No Ordinary Nut

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

Fragile, crisp and very good.

1 cup toasted hazelnuts

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1/2 cup brown sugar, packed

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg yolk

1 1/4 cups flour

* Grind or pulse the hazelnuts with the granulated sugar in a food processor until fine, but with a few chunks scattered throughout.

* Cream the butter and brown sugar with the salt until light and fluffy, then stir in the vanilla and egg yolk. Stir in the hazelnuts and the flour.

* Shape the dough into a rough log, wrap it in wax paper or plastic wrap, then run the dough between your thumb and forefinger to force it into a cylinder about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Keep it round, or square the sides. Refrigerate the dough until firm, at least 1 hour, preferably longer.

* Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

* Cut the log into 1/3- to 1/4-inch thick slices and place them on 2 baking sheets, leaving at least 2 inches between each piece. Bake until lightly browned on top, about 15 minutes. Remove the crisps to a rack to cool; they'll get crispier.

About 27 crisps. Each crisp: 93 calories; 57 mg sodium; 17 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.45 gram fiber.

Hazelnut Torte With Espresso Cream

Active Work Time: 40 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

TORTE

2 cups toasted hazelnuts

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar, divided

3/4 cup cake flour

1/2 teaspoon salt, divided

7 egg whites

6 egg yolks

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Powdered sugar, for dusting

* Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan.

* Grind or pulse the hazelnuts and 1/4 cup of the granulated sugar in a food processor until the nuts are finely ground, but not so long that they turn to nut butter. Add the flour and half of the salt and pulse several times more to make a powdery texture.

* Beat the egg whites with the remaining salt until they form soft peaks. Gradually pour in 1/2 cup of the sugar and continue beating until the peaks crest softly without collapsing. Scrape them into a large bowl. Add the yolks to the mixing bowl without washing it. Add the remaining sugar and beat on high until the batter is thick and pale and a ribbon holds for 3 seconds. Add the vanilla.

* Fold the yolks into the whites, and then sprinkle a fourth of the nut and flour mixture over the eggs. Mix the batter thoroughly, but take care not to overmix and deflate the whites. Fold in one-third of the flour-nut mixture, followed by a third of the melted butter. Continue until all the nuts and butter are used. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the center of the oven until browned and the sides are slightly pulling away from the pan, about 1 hour. Remove, cool slightly, then remove the rim.

* Serve the cake with the baked side facing up or reverse it and remove the base of the pan for a smoother surface. Shake the powdered sugar through a strainer over the top of the cake and serve it with the Espresso Whipped Cream.

ESPRESSO WHIPPED CREAM

1 cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons cold espresso or very strong coffee

2 tablespoons Frangelico, or other hazelnut liqueur

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon powdered sugar

* Whip the cream until it forms soft, billowy peaks. Whip in the espresso, Frangelico, vanilla and powdered sugar. Don't let it get stiff. Serve spooned over or alongside each piece of cake.

10 to 12 servings. Each of 12 servings: 430 calories; 149 mg sodium; 144 mg cholesterol; 23 grams fat; 54 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 1.48 grams fiber.

Hazelnut and Chocolate-Flecked Rusks

Active Work Time: 40 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

I think of rusks as Swedish biscotti. They are twice baked, cut on the diagonal, but the dough includes a tenderizing 1/2 cup of sour cream. The dough will not taste sweet enough until the rusks have gone through their second baking and drying--then, you'll find, the amount of sweetness is just right. I like to use Scharffen Berger chocolate.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed

2 eggs plus 1 egg yolk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 cup sour cream or creme frai^che

4 cups flour, divided

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup finely chopped, roasted hazelnuts

1 cup chopped semi-sweet chocolate

* Heat the oven to 325 degrees.

* Beat the butter and sugar until they are light and fluffy, then add the eggs 1 at a time and egg yolk, beating well with each addition. Next beat in the vanilla and sour cream.

* Combine 1 cup of the flour with the salt and baking soda and add it to the batter. Add the remaining flour 1 cup at a time until the dough is stiff, and then add the hazelnuts and chocolate. You may have to incorporate the last of the flour, nuts and chocolate by hand.

* Divide the dough into 4 pieces and roll each piece into a log about 1 1/2 inches across. Set the logs on baking sheets and bake until they are golden brown, about 40 minutes.

* Remove and slice each log diagonally about 1/2-inch thick.

* Place the pieces cut side down on the pans and bake them until browned, an additional 30 to 40 minutes.

40 rusks. Each rusk: 128 calories; 75 mg sodium; 25 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.79 gram fiber.

Romesco Sauce

Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 35 minutes

Serve this thick sauce of grilled peppers, chile and roasted hazelnuts with roasted potatoes, grilled leeks and grilled fish. Or spread it on garlic-rubbed croutons and cover with sliced green olives and parsley for a little appetizer.

2 red bell peppers

1 slice country-style white bread

Olive oil, for frying

1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts

3 cloves garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons ground red chile or hot paprika

4 small plum tomatoes, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Salt, pepper

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1/4 cup Sherry vinegar

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, preferably Spanish

* Broil the peppers 4 inches from the heat, turning to blacken all the sides, about 10 minutes. (You can also roast the peppers on top of a gas flame.) Place the peppers in a paper bag 10 to 15 minutes, then peel off the charred skins. Cut out the membranes and seeds and set the peppers aside.

* Fry the bread in a little olive oil until golden and crisp. When cool, grind the nuts, bread and garlic in a food processor until they are fairly fine.

* Add the ground chile, tomatoes, parsley, salt and pepper to taste, paprika, bell peppers, and Sherry vinegar and process until smooth. With the machine running, gradually pour in the oil. Taste and make sure the sauce has plenty of piquancy and enough salt.

3 cups. Each tablespoon: 40 calories; 28 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.15 gram fiber.

Pear and Hazelnut Salad With Hazelnut Vinaigrette

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Vary the colors in the salad by using green and red Bartlett pears. Look for hazelnut oil at specialty food stores and markets. It has a short shelf life; once opened, it will keep about 6 months in the refrigerator. You'll probably have enough vinaigrette left over for another use.

HAZELNUT VINAIGRETTE

1 1/2 tablespoons Sherry vinegar or tarragon vinegar

1 shallot, finely diced

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons roasted hazelnut oil

1/4 cup light olive oil

Freshly ground pepper

* Combine the vinegar, shallot and salt in a medium bowl and set aside for 15 minutes. Add the hazelnut and olive oils and whisk well until the dressing is thick and smooth. Season with pepper to taste. Taste and adjust the amount of vinegar or oil if needed. Makes about 1/2 cup.

SALAD

1/4 cup toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped

3 pears, cored and thinly sliced lengthwise

Salt

3 to 4 tablespoons Hazelnut Vinaigrette

3 handfuls watercress, stems removed

* Place the nuts and pears in a bowl, sprinkle with a few dashes of salt and toss with enough dressing to coat lightly.

* Divide the watercress among 4 chilled plates, then distribute the nuts and pears evenly among the greens.

4 servings. Each serving: 293 calories; 233 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 24 grams fat; 21 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 2.67 grams fiber.

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Peeling Hazelnuts

Hazelnuts have papery peels that need to be removed before the nuts can be used in a dish. Getting rid of the peels is simple: Toast the hazelnuts on a jellyroll pan in a 350-degree oven until they are fragrant, about 10 to 15 minutes. Spread a handful at a time on a dry kitchen towel and rub them briskly. The peels will come right off.

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