About two hundred yards from my childhood home, just down the hill from the dirt road, dead-end alley was a narrow path. Along the trail were a number of hazelnut trees. As a youngster my buddies and I would duck underneath the limbs of one particular tree to our world of lead soldiers, solitude and all the nuts we could eat. We cracked them by putting the nuts on a rock and pounding with another rock, you know, like the chimps do. Whenever I'm presented with mixed nuts and see hazelnuts my mind returns to warm summer days and a shady little nest. Our lead soldiers were actually old headless nails from the 1900s we had dug out of the ground at an industrial site at the bottom of the hill. The nails looked like Brancusi statues that presented a shape which the mind could mold into whatever it wanted to perceive.
Hazelnuts are also called filberts because in Germany they were harvested on St. Philbert's Day in the middle of August. In the US, Washington and Oregon states produce the most. World-wide, Turkey is the largest producer of hazelnuts, which is hard for me to believe, because each time I drive from Tacoma to Puyallup on Pioneer Way I usually end up driving past Filbert Acres, a small family farm. Hazelnuts seem so northwest. I always thought the farm sold hazelnuts, but not really. They raise hogs and the owners say, "Our USDA cuts of pork are special because our pigs have clean ground with fresh, delicious grass, locally sourced organic feed, and we finish the pigs on hazelnuts." Ah, that's the story of my life. I love pig food, or rather food from pigs.
For thousands of years hazelnuts have been used for much more than pig food, however. They've been used for everything from a cure for balding to a cold remedy. They're one of the superfoods.
The Linus Pauling Institute's Micronutrient Information Center provides trustworthy and useful information about the many health benefits of nuts.
One of the most popular products using hazelnuts is the Italian cocoa spread, Nutella. The first time Peg tasted the spread was when her family was living in Europe. The sensation of eating chocolate and hazelnuts on a croissant for breakfast was an eye-opener for her. She has since reconsidered the croissant, trading it for whole grain toast. The main ingredients of Nutella are sugar, palm oil (50% saturated fat and very small amounts of polyunsaturated fats, so only use small amounts), hazelnuts, cocoa solids, and skimmed milk. Nutella is great on whole grain toast like that baked by Roman Meal, but I prefer peanut butter, which is lower in calories and offers peanuts as the main ingredient. Peg, very seldom of course, likes to have whole grain toast with chunky peanut butter and Nutella on the crunchy browned bread. I think she pretends she is eating a chocolate covered peanutbutter cup.
A freeway now runs through the hill where I grew up, so I can't go back there to enjoy hazelnuts. I have to find other means. Hazelnuts are great in dishes like sautéed, caramelized Brussels sprouts and onions or garlic with toasted hazelnuts and a small amount of grated horseradish. They also can elevate a simple dish of green beans to something memorable. Peg has a casserole recipe that uses green beans, tomatoes, mushrooms and toasted hazelnuts, but the family prefers the classic green bean casserole with French-fried onions on top. (As a whole, they aren't as interested in more complex flavors or healthful eating as we are.) Of course the humble nuts are great in chocolates and truffles, but my favorite use of toasted hazelnuts is in salads. Leave the healthy skins on if you can, but they don't look all that great in a formal setting. A mixed green salad with toasted hazelnuts and thin pear slices with a little crumbled bleu cheese and a little maple vinaigrette is a "wow" starter for almost any meal.
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