This year I did not have to go ‘nutting’ - the nuts came after me. When I went out the door the other day I was pelted by clusters of hazelnuts - talk about truth hitting home! The summer had passed me by and I had forgotten that September is upon us and it was time to go nuts - collecting hazel, walnuts and other goodies. The hazelnut that had knocked me out turned out to be a most interesting creature - a large, tightly packed fuzzy ball with several nuts hiding in frizzy sheaths. At a distance it looks more like sweet chestnuts than hazel. I don't recall ever having seen hazelnuts like that before. The only hazel I had ever come across previously is the common bushy hedge plant and undergrowth tree, whose nuts were forever evading me - either the squirrels got them before I did or they are were rotten. But this year, having moved to the city, I made my first acquaintance with a hazel-tree (Corylus colurna). And quite a stately tree it is! The ones guarding my street (occasionally bombarding hapless passers-by) are 20 to 30 meters high, I can almost pick the nuts from my second floor window. They are still a little green and probably worth waiting for a couple of weeks longer - when I see the squirrels making a run for them I know it must be time.
More commonly hazel bushes occur in deciduous woodlands and on the edge of forests or fields. Just after the last ice-age hazel was one of the dominant trees of northern and central Europe. It was probably one of the most important sources of sustenance for our Neolithic ancestors, who no doubt helped to spread them by carrying supplies from one camp to the next.
Throughout Britain and Europe hazel has long been revered, not just as a source of food, but also for its magical properties. According to ancient plant lore, hazel was one of the preferred woods used to craft magical staffs or wands as it is said to be an excellent energy conductor. To this day it is used to fashion dowsing rods, which are employed to trace hidden sources of water, earth energies and even hidden objects. But that is another subject entirely...
In Britain, hazel is often planted as a hedge plant and makes a welcome habitat for numerous small creatures that make themselves at home among its roots and branches - right by a handy food supply. But not only mice, squirrels and birds appreciate the nuts. Lucky is the forager who catches them at just the right moment. Hazelnuts are a rich source of vitamins and amino acids. They are also rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E, which may explain their reputation as an aphrodisiac food. Another explanation may be their highly suggestive shape, especially while they are still tucked in their protective sheathing. Or, perhaps that reputation arose at a time when 'nutting' used to be a community event that provided some welcome opportunities for disappearing behind the bushes with a sweetheart. Whatever the explanation may be, some people still swear by hazelnut's seductive powers.
Hazelnuts are very versatile. Of course, they can be munched right off the bush, but cracking is a little tedious. It is best to collect a bunch and let them dry for a few days until they can easily be freed from their sheathing. They still have to be cracked - an activity best done in company. The nuts can be eaten raw or they may be lightly toasted to remove the inner skin, which is a little bitter and astringent. Once they are completely dry they can be ground and used almost like flour, adding a beautiful nutty taste and texture to breads and cookies. Commercially, hazelnuts are available in many different forms: whole, shelled, ground, sliced, crumbled and even as a very tasty and healthy oil with a lovely nutty flavour that makes it a delicious choice for salad dressings. It is also very useful for home-made cosmetic preparations, as it is the only base oil with astringent properties.
Beware though - some unfortunate people are allergic to nuts. Obviously they should avoid both internal and external exposure to hazelnuts as well as their oil.
Hazelnuts are very versatile. They are equally suitable for both sweet and savoury dishes and can be incorporated into all kinds of imaginative recipes. Here are some suggestions:
When deep frying, try replacing half of the bread crumbs with ground hazelnuts for a nutty crispy coating.
Cream cheese balls coated in hazelnut crumbs makes a great party snack. Make a flavoured cream cheese, e.g. blend it with garlic and herbs, form little balls and roll them around in hazelnut crumbs.
Hazelnuts can be used in stuffing blends for vegetables or pastry pockets or blended with other nuts to make a delicious nut roast. The possibilities are endless. Below are just a few suggestions borrowed with kind permission from the Oregon Hazelnut Growers website. Of course they'd like you to use their nuts, but if you have the time to forage and crack them yourself so much the better:
Hazelnut Parmesan Crisps
Mix all ingredients together in small bowl. Scoop up a heaping tablespoon of the mixture and pack it firmly into the spoon. Turn the spoon upside down and tap to release mixture on to an ungreased baking sheet. With the palm of your hand press into a thin 2 inch round. Leave at least 1 inch between each wafer.
Bake in a 375 degree oven until golden, about 12 to 14 minutes. Let stand for about 2 to 3 minutes and remove with spatula to cooling racks. Makes 12.
These crispy wafers are delicious as an appetizer, alone, or with a topping like smoked salmon. They may also be crumbled and added to tossed salads. Be sure to remove from oven when they just start to turn golden.
Hazelnut Pumpkin Spice Cake
Yield: 1 8-inch layer cake
Cream shortening; gradually add sugars. Beat in eggs and pumpkin. Sift together dry ingredients and add alternately with milk to creamed mixture. Fold in hazelnuts. Batter will be heavy. Pour into 3 greased and floured 8-inch layer cake pans. Bake in 350 oven for 30 minutes. Cool 5 minutes in pans, then remove to cooling racks to cool completely. Add roasted, chopped hazelnuts to butter icing for frosting and garnish with sliced hazelnuts.
Frontier Hazelnut Vegetable Pie
Yield: 8 servings
Pre-cook broccoli and cauliflower until almost tender (about 5 minutes.) Drain well. Combine broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, onion, green pepper and cheese. Divide into two well-greased 8-inch pie pans. Top with Oregon hazelnuts. Beat together milk, Bisquick, eggs, garlic salt and pepper; pour over vegetable mixture. Bake at 400 for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden brown. Allow to stand for 5 minutes before cutting. * 10-ounce packages of frozen chopped broccoli, cauliflower and spinach may be substituted for fresh. Thaw and drain well. Do not pre-cook. NOTE: This dish may be prepared ahead and frozen, unbaked. Cover tightly with aluminum foil before freezing. Do not defrost, but bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes.
Northwest Salmon Hazelnut & Juniper Berry Sauce
Yield: 4 servings
Sauté salmon steaks and remove from pan. Add hazelnuts and Juniper berries. Deglaze with brandy. When mixture is reduced and alcohol is gone, add cream and cook until thickened. Salt to taste. Pour over warm salmon steaks. NOTE: You can add broken Oregon hazelnuts to any quick sauce to achieve a nutty flavor. (It must be a quick sauce to maintain the crunch.)
This dish seems particularly appropriate in light of the close mythological association between Hazelnuts and Salmon, both of which were sacred to the ancient Celts. In Celtic mythology, nine hazel bushes guard over a sacred pool, which was thought to be the source of the river salmon. As the hazel nuts would drop into the water they were eaten by the fish. For each nut they ate they developed a light spot on their skin and the more nuts they had consumed the wiser they were thought to be. And thus, those who ate the salmon gained their wisdom and poetic inspiration.
For more great recipes check out the Oregon Hazelnut Growers Website: http://oregonhazelnuts.org/recipes.htm
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