A variation on a Hunanese sweetmeat that was a favorite recipe in my first cookbook, this has become an equally popular predinner treat at China Moon. The combination of rich pecans, fresh orange zest, and sugar zapped with a bit of salt is wonderful.

Soaking and drying the nuts alters them intriguingly. The soaking purges the bitter oils and brings out a striking richness. The drying leaves the nuts chewy. This step may be done as much as a week ahead of time. You can also caramelize the nuts in advance, but I like to do it just as the guests arrive. The warm pecans mate perfectly with a glass of cool Champagne or white wine.

If you are not a fan of spicy foods but have made it this far into the introduction anyway, simply use corn or peanut oil in place of the seasoned chili oil. The pecans will be delicious!

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Ingredients

  • 2 cups plump, perfect pecan halves
  • 1 orange
  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons plus ½ teaspoon sugar
  • Several twists freshly ground black or white pepper
  • 2 teaspoons China Moon Chili-Orange Oil

Method

  1. Place the nuts in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand 30 minutes, then drain. Flush with cold water, then drain again. To blot off excess moisture, roll the nuts in a colored kitchen towel or in a thick wad of paper towels. (The nuts will stain a white towel.)
  2. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Move a rack to the middle position.
  3. Spread the nuts on a baking sheet and dry in the oven for 30 minutes. Turn the tray and stir the nuts, moving the ones on the outside to the center. Return the nuts to the oven and reduce the temperature to 250°F. Check every 10 minutes and remove the nuts when they are 95 percent dry. Break one open; it should have a kernel of moistness at the core. If you are not proceeding immediately to caramelize them, let the nuts cool entirely, then seal airtight against moisture.
  4. While the nuts dry, wash the orange in warm water with an abrasive scrubber and a dash of liquid soap. When squeaky clean, rinse thoroughly and wipe dry.
  5. Combine the salt, sugar, and pepper in a small bowl. Using the small flat holes or small S-shaped figures on a grater, lightly grate the orange peel directly onto the sugar mixture. Do not grate any of the bitter white pith. Stir the mixture to incorporate the orange. If you are working in advance, seal the sugar airtight until you caramelize the pecans.
  6. To finish the pecans, heat a wok or medium-size heavy skillet over high heat until a bead of water evaporates on contact. Add the oil, swirl to glaze the pan, then reduce the heat to moderate. Add the nuts and toss (or stir) to glaze. When the nuts are very hot to the touch, sprinkle them evenly with a teaspoon of the sugar mixture and toss to coat. Continue tossing until the sugar melts, then sprinkle on a second teaspoon of the sugar mixture and toss again. Adjust the heat so the sugar melts quickly without scorching. Continue in this fashion, sprinkling the sugar and tossing the nuts, until the sugar is used up and the nuts are wearing a clear shell of caramel. The whole process will take about 4 minutes.
  7. Serve the nuts warm or at room temperature. Resist handling them hot from the pan because the sugar will burn your fingers.
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