Hazelnuts add kick to entree salads

Side salads become a main dish in so many simple ways.

Add meats, cheeses and eggs, of course, or beans and grains. Roasted vegetables, still warm and caramelized from the oven, draped over some baby greens and sprinkled with some Oregon blue cheese is a jazzy maneuver, too.

It can be very simple, really. For a speedy beef salad, season and cook skirt steak to desired doneness. Whisk together 1/4 cup red-wine vinegar, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 1/4 teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper, a pinch of sugar and 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Toss the vinaigrette with salad greens, sliced steak, a healthy crumbling of blue cheese and a handful of roasted and coarsely chopped hazelnuts.

In all of the recipes I'm providing here, I'm illustrating how the extra depth of the Oregon hazelnut can elevate a salad beyond the ordinary. So don't take the concept lightly. It's simple, and it works. When I'm garnishing main-dish salads with hazelnuts, I like them to be extravagantly varied in size, the way they become when crushed gently with the handle of a chef's knife.

All of which reminds me of the recipe that came to be after hazelnut grower Wayne Chambers came for lunch one day and handed over a bag of a beautiful-but-not-ready-for-prime-time hazelnuts. In other words, they were one of Oregon State University hazelnut researcher Shawn Mehlenbacher's test cultivars that Wayne was growing in his orchard.

"Wow!" I said. "These are so sweet and flavorful."

"What's the variety?" asked my husband, Steve.

"These don't have a name yet. They're just a number," said Wayne. "I doubt they'll make it out of trial because the darn things split during processing."

Well, even though they weren't up to Oregon hazelnut-industry standards in all ways, I wasn't about to let them go to waste. So the following week, I threw together a pretty amazing salad.

My goal was to play off the rich and smoky characteristics of these lovely, no-name nuts.

In my first go-around, I used some poached chicken that was lurking in the refrigerator. But on reflection, it didn't really stand up to the rich, blue-cheesiness of the sauce I had created. It could have been any meat.

Grilled chicken, however, was going to be the perfect balance for the sauce. Plus, it would be a bridge for the smoky-toastiness of the hazelnuts, bringing all of the ingredients into harmony. Steve said it more succinctly: "Yeah, grilled chicken is the better bet."

The hazelnut's crunchy-toasty-sweet-yet-smoky character also partners beautifully with such things as bacon, blue cheese, chicken, avocado and tomato. Wait a minute, that's sounding an awful lot like a Cobb salad. Well what do you know?

Pair hazelnuts with apple, cherries and jalapeno, and you've got a Waldorf salad on vacation in Albuquerque. Give this "ladies-luncheon" or brunch-buffet sort of offering an extra pepper and take it to a tail-gaiter.

All three recipes are from my latest cookbook, "Oregon Hazelnut Country, The Food, the Drink, the Spirit."

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of five cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com

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