Even before I saw the leaves turning golden in the park, I smelled autumn in the air. The sun may have been generous and warm, and the summer visitors still packed the squares in Brussels, but the autumnal perfume was unmistakable–a nutty-musty melange of decaying leaves and wilting flowers. The anticipation of long dark evenings and bitter cold is enough to make anyone dread fall in the northern countries, but as the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin wrote, “Autumn attracts me like a neglected girl among her sisters.” Of course, then in the course of his poem he goes on to compare the beauty of fall to that of a girl dying from consumption, but that’s the complex Slavic soul for you. For my part, I love fall for its golden light and serenity as well as for its seasonal tastes.
A big pile of feathery green leaves and tawny shells at the Friday market last week caught my attention. “Noisettes Fraîches,” said the chalk drawn sign, and it took me a moment to realize that I was looking at green hazelnuts. Pushkin taps into my nostalgia for my childhood days and green hazelnuts are another reminder. I pillaged many a hazelnut shrub in my grandmother’s garden in search of tasty, not quite ripe nuts and have fallen many a time trying to get to the higher branches.
In season from August to October, green hazelnuts still wear their leafy jackets and look pale golden. Left to ripen fully and then dry out, hazelnuts taste sweet and creamy. Toast them, and they start tasting of coffee, caramel and chocolate. But while the unripe hazelnuts lack this kind of sultry flavor, they are addictive nonetheless. Some people liken them to green peas. But for me, fresh hazelnuts taste the way vetiver smells–earthy and green. They also have a delicate milky sweetness that lingers on the palate.
If you have a chance to find some unripe hazelnuts–whether by picking them yourself or at a farm store, I recommend eating them right away, because unlike mature nuts, they don’t keep well and they lose their delicate perfume within days. They are also delicious in salads, tossed with a tangy herbal vinaigrette. Sliced in slivers, they make a great accompaniment for autumn fruit salads and compotes. The best way to enjoy them is on their own with a glass of chilled white wine.
Green hazelnuts make a brief seasonal appearance in my kitchen, but the dry variety is what I keep on hand all year round. Like almonds, hazelnuts are versatile, while their flavor is rich enough to be used as a seasoning. Add a few spoonfuls of chopped hazelnuts to sauteed carrots for a caramelized twist. Dust lamb chops with ground hazelnuts and crushed pepper before giving them a quick sear. Substitute them for walnuts in your favorite brownie recipe. Or try one of my simplest and most satisfying desserts: dark chocolate dusted with crunchy salt flakes and a handful of roasted hazelnuts, eaten in alternative bites. Hazelnuts and chocolate form a marriage made in heaven.
My other favorite flavor pairing is hazelnut and bacon. Almost everything is improved by some bacon, but the toasty-meaty flavors of these two ingredients meld particularly well. Overly smoky bacon would compete with the toffee scent of hazelnuts, so I usually go for the milder variety or pancetta, Italian-style cured, unsmoked pork belly. If none of these are available, I bring a pot of water to boil and dip bacon strips in it for a couple of minutes to remove excess smokiness. I add tomatoes for a bright, tart accent and lots of herbs to give a heady top note–cooking is very much like perfumery, after all. Tossed with pasta, this sauce tastes like early autumn.
Another selling point for this recipe is that it’s very easy to make. How easy? Consider this: I made it on the eve of our move on a hot plate and we ate it in our empty apartment on top of a box covered with a kitchen towel. Michelyn style dining it sure wasn’t, but this fragrant pasta let us pretend it might have been.
Pasta with Roasted Hazelnuts, Pancetta and Tomatoes
On roasting hazelnuts: preheat oven to 400F and toast hazelnuts for 15 minutes, or until pale golden. Check periodically, as nothing burns faster than nuts. Cool, rub the nuts with a kitchen towel to remove some of the skins. You need not remove everything, just whatever comes off with some light rubbing. Once roasted, hazelnuts should be stored in a dark, cool place.
1 lb (450g) pasta in your favorite shape
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup pancetta cut into small cubes (or bacon dipped into boiling water for 2 minutes)
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
3 cups cherry tomatoes cut in halves
2 Tablespoons fresh herbs (such as parsley, basil, thyme and marjoram; parsley + basil is my favorite)
1/2 cup roasted hazelnuts, chopped finely
Salt, pepper to taste
1/2 cup grated parmesan ( Parmigiano-Reggiano) or pecorino cheese for serving (optional)
Bring water to boil in a pot large enough to hold pasta. Add salt. Once the water is boiling, add pasta and stir. Cook as per the instructions on the package.
While pasta is cooking, heat a large pan over a medium flame. Add olive oil. Once it’s warm, add pancetta and let it sizzle for 2 minutes, or till the fat renders out and the cubes are starting to turn golden. Add garlic and let it color pale gold. Add halved tomatoes and cook till they burst. Add herbs, salt, pepper and mix well.
Cook pasta till it’s al dente and drain. Keep 1/2cup of pasta water to thin the sauce, if needed. Add pasta to the pan with the sauce and toss quickly. If the sauce is too thick, add the reserved pasta water. Add hazelnuts and toss again. Serve with grated cheese, if you like.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin