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Hazelnuts: Hard Nuts to Crack, But Ideal for Holiday Fare

An Oregonian learns about growing, harvesting, and cooking with the state's prized crop

As a newcomer to Oregon five years ago, I hoped to share a taste of the state with family and friends I'd left behind.

That year at Christmastime, I decided on hazelnuts as the perfect indigenous gift. I called in a favor from a produce broker and dragged home a 50-pound burlap sack of the golden- brown nuts. On the kitchen floor, I divvied up the still-in-the-shell nuts into lunch-sized bags, and addressed them to loved ones.

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Along the way, a few stray nuts rolled across the kitchen floor and into the living room, where my basset hound, Abigail, promptly cracked them open and munched on their sweet insides.

More important, though, the hazelnuts were a big hit with those on the receiving end of my shipment. And since then, I've learned a great deal about growing, harvesting, and cooking with these versatile nuts, which are farmed in my home state.

Hazelnuts, also known as filberts or cobnuts, are one of the most versatile nuts. Lucy Gerspacher, a culinary professional from Lincoln City, Ore., says the flavor is mild, and unlike some nuts, there's no lingering, bitter aftertaste. The flavor is in the nut itself, not in the oil.

``The Europeans have been using them for years in their fine pastries,'' says Ms. Gerspacher, who is in the process of writing a hazelnut cookbook.

Hazelnuts have been used for decades in Oregon, too. In fact, it's the official state nut. Oregon farmers produce 99 percent of the hazelnuts grown in the United States. (Turkey leads world production.)

Dorris Ranch, in Springfield, Ore., became the first commercial hazelnut orchard in the United States in 1903. It's now an interpretive center and store that stocks all kinds of hazelnut products - from hazelnut honey to hazelnut butter. The original orchard is still harvested each year in August and September.

Since 1903, Oregon farmers have continued to keep the state, and the country, stocked with hazelnuts, battling everything from the recent and destructive Eastern Filbert blight to rain at harvesttime. Hazelnuts drop from hazel trees when ready for harvest. One piece of machinery sweeps the fallen nuts into rows and then a harvester, similar to a combine, gathers them up. When it's raining, harvest turns into a muddy mess.

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Rick Birkemeier of Canby, Ore., grows about 260 acres of hazelnuts, keeping up a tradition his great-grandfather started when he planted a small orchard in the 1920s. He started helping his father with the crop in 1965 and has been growing hazelnuts ever since. ``It's our main crop. It's our bread and butter,'' he says.

This was a disappointing production year for Oregon hazelnuts, with outputs less than half of last year's. But what the nuts lacked in quantity they made up for in quality, so expect big flavorful nuts in the grocery store.

Commercially, they are ground up for cereals, candies, and breads. Oregon chefs use hazelnuts in a wide range of dishes, from soup and ice cream to lasagna and stuffing. For the rest of us, the hazelnut can be used in virtually any dish, especially during the holidays.

Hazelnuts are especially tasty when roasted, a process that brings out their delicate, sophisticated flavor and crunchy texture.

Here are a few simple uses for the hard nut:

* Roast and sprinkle them onto sweet potatoes, soups, or salads.

* Add roasted and ground up hazelnuts to pie or cheesecake crust.

* Add them whole, grated, or ground to stuffings or chicken dishes.

* They are also flavorful in melted butter, which can then be brushed onto fish or poultry.

Of course, Abigail, my basset hound, may have had the best idea: Simply crack them open and devour. They're sweetest when raw.

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