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.
• Sauteed Calves’ Liver with Onions, Pancetta and Hazelnuts. This version elevates the classic liver, bacon and onions. I’ve also made this dish with chicken livers and bacon. Much of its success is because liver-lovers never let the meat cook beyond medium rare to pink.
• 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.
• 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.
Independent chocolatiers make Rolls-Royce versions of hazelnut chocolate spread. There’s Maglio from Sicily, in biz since 1875, and Guido Gobino from Turin. Both spreads are available at Mon Aimee Chocolat in the Strip District. Owner Amy Rosenfield also stocks a good handful of hazelnut chocolate bars and truffles, some made by a local chocolatier.
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 nitpick. 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.
SAUTEED CALVES’ LIVER WITH ONIONS, PANCETTA AND HAZELNUTS
Toasted hazelnuts, peppery pancetta and sweet red onions all add a wonderful texture that contrasts beautifully with the silkiness of the liver. Remember to give the outside membrane of the liver pieces a snip or two with scissors so they don’t curl. The fillets will be perfect when they are medium-rare.
Note: To render pancetta, cut the pancetta into ¼-inch thick slices, then into â…“-inch strips. Put the pancetta in a large skillet with a drop or 2 of olive oil. Cook slowly, stirring frequently until the pancetta releases much of its fat and softens but does not brown. Remove the pancetta with a slotted spoon. Reserve the rendered fat for cooking.
Olive oil as needed
4 cups thinly sliced red onion
¾ cup partially rendered diced pancetta
¾ cup flour
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1½ pounds calves’ liver, cut into 8 â…“-inch slices
1 cup chicken stock
6 tablespoons hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
Heat ¼ cup oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until tender, 7 to 10 minutes; remove from the pan and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in same pan over medium heat. Add pancetta, cook until lightly browned and almost crunchy, about 5 minutes; remove with slotted spoon, and set aside with onions.
Season the flour with salt and pepper. Heat ¼ cup oil in the same pan over high heat. Dredge the liver with the seasoned flour and shake off the excess. Add as many slices of liver as will comfortably fit in the pan, and sear 2 minutes each side for medium-rare; remove from the pan and keep warm. Repeat with the remaining liver.
Pour off the excess oil, add the stock to the pan and boil, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom, until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Return the onions and pancetta to the pan, and stir in the toasted hazelnuts. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Arrange 2 slices liver on each plate and spread the onion mixture over top. Serve right away with roasted potatoes. Makes 4 servings.
– “The Mediterranean Kitchen” by Joyce Goldstein (Morrow, 1998)
BROWNED BUTTER-AND-HAZELNUT MASHED POTATOES
This is a great dish to serve a crowd. But you can easily scale down the measurements to 4 or 2 servings.
3 pounds Yukon Gold or russet potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 cup hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup milk, warmed to steaming
7-ounce container plain low-fat Greek yogurt
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon pepper
Put potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and cook until potatoes are tender when pierced, about 15 minutes. Drain; return to pot.
Meanwhile, in a large frying pan cook hazelnuts over medium heat, stirring often, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add butter and cook, stirring frequently, until butter is golden brown and flecked with brown bits and hazelnuts are dark brown, about 5 minutes. Pour hot hazelnut mixture into a bowl and set aside.
Mash hot potatoes. Add milk, yogurt, salt and pepper, mashing to blend. Transfer to a serving bowl and spoon about half the warm hazelnut mixture over the top; serve the rest on the side.
Makes about 8 servings.
– Sunset Magazine
MUSHROOM AND HAZELNUT SOUP
This recipe from Chef Joyce Goldstein is a magical combination. You can taste the mushrooms and you can taste the hazelnuts, but the combination of the two is rich and complex, sort of a “wild nutshroom” flavor. I used a mixture of wild and domestic mushrooms. The soup can easily be cut in half. But you might not want to.
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted and skins rubbed off
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 cups sliced onions
14 cups (loosely packed) white or brown mushrooms, cut in chunks or left whole if small)
5 cups good chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Chopped parsley for garnish
Grind the nuts in a food processor and set aside. Melt the butter in a large deep saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sweat them covered about 5 minutes. Add enough chicken stock to barely cover and heat to boiling. Reduce the heat and simmer about 10 minutes.
Puree the mushrooms and onions with the nuts and a little of the hot stock in batches in a blender or food processor. Thin the soup to the desired consistency with hot stock. Season with salt and pepper. This soup can be made ahead of time and gently reheated. Thin it with chicken stock if it thickens too much.
– “The Mediterranean Kitchen” by Joyce Goldstein (Morrow, 1998)
HAZELNUT PESTO FISH
The sauce, a topping really, is good on any sort of fish you like.
1 large garlic clove
1 cup fresh cilantro sprigs
½ cup hazelnuts, toasted
¼ teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon salt
â…“ cup olive oil
1½ pounds Arctic char fillets with skin
Lime wedges for garnish
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 375 degrees. With motor running, drop garlic into a food processor to finely chop. Shut off motor and add cilantro, nuts, cayenne and ¼ teaspoon salt, then blend until coarsely chopped. With motor running, add oil blending until incorporated. Sauce should be coarse.
Arrange fillets, skin sides down, in a lightly oiled baking dish. Sprinkle with the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, then spoon pesto over fish. Bake until fish is opaque and just cooked through, 12 to 17 minutes depending on the thickness of the fillets. Garnish with lime wedges to squeeze over servings.
Makes 4 servings.
– Gourmet Magazine, 2006
HAZELNUT CORNMEAL CAKE
Italian in origin, this butter cake gets both crunch and flavor from toasted hazelnuts and cornmeal. Eat it any time of day. Have a wedge with an espresso for breakfast, or with a glass of wine for dessert. If any is left after a day or two, slice and toast it and spread with raspberry jam.
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted and skinned
½ cup finely ground cornmeal
½ cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
¾ cup sugar
4 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
Juice of ½ lemon, strained
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of an 8-inch round cake pan. Line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper cut to fit. Butter the paper and dust the bottom and sides of the pan with flour.
In a food processor or blender, combine the hazelnuts and cornmeal. Process until the nuts are finely ground. Sift together the cake flour, baking powder and salt onto a sheet of waxed paper. Stir in the ground nut mixture. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the butter and granulated sugar. Using a hand-held electric mixer, beat on medium-high speed until the mixture is light in color and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla.
In another clean bowl, stir together the egg whites and lemon juice. Using clean and grease-free beaters, beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks form.
Using a rubber spatula, gently fold â…“ of the dry ingredients into the butter mixture until almost fully incorporated. Fold in one-half of the egg whites. Fold in another 1/3 of the dry ingredients, followed by the remaining whites. Add the remaining dry ingredients, and using a light lifting motion with the spatula and continuously turning the bowl, fold in until the batter is smooth and the dry ingredients are incorporated. The batter should be quite light, almost foamy. Do not over mix, or the whites will deflate and the cake will be dense.
Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Bake the cake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Watch the time closely at the end so that the cake does not over bake.
Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Place a wire rack on top of the cake and invert them together. Lift off the pan and peel off the parchment. Let the cake cool completely on the rack. Cover the cake with a clean, slightly damp kitchen towel so that the outside does not dry out as it cools.
Using a fine mesh sieve, lightly dust the top of the cooled cake with confectioners’ sugar. Store wrapped with plastic wrap and aluminum foil at room temperature for up to 2 days, or freeze.
Makes 1 8-inch cake.
– “Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking” (Oxmoor, 2008)