Hazelnuts are worth all the hard work

As you may or may not know, Oregon produces 99.9 percent of the domestic hazelnut crop. And most of that crop is found in the Willamette Valley, where harvest is winding down.

The nuts had all summer to mature. They begin falling to the ground of their own accord in mid-September to early-early November, depending on the variety. Along the way, the orchards are meticulously cared for and groomed. Once the nuts are on the ground, they are mechanically swept into long windrows and then scooped up with a tractor-drawn harvester and poured into large totes.

The "first pick," as it's called, will be the bulk of the harvest. But as autumn winds rattle the rest of the crop from the trees, growers always hope to get back through the orchard for a "second pick" as well. And sometimes even a third.

At the end of a harvest, the totes are full, and the farmers are exhausted. The whole year has come down to those rows of wooden totes, each filled to the brim with 1,100 pounds of hazelnuts.

Some hazelnut farms are mechanized to the point of processing and marketing their own nuts after harvest. But most growers take their totes to one of 20 major processors — they're actually called "handlers" — in the state, where their nuts are cleaned, weighed and sampled. Once a handler determines what a given grower will be paid, based on weight and quality, the nuts are commingled with those of other growers for the rest of the journey through the plant.

First they're dried, which is an exacting and tedious process. The nuts are placed in large rooms in multiple levels where the temperature is maintained at 90 to 95 F. Depending on the moisture within the nuts, it takes 12 to 36 hours before the nuts are down to the target moisture content of 9 percent.

From the drying chambers, the nuts scoot along through the plant on conveyor belts where they are sorted for blanks and damaged nuts. At this point, some of the nuts are almost at the end of their processing line because they will complete their journey to the consumer within their shells. The rest are shelled and graded by kernel size.

Still more forks along the way send some of the shelled kernels straight into vacuum-sealed packages for shipping while others will continue along to be chopped into pieces of various sizes.

It's an exacting, exhausting process. One handler, Pat Ehli, president of P.J. Ehli Company near Albany, puts it this way: "It's funny how you can enjoy working a 16-hour day, seven days a week. Your growers are in, and generally that's a good thing. And you get the camaraderie, and everybody's all jacked-up for harvest. So it's fun. Not many people can go to work in the morning and really have a passion or a love for what they do. And I've been extremely fortunate.

"It's always nice when it's over, too. You can just about smell the finish line sometimes. When it's over, it's a very good feeling."

This is a great time for cooks to explore the world of hazelnuts because a fresh, new crop is coming to market. For cooking, I prefer to buy shelled, whole, raw hazelnut kernels in the bulk-food sections of grocery stores where I can evaluate their quality up close. Good ones will have a rich, sweet and nutty aroma. So when you begin to scoop the nuts from the bin, pay attention. If they don't seem fresh, let someone in the store know about it so they can replenish the bin.

Once home, I like to keep both raw and roasted kernels, prepped in various ways, in closed containers in the pantry so that when I crave a nut hit, they're ready to go. They're stable for at least a couple of months this way.

If you intend to squirrel away large quantities of hazelnuts, keep in mind that exposure to air, light, warmth and moisture will hasten rancidity. That makes freezing the best course. Properly packed, frozen, raw hazelnuts can have a shelf life of up to 24 months. Any treatment applied prior to freezing will reduce longevity. Roasted, whole hazelnuts tend to stay fresh in the freezer for at least 18 months; roasted and chopped, for about 12 months.

It's simple stuff — roasting hazelnuts. There is no absolute right way to do it. The pendulum swings from "low and slow" all the way over to "high and fast." I tend to go for the middle range: 350 F. At this temperature, you have quite a bit of control over the outcome. A medium roast only takes about 15 to 20 minutes. At higher temperatures, things move a bit quicker, and it's easy to overshoot your desired endpoint.

When you begin to smell the delicious, toasty aroma, it's time to start checking the roasting progress. The longer you roast hazelnuts, the richer their flavor. You have to decide how deep of a roast you want based on how you're planning on using them. For instance, I prefer a dark roast when combining hazelnuts with all things chocolate. It just seems to produce a more elegant flavor experience.

The time-honored approach to skinning hazelnuts is simply tumbling a batch of roasted and cooled nuts into a clean towel, folding it over and rubbing the nuts to remove the skins. But you can count only 40 to 60 percent success this way, depending on the variety of nut, and a big mess of skins escaping your towel. A big improvement with much less mess came on the advice of my granddaughter, Lily, at the time only 6 years old.

SKINNING — THE LILY METHOD: Just place your nuts in a sturdy, translucent, half-gallon or so plastic container with a secure lid. An oblong shape is best so you can create good velocity during shaking. Put your nuts in, replace the lid, then shake vigorously for about 45 seconds. Once the nuts have been shaken and you can see the flaked-off skins whirling around with the nuts, tumble them out onto a large baking sheet, head outdoors to your lawn or garden and simply blow away the skins. Thank you Lily!

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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