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When I lived back on the East Coast, if you had asked whether I liked hazelnuts, my answer would have been an emphatic "no." Hazelnut coffee and the imported oil for vinaigrettes were fine. However, the whole hazelnuts I occasionally encountered -- say, in a blend of salted, mixed nuts -- often tasted rancid. Nor did most chocolate-and-hazelnut confections, especially Nutella spread and those gold foil-wrapped Ferrero Rocher truffles, appeal to me. They seemed to mask any fresh hazelnut flavor.
So an epiphany came when I ate my first raw, unadorned Oregon hazelnut. Suddenly, its earthy, sweet flesh made it a favorite nut, second perhaps only to my native Virginia peanuts.
Of course, one can't avoid the freshest specimens in Oregon. The Willamette Valley grows a whopping 99-plus percent of the U.S. hazelnut crop. Oregonians spread hazelnut butter onto bread for PB&J, infuse beer and liqueurs with the nuts and mix hazelnut flour, ground locally by outfits as large as Bob's Red Mill, into cookies and cakes. We blend hazelnuts -- instead of pine nuts -- into our pesto. Even our pigs are hazelnut-fed. It's hard to avoid hazelnuts on menus, in grocery stores and at farmers markets here.
To avoid the rancid ones, ask to sample the nuts out of the bulk bin (if available) before purchasing. Seek out raw hazelnuts, which store better than their overcooked cousins. Even the roasted local ones I recently sampled at our food co-op tasted off -- almost burned -- to me. Imported hazelnuts generally come from Turkey, the world's top producer. Look for Oregon hazelnuts at gourmet, specialty grocers. You have to ask for them.
The state's more than 600 growers will gladly ship you some. The big orchards, third- and fourth-generation farms, sell the nuts, both plain and in candies, through their websites. Buy them still in their acornlike shells for that holiday nutcracker-by-the-fire ritual.
Just don't be surprised if some farmers call their crop "filberts."
"In Oregon, you grow filberts, but you sell them as hazelnuts," says Anita Azarenko, an Oregon State University horticulture professor with an organic apple and hazelnut orchard.
I thought the filberts I fell in love with upon moving here were a species distinct from -- and superior to -- regular hazelnuts. But it's just an old-fashioned name, introduced by French settlers, for the same nuts, which the British, not to complicate things, call cobnuts. The "hazel" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for cap or hat; the tree's genus name Corylus also invokes the helmetlike shape of the nuts. Oregon growers (and their marketing board) officially started calling their product "hazelnuts" in the 1980s, as demand for exports grew. Befuddled customers had been sending their "filbert" shipments back.
Oregon's temperate climate is perfect for hazelnuts. The Barcelona and Ennis varieties, in particular, thrive in the mild, wet winters and dry summers that also allow pinot noir grapes, berries and tree fruit to flourish in Oregon's well-drained soil. The state's orchards are busy planting new varieties resistant to Eastern filbert blight, the East Coast disease that has increasingly made its way west.
Though available year-round, Oregon hazelnuts are in peak season now. They lend themselves to heavier dishes -- think pappardelle with hazelnut cream -- throughout winter. It's always tempting to eat the nuts raw, straight from the bag. Chefs might disagree, but you can often skip the tedious skinning step, especially if your hazelnuts are small, with thin, hard-to-remove skins. Thicker skins can be more bitter.
Now I love hazelnuts in desserts, especially in fruit crisps and tarts, with caramel and whipped up into hazelnut gelato. My tastes just veer away from chocolate.
Savory hazelnut preparations, however, really shine this time of year. You can work them into any course -- appetizers, soups, salads, cheese plates and meat dishes. Hazelnut stuffing with the turkey, anyone? For inspiration, and wine and beer pairings, consult author and illustrator Jan Roberts-Dominguez's soon-to-be-released cookbook published by the Oregon Hazelnut Marketing Board.
"I now view hazelnuts as a bridge," Roberts-Dominguez says. "The flavor profile is amazingly broad, from smoky and toasty all the way to fruity."
I agree. In salads, hazelnuts serve as a mellow bridge between herbaceous greens and spicy, tangy vinaigrettes. Hazelnuts also straddle the seasons, in popular winter salads with crisp apples or pears and salty-sweet blue cheese. As the days darken, simply pair them with persimmons or grapefruit instead. I can hardly name an ingredient they wouldn't complement.
Unfortunately, the hazelnut crop is sparse this year. So gather them while you can. Just don't let the nuts go rancid on the shelf. Store your hazelnuts in the freezer, to better enjoy them throughout winter and into spring -- if they last that long.
How To Toast Hazelnuts
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lay hazelnuts out in a sheet pan in a single layer. Roast the nuts in the oven until they begin to turn golden and smell toasty, about 8 minutes (but up to 15 to 20 minutes for larger nuts). Better to undercook than burn them.
To remove the skins, transfer the still-hot hazelnuts from the oven to a paper bag or dish towel, enclosing it around the nuts so they steam and their skins start to blister away from the kernel. Rub the nuts together in the bag or towel for several minutes. Carefully transfer the cooled nuts to a bowl and discard the papery skins. Don't worry if you can't remove all the husks.
Roberts-Dominguez says she gets better results by placing the roasted, cooled nuts in a large plastic bin with a firm-fitting lid. If there are 4 or 5 inches of nuts, then make sure there's about 10 inches of head space above them. Then just shake the bin like crazy for about 60 seconds. The skins shed really well as the nuts crash into each other. Then go outside, pour them out onto a large try and blow away the papery skin. No mess to clean up inside!
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