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No Ordinary Nut

Sweet or savory, winter's dishes spring to life with the hazelnut.

January 31, 2001|DEBORAN MADISON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For several months now I've had three hazelnuts sitting on my desk. They are not at all alike. One is your usual-looking round hazelnut; one is the same only a lot larger, and the most interesting is the third, which is long rather than round, almost like an almond.

The first one I'd recognize anywhere, for it's the variety that's most common, the Barcelona. The second would surprise me by its sheer size if I didn't know it was an Ennis, a variety that naturally runs large. But I never would have guessed that the third was even a hazelnut--it is, and its name is DuChilly.

I found the DuChilly at the farmers market in Bellingham, Wash., last October. Standing in line in front of the hazelnut booth (business was brisk for the hazelnut cookies), my eye fell on a bag of DuChillys, and I asked the young man who was selling, "Why are these nuts long, rather than round? Are they really hazelnuts?"

He said that it was a special variety that his family grew. I wanted to know more, but he was too busy to talk. He said, however, I could visit the farm.

Luck had always been with me on previous visits to Washington, and I'd never seen even Seattle in the rain. But the next day when my husband and I set out on a drive nearly to the Canadian border to track down the DuChilly hazelnut, it didn't stop pouring for a minute. Being from an arid state, we didn't really mind. It was different to drive around in the rain, and after only a few wrong turns and minimal backtracking, the sign for Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards finally appeared out of the gray.

The gift shop was closed, and no one seemed to be about. But I've learned that if you start to trespass, no matter where you are, someone will appear. And that's exactly what happened. As soon as we started nosing around, the uncle of the young man at the booth came out of a large shed and greeted us. He led us out of the rain into the drying room, where enormous vats of hazelnuts were gradually losing their moisture to 105 degrees of blowing heat. After standing around in our winter jackets in the indoor equivalent of Santa Ana winds, we finally went downstairs to talk in the welcome damp of the shed.

The Holmquists' orchard is one of the largest in Washington, and hazelnut trees--shrubs actually--were everywhere in sight, rows that seemed miles long. The Holmquists attribute much of their success to the DuChilly hazelnut. It is a sweeter variety than the more familiar Barcelona, and it lacks the bitterness that is so often detected in the hazelnut skins. The difference was clearly detectable in side-by-side tastings.

I brought quite a few pounds of these long nuts home with me, and in the time I've been using them, I have never felt compelled to skin them. But because DuChillys are not readily available, when mine run out, I'll go back to the Barcelona and the easy process of roasting them to loosen their skins, then rubbing them off in a dry kitchen towel.

Hazelnut oil, like all nut oils, echoes the flavor of the nut, and if the nuts have been roasted before pressing, the flavor is at least doubled. The Holmquists have pressed some of their nuts into a light, unroasted oil. While it doesn't have the heft of oils made from roasted nuts, it does have a presence.

I have been using it in vinaigrettes to spoon over pears, persimmons and fennel in winter salads (often in combination with the roasted nuts themselves) and to drizzle into artichoke soups.

In the absence of unroasted oil, you can combine the heavier roasted hazelnut oils, such as those made by Loriva or any French company, with some light olive oil. Oddly, toning it down some allows more flavor to be tasted. Less is actually more here.

Like all nuts, hazelnuts find a natural home in the world of confections. They do very well in cookies, rusks, biscotti, nut pastes, nut tortes, crackles and shortbreads in place of whatever nut is usually called for.

A chocolate chip cookie variant with roasted hazelnuts in place of walnuts and chopped bittersweet Scharfen Berger chocolate is indeed a worthy cookie.

However, there are savory uses for hazelnuts too. They are an important component of romesco sauces (often mixed with almonds) and the nuts and oil both, as mentioned, flatter a number of vegetables, among them asparagus, leeks, mushrooms, artichokes and fennel and fruit such as pears and Asian pears.

All these vegetables and fruits, it turns out, are at their best during the cooler months of the year. Not that a hazelnut won't taste good any other time, but this is the season during which these rich, dense little nuts are most appealing.

*

Madison is author of "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" (Broadway Books, 1997).

Hazelnuts from Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards can be purchased by calling (360) 988-9240 or (800) 720-0895 or by faxing (360) 988-6202. DuChillys are $7 per pound. Oils are $4 for 5 ounces. Many other hazelnuts are available.

Hazelnut Crisps

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes plus 1 hour chilling

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