The first word that comes to mind is scraggy. Well, that and bedhead. The four-year-old kind of bedhead where they’ve tried to smooth down the front of their hair with some water but left the tufts around the crown sticking straight up. Trying to appear stately but still rather rumpled. Besides that, I’ve never given the tree much thought. I guess there was the year I decided to prune its scraggy branches to form the shape of an umbrella. A fort for the kids. Oh, the irony. I’ve looked at that tree, day-in, day-out, from my kitchen window for seven years, through its green lushness of summer and its nakedness of winter, but never really noticed it.
A few weeks back, the mother of my beautiful neighbor, Farzaneh, happened to catch my eye as she was standing under a similar tree. A tree very much like mine. Scraggy and at the edge of the forest. She peered up into its leaves. I thought perhaps she was watching the darling songbirds that inhabit our trees here or the squirrels who use it like a jungle gym. She visits here from Persia 3-4 months at a time and although we do not speak a common language, we smile, we wave and there’s something comforting in that. I like it when she’s here. She didn’t last long outside before she disappeared but I noticed that she returned each day to the foot of the tree. My curiosity was peaked.
One early evening, as we were rounding up our children to come inside for dinner, I inquired of Farzaneh what it was her Mother was watching in the tree. “Hazelnuts. She’s looking for hazelnuts. It’s a hazelnut tree.” I was stunned. Of course, I am aware that Oregon grows almost 100% of the hazelnuts produced in the United States but still, a hazelnut tree, right here? Not a tree that someone consciously planted but one that appeared out of nowhere like a weed? When I think of hazelnuts, I think of desserts in swanky restaurants. The way that adding the word “hazelnut” to a recipe immediately increases its importance. The way the French put hazelnuts in everything. The “nut of royalty.” For such an upper-class nut you would think that the tree which produces it would be more…aristocratic and not so…scraggy. I just couldn’t believe I’d never noticed it before. Perhaps the hazelnuts on the ground could have been a clue.
I spent the next few days after my illumination researching the proper way to harvest hazelnuts, which involves…shaking the tree, gathering the nuts, peeling away the husks, and allowing them to cure for 4 weeks. Then, cracking them, peeling them and roasting them. And, in the end I decided to leave all of that to the experts. I would leave my nuts to the squirrels and their incessant chatter. They had, after all, discovered the bounty long before I did. Now, when I gaze out at the tree from my kitchen window, I have to wonder what else I’ve been looking at everyday but haven’t really seen?
Hazelnut and Parmesan Matchsticks
(adapted from Allumettes Noisette Thym by Clotilde Dusoulier)
If you haven’t happened upon Clotilde Dusoulier’s blog, Chocolate and Zucchini, you must check it out. Equally as charming is her first cookbook of the same name, Chocolate & Zucchini. (All in her beautifully written English, I might add.) This is one of her recipes I have wanted to try. Delicious! Would be perfect as an appetizer during the upcoming holidays especially when paired with a dry, white wine or a glass of champagne. Or, you can do as my children did, and devour them straight down with a mug of warm Ovaltine.
1 c all-purpose flour
5 tbls chilled, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
6 tbls freshly grated Parmesan
¾ c shelled, roasted hazelnuts, very finely chopped (skin-on is okay) I like Freddy Guys hazelnuts.
1 tsp dried thyme or 4 tsp fresh thyme, minced
1 tsp fleur de sel, sea salt or kosher salt
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk for glazing
To roast the hazelnuts, heat your oven to 350 degrees. Spread your hazelnuts in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Roast for 10 minutes, stirring once, halfway through.
In a large bowl, rub the flour and butter together until the mixture forms coarse crumbs. Add the cheese, hazelnuts, thyme and ½ tsp of the salt. Blend well. Add the egg and blend it in with a fork. Once the egg is absorbed, knead the dough lightly until it comes together and forms a ball. It should be smooth enough to be rolled out: if it is too dry, add a little cold water, teaspoon by teaspoon, until it reaches the desired consistency.
Divide the dough into two balls, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or up to a day. (If refrigerated for more than 2 hours, remove it from the fridge for about 15 minutes before you use it, or it will be too hard to work with.)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Roll out one ball of dough, thinly, on a well-floured surface to form a rectangle approximately 6 by 8 inches and 1/6 inch thick. Beat the egg yolk with 1 tbls of water in a small bowl. Brush over the rectangle of dough and sprinkle with ¼ tsp salt or do what I did and just crack your salt grinder over the top of the dough a few times.
Cut the dough into strips approximately 6 inches long and ½ inch wide. Transfer strips onto prepared baking sheet, leaving ½ inch of space between them. Repeat with the second ball of dough.
Bake for 13-16 minutes, until golden. Transfer dough to a rack to cool completely. They will keep for a week in an airtight container at room temperature.
For a “pressed-for-time” variation: Shape the dough into two logs (about 1 inch in diameter), put in the freezer for 15 minutes, slice thinly to form round crackers and follow baking instructions above.
All original text and photos copyright: Carrie Minns 2009