a pinch
If your host happens to serve a cheap red wine that is high in tannins (bitter), here's a tip to make it taste better: Put a pinch of salt in your mouth, O'Mahony said.
“The salt suppresses the tannin,” O'Mahony said. “Taste it again and it will taste like a mature wine.”
4. Think beyond bitter, salty, sour, sweet and umami
Are there more than just five basic tastes?
“It depends what you mean by basic taste,” O'Mahony said. “No one has ever really defined it properly. So it is a bit silly to say there are five things when we haven't actually defined what we are talking about. Whatever definition we choose, we don't know how many there are. There are certainly lots of different tastes.”
Amina Harris, director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center, convened a taste panel to help develop the honey flavor wheel with more than 100 flavor profiles from leather and lemon to cotton candy and even cat pee.
“In general, honey is called sweet, but it has a huge amount of flavors,” Harris said. “Cat pee,” she adds, “is real. It's very pungent.”
5. Try new things
There are more than 300 honey varieties available in the United States. Citrus has even more diversity.
Tracy Kahn curates UC Riverside's Citrus Variety Collection, one of the world's largest with more than 1,000 varieties of citrus and citrus relatives.
“We have ranges of colors, sizes and shapes,” Kahn said. “There are fruits that are red, blue, purple, orange and yellow. There are fruits as big as a person's head and as small as a green pea, and a tremendous amount of aromas.”
UC Riverside itself has developed more than 40 citrus varieties, including popular Tango mandarins, and is working to develop new varieties all the time, including ones resistant to citrus greening disease.
For young children, Kahn suggests Kishu mandarins, which are small, seedless, sweet and easy to peel.
6. Be bold
Try mixing in your time-honored traditions with something new.
Kahn suggests making an appetizer with Australian finger lime, a citrus relative that tastes like lime but looks like caviar.
“Specialty chefs are using this,” Kahn said. “You could serve it with cream cheese and smoked salmon on crackers.”
Yuzu looks like a yellow mandarin, but it's not sweet and has a strong aroma. Its acidic juice can be used in sauces such as ponzu, she said.
Kahn also likes to add citrus to water. She suggests using variegated pink-fleshed Eureka lemons, which have rinds that are green, pink and white.
“They look beautiful in water,” Kahn said.
If you're looking for an alternative adult beverage, try mead (honey wine), said Harris, whose center at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science hosts courses in making the popular drink.
This Thanksgiving, Harris plans to make a walnut-cranberry tart with honey instead of corn syrup while her daughter will make samosas instead of mashed potatoes.
“It's fun to push the envelope,” Harris said. “Let's go play.”
7. Know your limits
The holiday spread can be filled with temptations. Enjoy, but choose wisely. Don't eat until it hurts. Remember, some of the dishes might taste even better the next day.
“There are always leftovers,” Harris said.
This story en español.
Fifty-five years ago, Thomas J. Lipton Inc. funded a tea study at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier, which is piquing the interest of scientists today. For 18 years, researchers pampered and coaxed 41 tea clones to determine whether tea plantations could be a lucrative alternative for San Joaquin Valley farmers.
Scientists of the time predicted a potential $25,000 economic value of future California tea plantings. Today, tea is a $3.8 billion business in the U.S. and UC Davis recently launched a Global Tea Initiative. Kearney submitted its yellowed research reports, correspondence and newspaper clippings about the long-ago tea research to the initiative's collection of research, teaching and outreach spanning agriculture, social sciences, health, culture and economics of all things tea.
That got the attention of UC Davis chemistry professor Jacquelyn Gervay-Hague, who is studying microbes in the soil where tea is grown and their potential impact on the health attributes of tea.
“I believe there is a microbial exchange that ends up in the cup,” she said.
When the Kearney tea research program was scrapped in 1981, a prescient researcher had a handful of the best tea clones planted in the landscape around buildings at Kearney, where they stand today as fall-blooming non-descript shrubs.
Hague, who with her students frequently travels overseas to sample soil on tea plantations, learned of the plants at Kearney and recognized the opportunity to conduct studies in California.
“It's really remarkable,” she said.
Kearney director Jeff Dahlberg believes the renewed interest in the center's tea, growing awareness about the healthful properties of tea, and increasing enthusiasm for artisanal tea and locally grown food could turn tea into a lucrative specialty crop for small-scale San Joaquin Valley farmers.
“This may be something like blueberries,” he said. “Twenty years ago, people thought they couldn't be grown in California. But with research conducted here at Kearney, there is now a thriving blueberry industry in the San Joaquin Valley and on the coast.”
It was the same intention that prompted Dahlberg's predecessors to support the tea studies in the 1960s and 70s.
At that time, 41 clones were propagated in a lathe house at Kearney, and later planted in a half-acre field plot. In 1967, UC Cooperative Extension agronomy researcher Karl H. Ingebretsen told a newspaper reporter that the plants came from clones that survived a similar USDA trial in the 1880s.
“Most of the imported plants were taken from some growing in South Carolina, where the Lipton company found them 10 years ago growing wild,” Ingebretsen said in 1967.
The Kearney superintendent at that time, Frank Coddington, said the scientists hoped successful experimentation would lead to varieties of tea suitable for mechanical harvest and the production of instant tea, a product that in those days was becoming more and more popular.
The tea clones at Kearney grew well and appeared healthy, the reports said. Tea plants tolerated California's dry climate and stood the heat when irrigated properly. Five of the 41 clones were reported to show “real promise,” but when the tea project was terminated in 1981, only a few plants representing two of the clones were saved as landscape shrubs. Nine plants now grow on the west side of a corrugated tin warehouse, and four in the shade of knobby flowering pear trees just south of the original building at the site.
Gervay-Hague plans to build on the results from early Kearney research with 21st Century agricultural production tools.
“I won't repeat the work done in the 60s, but they didn't know about the microbiome or genetics back then,” she said. “UC Davis has 3D imaging capability, which I want to use to watch the plants change. I would like to do DNA testing.”
The UC Davis chemist is applying for grants to build a repository of plants that may become the foundation of commercial tea gardens in California.
This story en español.