Mail-Order Mission: Roasted hazelnuts enliven waffles, chicken, pesto

Fall is here, and one of the foods that most embodies the season for me is the hazelnut. Think of any typical autumn food — squashes, apples, pears, for example — and the hazelnut is its boon companion. When roasted (and they should be roasted), they acquire a rich earthiness that pairs perfectly with bold flavors such as strong cheeses and assertive wines. They lack the slight bitterness of walnuts and have more depth than pecans.

Yet hazelnuts, also called filberts, have never enjoyed the popularity of pecans and walnuts, or almonds and peanuts. (Botany note: Those last four aren't technically nuts, but when you're cooking, why split hairs?) For some reason, hazelnuts have never had a large commercial advocate, no Planters juggernaut in the chips and pretzel aisle for them. Find hazelnuts — maybe — in the bulk food bin area.

Most of the world's hazelnuts are grown in Turkey. In many people's minds, though, they're associated with Italy, where they are an important crop for the Piedmont region in the country's northwest.

Most famous use? Nutella, of course, that beloved chocolate-hazelnut spread.

Here in the United States, hazelnuts are a Pacific Northwest crop. Most of the hazelnuts available locally from that region come from a consortium of growers. After reading a story about them in Martha Stewart Living, I began ordering mine from Fritz and Barb Foulke, owners of Freddy Guys Hazelnuts. Freddy Guys is a small, family-owned business. The Foulkes and their children only sell hazelnuts from the hazel trees grown on their 160 acres in Oregon's Willamette Valley. They roast them in small batches and sell them immediately either at farmers' markets or by mail to people like me. When I bite into one, it almost tastes still warm. It's that fresh. The roasting process also sloughs off most of the nuts' papery brown skin, which saves a tiresome step.

To roast your own, put raw hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and toast at 325 degrees for 7 to 10 minutes, checking several times so they don't burn. They should give off a lovely aroma. Remove, allow to cool slightly, place between dish towels and rub them until most of the skin is gone.

You'll notice that I don't include a recipe for a homemade Nutella-like spread. I tried and came up with some good chocolate-hazelnut concoctions, but have concluded that Nutella is Nutella and if I want some, I'll buy it. I did not lack for other delicious uses for my hazelnuts that I hope will be launching pads for your own creative cooking with these little gems.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

>>MODERATE

Hazelnut Crusted Chicken With Creamy Polenta and Seared Radicchio

This trio brings together flavors of Northern Italy, where hazelnuts are grown and where cooked cornmeal — polenta — is more common than pasta. The biggest deal is stirring the polenta constantly so it doesn't clump and stick. Start the liquids for it before you begin the chicken. By the time the chicken is in the oven, the milk and stock will begin to boil and you can cook the polenta while the chicken finishes its oven roast. Keep both warm while you take about 5 minutes to sear the radicchio. Radicchio is a member of the chicory family with a lovely white and deep red — sometimes purple — coloration and a bitter flavor. It's not the same as red cabbage, which is not a substitute.

For the chicken:

2 tablespoons salt, divided

4 boneless, skinless breasts, halved crosswise to make 8

1 cup flour

3 eggs

2 cups finely chopped roasted hazelnuts

1 cup panko bread crumbs

Salt

3 tablespoons grapeseed or vegetable oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

For the polenta:

2 ½ cups chicken stock (preferably low-sodium)

2 ½ cups whole milk

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup polenta or finely ground yellow cornmeal (not quick or instant)

½ to 1 cup heavy cream, optional

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon hazelnut or olive oil

¼ cup Parmesan cheese

For the radicchio:

2 heads radicchio

1 tablespoon grapeseed or vegetable oil

Salt and pepper

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

Optional garnishes: Olive or hazelnut oil, grated Parmesan and chopped Italian parsley

To prepare chicken: Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking pan with foil or parchment. Heat butter and oil in a large, heavy skillet on medium-high heat. Season chicken on each side with salt. Put flour, plus 1 tablespoon salt, in a shallow bowl; beat eggs in another bowl, and combine nuts and panko in a third bowl. Dip chicken in flour, shaking off excess, then in the egg wash and finally coat well with the nut and crumb mixture. Saute in butter and oil, about 2 minutes per side or until coating is golden brown. Transfer chicken to pan and finish cooking in the oven, about 15 minutes. Turn oven off, leave chicken in oven to keep warm and remove when ready to serve.

To prepare polenta: Bring stock and milk to a boil over medium-high heat in a large saucepan and add salt. Reduce heat to medium and slowly pour in polenta or cornmeal, whisking constantly while it simmers. It will become very thick. Taste after 10 minutes to see if it has lost its raw flavor. Cooking time will depend on the coarseness of your cornmeal and could take up to 30 minutes. If it becomes too thick, add more milk, stock or use heavy cream. It should have the consistency of oatmeal (but smooth) and be spoonable. Remove from heat and whisk in butter, oil and cheese. Add more salt to taste if needed. Cover to keep warm.

To prepare radicchio: Remove outer leaves of the radicchio heads and quarter them to make eight portions total. Keep the core intact so the leaves stay together. Heat a heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat and film with oil. Add the radicchio and cook on each side until it begins to brown, about 4 to 5 minutes total. Transfer to a plate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and cover to keep warm. Add vinegar to the hot skillet, lower heat and simmer for a few minutes until it is a syrupy reduction. Keep warm.

To assemble: On each of eight plates, ladle a serving of polenta and add a piece of radicchio. Slice chicken and put one-half a breast onto plate. Drizzle radicchio with the balsamic reduction. If desired, garnish with chopped parsley, a drizzle of hazelnut or olive oil, and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan.

Serves 8.

Source: Lennie Bennett, St. Petersburg Times

>>EASY

Hazelnut Pesto

Unlike traditional pestos that are dominated by an herb flavor, usually basil, and lots of garlic, this one lets the hazelnut flavor reign with the surprise sweetness of orange instead of the expected lemon. It makes an unusual hors d'oeuvre or lunch served with lightly dressed greens such as watercress.

2 cups chopped roasted hazelnuts

1 cup shredded Parmesan

1 small garlic clove, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 tablespoon grated orange rind

2 to 3 tablespoons hazelnut oil

1 baguette, sliced and toasted until crisp

Put everything but the oil and bread in a food processor and pulse a few times to mix. Add oil in a stream. Don't overmix. Serve on slices of toasted baguette.

Source: Lennie Bennett, St. Petersburg Times

>>MODERATE

Hazelnut Waffles With Berry Coulis

Balthazar is a popular bistro in New York, and this is one of its favorite brunch dishes. If you don't have whole wheat flour on hand, increase the amount of all purpose flour. The waffles are served with a warm berry coulis (or sauce) but they're also fabulous with maple syrup and melted butter. If using it, make the sauce first and keep it warm while you make the waffles, which you can keep warm in a low oven, or even freeze and reheat.

For warm berry coulis:

6 cups berries, divided (use a blend of fresh strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries or a frozen bagged mix)

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

For waffles:

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

¼ cup honey

3 cups flour

½ cup whole wheat flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon baking soda

3 large eggs

1 ½ cups whole milk

1 cup sour cream

1 cup chopped roasted hazelnuts

To make berry coulis: Place half the berries in a medium saucepan. Add sugar and lemon juice and macerate for 30 minutes or until the juices are released. Bring the berry mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer uncovered until berries are soft, about 10 minutes. Strain mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a medium bowl, pressing on solids to release as much juice as possible. Discard the solids in the strainer. Return puree to the saucepan. Add remaining berries to the saucepan and warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally, about five minutes. Keep warm on very low heat while you make waffles.

To make waffles: Melt the butter with honey in a small saucepan over low heat. In a large bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, salt and baking soda. In a smaller bowl, whisk together eggs, milk and sour cream. Slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until well blended. Add the honey-butter mixture and hazelnuts and combine.

Cook in a preheated waffle iron according to manufacturer's directions.

Serve waffles warm, sprinkled with confectioners sugar and warm berry coulis (or butter and maple syrup).

This makes about 10 cups of batter. With my Belgian waffle iron, which has two 5-inch squares, I made six batches for a total of 12 waffles.

The coulis recipe yields about 3 cups, so you may want to double it.

Serves 6 or more.

Source: Adapted from Balthazar restaurant

.Fast facts

How to order

Freddy Guys ships several kinds of hazelnuts and hazelnut products. There is a $25 minimum, plus shipping costs. I order the roasted hazelnuts that begin at $6 for 8 ounces and the hazelnut oil ($16 for 250 ml bottle). If not used right away, store nuts in freezer and oil in refrigerator. But use the nuts as soon as possible. Their superiority lies in their freshness. Go to freddyguys.com for more information.

About the name: The company's funny name is a family one. Fritz Foulke's real name is Fred. Hawaiian friends called him Freddy and when now-wife Barb became his girlfriend she was Freddy's guy. Then their children became Freddy's guys. They chose the sentimental moniker, minus the apostrophe, for their company name.

Mail-Order Mission: Roasted hazelnuts enliven waffles, chicken, pesto 11/08/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 9, 2011 2:03am]

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