Tickets to a play, a couple bottles of good wine, a fuzzy sweater. Those were among the gifts I received during the December holidays. Just what I like and much appreciated, thank you. But my favorite gift of all was nuts. Not crazy nuts – literally, nuts. The package I opened from family living in Eugene was filled with Oregon’s finest toasted organic hazelnuts. I remember squealing, “I’m rich, I’m rich!”
For the last couple of months, I’ve managed to indulge my passion by making soups, entrees, salads and desserts with my favorite nut. They are so delicious, the flavor never gets old. Here’s the short list of my kitchen experiments.
• Browned butter-and-hazelnut mashed potatoes. This will be on my Thanksgiving table next November. Until then, when I want lush potatoes, this is my go-to dish.
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• Mushroom and Hazelnut Soup. When people call you a good cook, the real reason isn’t always because of what you know but what combinations of flavors you choose. Like in this easy “nutshroom” soup.
• Hazelnut Pesto Fish. Just about any fish fillet is enhanced by a crunchy topping.
• Hazelnut Cornmeal Cake. Desserts are where hazelnuts really shine. Cakes, pies, candies, cookies, you name it. This unfrosted, one-layer cake is a good companion from breakfast through dinner.
The hazelnut’s BFF is chocolate. Just Google chocolate-hazelnut desserts to find a bonanza. Want a quicker fix? Open a jar of Nutella. Spread it on bread. Stir a big spoonful into hot milk, or stir another spoonful into hot coffee. Eat a big spoonful “neat” on the sly.
Nuts about nuts
Oregon is the epicenter of hazelnut production. That state has ideal weather conditions for growing the world’s highest quality nuts. The temperate ocean, mountain and river climates are paired with rich volcanic soils. Oregon produces 99 percent of the U.S. hazelnut crop. While representing just five percent of the world crop, Oregon hazelnuts have become the global benchmark for large size and distinctive flavor. And you thought the Willamette Valley was all about Northwest wines.
The more hazelnuts (or any nuts) are processed, the shorter their shelf life. It’s best to process (roast, chop, slice, grind) just before use. However, if you’d like to have hazelnuts handy for adding to a variety of dishes, then roast and freeze them in an airtight container. They will keep for more than a year in the freezer, and you can remove the amount you need.
If you can’t find blanched (skinless) hazelnuts when your recipe calls for them, use regular hazelnuts instead – just remove the dry skins first. Toast nuts on a baking sheet until fragrant and browned (about 10 minutes at 350 degrees), then wrap them, still warm, in a barely damp kitchen towel and rub and roll until they’re bare-ish. If a few bits of skin are left, that’s fine.
This is a good method for just eating out of hand. Roasting hazelnuts intensifies their flavor and develops their color. Best results can be achieved using a low temperature and longer time. To roast, spread whole nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 275 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Take care not to over-roast, as nuts can scorch quickly. To remove skins, wrap warm hazelnuts in a dish towel and let them sit for five to 10 minutes. Rub vigorously in the towel. Many varieties don’t lose their skins entirely, which is a good thing. Hazelnut skins add nutrients and color.
What’s in the name?
The name is controversial. Are they hazelnuts or filberts? Short answer, the names are interchangeable. Longer answer, advocates of either name like to nit-pick. People have regional preferences for what they call their local species of nut from the genus Corylus. If you are in eastern North America, they may be called either filberts or hazelnuts, depending on your family history. If you are in the Pacific Northwest, they are filberts to the older generation; the younger generation knows them as hazelnuts, thanks to marketing starting in 1981. If you are in England or Europe, you probably call them filberts unless you specifically are speaking about cobnuts, which are another story altogether. If you are in Turkey, you probably call them hazelnuts. Of course, in Asia the local names are completely different.
It could drive a person nuts.