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Hazelnut Heaven

by Steve Werblow
The rich flavors of the Northwest - robust Pacific salmon, musky mushrooms from foggy forest floors, cranberries from the coast, cherries from orchards along the Columbia River, onions from the high desert east of the Cascades - all find a complement in the earthy, elegant hazelnut.

Raw, its grassy overtones and creamy texture complement a Pinot Gris. Roasted, packing flavors of browned butter and the bite of tannin, hazelnuts venture into Chardonnay or even Pinot Noir territory. So it's a happy coincidence that hazelnuts - long called filberts in these parts - grow a stone's throw from the vaunted vineyards of Oregon's Willamette Valley.

In fact, about 800 growers in Oregon produce 99 percent of America's hazelnut crop in a 100-mile stretch extending south from Portland. Introduced from Europe in the mid-19th century, hazelnuts quickly found themselves right at home in western Oregon. The temperate, wet winters of the Willamette Valley perfectly suit the hazelnut's peculiar January flowering cycle. By the time the dry summer weather hits, the leafy, elegantly rounded trees shade farmers from the warm sun.

Meanwhile, there's something refreshingly and appropriately laid-back about hazelnut harvest. Most of the hazelnut farms are relatively small and not terribly labor intensive. Growers wait for the nuts to fall from the trees, then sweep them up into wooden totes. Ambitious growers may tap limbs with a stick to speed the process by a couple of days. Leave high-tech, highly mechanized harvests to another crop.

Europeans have been cooking with hazelnuts - especially paired with chocolate - for generations. But filberts haven't enjoyed the same status in the U.S. However, with growing recognition of the hazelnut as a local culinary hero, hazelnuts are enjoying increased exposure on innovative menus in the Northwest. The trend is beginning to catch on around the country as food aficionados are discovering the wonders and versatility of this remarkable nut.

No Secret

Hazelnuts have hardly been a secret outside the United States. Stone Age man left scorched hazelnut shells by ancient fire pits, exhumed by anthropologists in what is now Germany, Sweden and Denmark. That's not much of a surprise for scholars of prehistoric Europe - paleobotanists have determined that hazelnuts were among the first shrub-like trees to reforest the scarred valleys left behind by retreating glaciers.

Asia is also home to several native hazelnut species. In fact, a Chinese manuscript from 2838 BC declared that hazelnuts were among the five sacred foods given to man from heaven.

Today's commercial varieties may hearken back to the coast of the Black Sea, the bridge between Europe and Asia that is now Turkey. The bulk of the world crop hasn't moved far from that crucible - Turkey grows about 10 times the volume of hazelnuts as Oregon does, providing about two-thirds of the world's supply.

Healthy Hazelnuts

Hazelnuts have long been credited with all sorts of magical and curative powers. Greek physician Dioscorides had perhaps one of the most creative medical uses for hazelnuts: smear a mix of ground hazelnuts and suet on the pate to cure baldness.

Almost two millennia after Dioscorides wrote his prescription, Rogaine has eclipsed filberts to dominate the baldness remedy market. However, hazelnuts have still attracted the attention of modern-day physicians and nutritionists. There's a strong appreciation for folate, a B vitamin that may lessen the chance of heart attack and help rebuild damaged cells. Hazelnuts are the number two source of folate in the nut category, behind peanuts. They're also high in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, and argenine, an amino acid that helps widen blood vessels and may lead to lower blood pressure.

Hazelnuts contain 9.4 percent fiber by weight, which can help reduce the risk of colon cancer and heart disease. And even the fat in hazelnuts has attracted good reviews. Though fat comprises a sobering 80 percent of a hazelnut's calories, the overwhelming abundance of it is monounsaturated fat - the "good fat," the kind found in olive oil that can actually help lower cholesterol levels in the bloodstream.

Delightful Confections

Of course, it's the fat that helps make hazelnuts so good. Fat contributes to satiety, the feeling of fullness that makes food satisfying. And it makes the hazelnut so rich and luxurious in the mouth. It's the fat in hazelnuts that lift them above the austerity of the almond or the walnut, and make them worthy of a starring role in the richest of desserts.

Renowned chef Eric Laslow, owner of Laslow's Northwest in Portland, Ore., uses the rich flavor of hazelnuts as a counterpoint and complement to the heady aroma of Marsala in his semi-freddo, a blend of zabaglione, cream, diced fruit and hazelnuts. He also uses halved filberts for visual as well as culinary impact in a lush chocolate hazelnut terrine. "When you slice through it, the hazelnuts have a great presence," he notes.

Rob and Sally Hilles of Hazelnut Hill in Monroe, Ore., hazelnut growers who have built a thriving candy business from their orchard, produce chocolate-covered hazelnuts and a chocolate-topped hazelnut toffee that is divine in its simplicity - the classic pairing of hazelnuts and rich chocolate. But they also achieve remarkable success with Orange Toffee Perfection, a light toffee studded with diced hazelnuts and scented with orange oil. It's a recipe Sally adapted from her early years in the candy business, back when she was making three-pound batches to sell from her kitchen door and Rob was shoveling concrete to build the foundation of the couple's first processing shed.

Hazelnut Platter

Beyond Dessert

Hazelnut Hill, like several other hazelnut producer/processors, also sells raw and roasted hazelnuts - and that's where the fun really begins for foodies. Hazelnuts have migrated from the dessert plate to the salad bowl and the main course in recent years as chefs put the filbert to work. Consider it a shot at best supporting actor.

From a diet perspective, hazelnut accents make great sense. "Use hazelnuts and other nuts as condiments," recommends Kelly Streit, nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Oregon Dietetic Association. "That way, you get all the flavor without too much fat."

You can also get an exciting flash of smoky flavor and crunch, especially when using roasted hazelnuts. Halved or diced hazelnuts sprinkled on salads add snap with less sweetness than pine nuts and less of the tannic pucker of walnuts. Hazelnuts also hold their own in chutneys, soups and sauces. Laslow serves up a hash of diced red onions, applewood smoked bacon, chanterelles and diced hazelnuts as an accompaniment to salmon. In another play between hazelnuts and mushrooms, an earthy mushroom soup from San Diego's Grant Grill at the U.S. Grant Hotel is a symphony of low notes, finished with a cognac-hazelnut crème fraîche.

Hazelnut crusts are also a great accent. Studding lamb or beef with diced hazelnuts adds texture and new flavor notes. Finely ground hazelnuts fry golden and crunchy to gild dishes ranging from Laslow's hazelnut-laced, beer-battered fish and chips, to hazelnut-crusted, pan-seared fish.

Cooking With Hazelnuts

I'll confess that my early experiments with hazelnut crusts were pretty uninspiring. Golden crusts quickly turned brown; and though I had hoped to achieve a delicate crust that yielded to the fork with a light crunch, I often ended up with an overdone cladding that inflicted a harder crunch on the teeth. The problem, notes Laslow, lies in the oil. My olive oil didn't have a high enough smoking point - it burned quickly, and accelerated the burning process of the nuts. Try an oil with a higher smoking point, he recommends, like grapeseed or canola. After a minute or two on each side to brown the crust, finish the fillets in a 400° F oven.

Like Laslow, I like to start recipes with roasted hazelnuts - the way to deliver the foremost filbert flavor. The safest way to roast hazelnuts is in a single layer on a cookie sheet in a 275° F oven for 20 to 30 minutes, watching carefully until the nutmeat achieves the desired color. A 350° F oven will do the job, too, but you have to watch carefully - at that temperature, the difference between a rich roast and a cookie sheet of burnt nuts can be measured in moments.

Upon removing the nuts from the oven, place them in a damp kitchen towel and roll it vigorously against a counter or table to rub off the skins (I like to give them a few moments to steam in the towel just a bit and loosen up before I start rolling). After a few minutes of rubbing, transfer the nuts to a clean, dry towel and rub again to finish the job.

Even after all that rubbing, American hazelnut varieties will still retain some of their skin (Turkish varieties blanch more completely, notes Rob Hilles at Hazelnut Hill). Though many confectioners like a squeaky-clean nut, Laslow points out that a little skin can be quite a positive feature. For one thing, the visual effect of a variegated cream-and-mahogany kernel is lovely. And the tannins contained in the skin add some assertiveness to the hazelnut flavor. "A slight bit of that tannin in a sauce adds depth," Laslow says.

Assertiveness is also a factor of the size of the hazelnut pieces. Large pieces - whole nuts, halves, and large dice - tend to deliver wallops of smoky hazelnut flavor and lots of visual and textural appeal. Finer dice and ground nut meal head toward a more buttery flavor, creamier texture, and lighter nut overtone as the nut's oils become a more important component on the palate.

When grinding hazelnuts, it's important to avoid packing the food processor. "The more you put in it, the more likely you are to get something that looks like peanut butter," Laslow warns. In several confection adventures, I've also had success adding a teaspoon of sugar to the hazelnuts in the food processor. The crystals act as grit during the grind, helping achieve a fine, dry, uniform result.

Divine Indeed

Walking through a hazelnut orchard on a summer day as the unique, bearded husks bulge with growing kernels and sunlight dapples the orchard floor, it's easy to believe that hazelnuts are indeed a divine gift. And on a steely, Northwest winter afternoon when the long, yellow catkins shed their pollen though most other plants lie dormant, hazelnut trees demonstrate a heartening optimism that spring really will come, and with it a new crop.

But the real divinity of hazelnuts comes in the form of the gifts they deliver to the table - from soup through the main course to dessert to...well, to nuts.

Hazelnuts or Filberts?

If Oregon grows hazelnuts, what happened to all the filberts those farmers used to produce?

There's long been confusion over the word filbert. For one thing, nobody's quite sure where the name "filbert" came from - some believe it's because St. Philibert's Day marks the maturity of Europe's earliest hazelnut varieties; others say it's a bastardization of "full beard," a description of the pointed husks that envelop many hazelnut kernels. But since hazelnuts were planted in Oregon in the 1850s, they were typically called "filberts."

That is, until Oregon's hazelnut farmers started exporting their nuts to Europe, where kernels of the Corylus avellana are called "hazelnuts." In an effort to avoid confusion in the marketplace - Europe's chefs were confused, and European and Turkish hazelnuts were also coming into the U.S. - Oregon growers voted in 1994 to change the name of their product to "hazelnut" to get in step with the rest of the world's producers.

Storing Hazelnuts

Because they are high in fat, hazelnuts are best kept cold. Stored in a closed container in a refrigerator at 34 to 38° F, hazelnuts will keep for a year. Frozen below 27° F, they're good for two years.

Bring hazelnuts to room temperature in their closed container before use, and use quickly for best results.

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