constant vigilance

When my dad unexpectedly died eight years ago, he left me with a lifetime of memories and a handful of his possessions. Probably the most treasured of his things are the dozen or so carefully chosen books that now reside on my shelves. My dad was a big underliner. I love that glimpse into his brain when I stumble across passages that intrigued him.
The garish orange jacket that I incessantly tried stealing from him as a teenager now hangs in my closet legitimately. The thrill is gone and it truly is an ugly jacket. But that hardly seems to matter. I still wear it.
pals eyeglasses
I have his first pair of eye glasses as a kid. They are in a little hard case with two black and white puppies on it. You can tell that at one point the dogs were fuzzy. In small silver script between the dogs is the word “Pals.” My father and I had a lot in common, but our terribly bad eye sight was a bond that ran deep. I keep his glasses along with my first pair of glasses in an old coffee cup that he and I traded back and forth as a joke for years.
The jar of marbles that he used as slingshot ammunition to scare the crows and deer from his tart cherry orchard sits on my desk. Lucky for the wildlife population he was a lousy aim. I declined to take the actual slingshot, because his jar of colorful marbles is all I need to recall his pluck and persistence.
And I also inherited some living things. Shortly before he died, a hazelnut farmer from southeast Minnesota had arranged to send my dad a half dozen hazelnut shrubs as a gift the following spring. My mom told me she would have them sent to me instead. I had all but forgotten about it, until an oversized envelope arrived the next spring with six bare little wisps. It actually took me a minute to figure out what they were.
I headed out with my hazelnut sticks on a windy spring day, and for lack of a plan, stuck them in a temporary nursery bed in the garden. In the seven years since, they have been transplanted more often than any living thing deserves. I finally realized it was time to quit moving them when I had to hire a high school kid for the heavy digging and lifting.
But after all these years of putting up with my shenanigans, the bushes bore their first respectable hazelnut crop. I knew something was up when I started noticing a gang of bluejays congregating on the garden fence. And it didn’t take long to see them them flying away with fat nuts in their beaks. “Hey!” I would run out, shaking my dad’s jar of marbles at them. It was a pretty good defense really. More often than not the jays dropped their prey, leaving me to finger through the grass for the treasure.
With constant vigilance, I slowly amassed a small basket of nuts. I’ve never grown any sort of nut before and it all felt quite exotic. Hazelnuts grow in clusters of three or four and are protected by fancy outer coats. The nuts are ready to harvest when the husks turn brown – or when they are dropped from the mouths of bluejays. Whichever comes first. I brought my small harvest in to cure and started dreaming about what I would make.
By the time I got the husks and hard shells removed I was left with just under a cup of raw nuts. Not a bumper crop, but still worthy of something. I decided on a teeny-tiny tart. My dad liked to think that he was the type of person to decline dessert, but in all honesty, he could not resist a simple, rustic sweet. So in his honor I made a brown-butter, honey hazelnut tart topped with sea salt. He might have said he that he’d pass, but I know better. He’d be right at my side, dipping his spoon into that caramelized goodness, again and again.

Brown-Butter Hazelnut Tart for Two
Adapted from Food & Wine

Tart Shell
(Makes enough for an 11″ tart. I used half the dough and froze the second round for another teeny-tiny tart down the road)

1 stick butter, room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1 small egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup plus 6 tablespoons flour

Beat the butter and sugar in a medium bowl until creamy. Beat in egg and vanilla. Stir in the flour until just combined. Shape the dough into a ball. Flatten the ball into a one disk for a full size tart, or divide in half for two smaller 5-6 inch tarts, Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least one hour.

After the dough is chilled, roll it out on a floured surface to fit your tart pan. Press into pan and trim edges as necessary. Return the pan to the refrigerator and chill for 30 minutes to firm up the dough. Line the tart shell with parchment or foil and fill it with pie wights or beans. Blind bake the pastry on the bottom rack of a 350º F oven for 15 minutes. Remove the parchment and weights and bake for another 10-15 minutes until golden. remove from oven and let cool.

(Makes enough for one 5-6 inch tart. Double for a full 11 inch tart)

4 ounces shelled hazelnut, roughly chopped (*see note)
1 tablespoon butter
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
6 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of salt
coarse sea salt for topping
Crème fraîche (or lightly whipped cream) for serving

Toast the hazelnuts in a 350º F oven 10 – 15 minutes until golden brown. Let cool.

Heat the butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat for one to two minutes until nutty and golden brown.

In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, and sugar. Whisk in the honey, vinegar, brown-butter, vanilla, and salt. Stir in hazelnuts. Pour filling over pre-baked tart shell. Return to the lower oven rack and bake for 20 – 30 minutes (depending on the size of your tart). In the last half of baking, sprinkle tart with coarse sea salt.

*A word on hazelnut skins. My crop had tender, pale skins, unlike the dark brown skins found on most hazelnuts. I’m not sure if this is due to freshness, or size of nut, or variety, but either way, I did not bother peeling off this outer skin – as is often recommended. A good method for this, however, is to boil 2 cups of water with 3 tablespoons of baking soda added. Add a cup of nuts and boil just briefly until the water turns black. Drain the nuts and rinse with cool water. The skins will rub right off. Blot them dry and proceed with toasting.

fresh nuts

9 Responses to “constant vigilance”

  1. 1 Heidi Anderson November 14, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    This is the most beautiful and tender story Jill. The photos are just perfect as well. Will try my hand at the recipe in honor of your father. It is the season of Thanksgiving and this is a wonderful gift.

  2. 3 jeanne November 14, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Hi Jill,

    This is Jeanne Quan writing from Portland, Oregon.

    I’ve been following your blog all these years but think I’ve left a comment only one time. They’re all so well written- evocative but this one, as you might imagine, brought back so many memories of my own.

    So lovely. Your family is always in my heart.


    p.s. there is an article in today’s NY Times regarding an indoor market/culinary center in Grand Rapids, MI. Made me think of the Herculean efforts behind St. Paul’s Market. I don’t recall the exact title but if you use keywords Grand Rapids + food + market or building you’ll find it.

    • 4 GarlicPig November 14, 2012 at 3:23 pm

      Hi Jeanne – so nice to hear from you and thanks for your kind words. Just read the Times piece – I love that they are thinking about a commercial kitchen in the plans. Hope all is well in the NW.

  3. 5 Anne-Marie November 14, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    Beautiful memories of your dad. The little puppies on the eyeglass case are so sweet. That’s a treasure.

  4. 8 Dean Flugstad November 15, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    Your expressed thoughts made me fee like Dick was with us again. I too planted a hazelnut tree in his memory. No nuts yet,but like Dick I believe in doing the near impossible, growing nuts while living deep inthe wood.

    Our love to you and Mark

  5. 9 ann November 16, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    I’m thinking there is a bit of your father in your gentle self Jill. To keep crows off of the corn in Spring we use scare tape, which is just some red mylar tape that wiggles and shines in the wind. You can get it at Jung’s or Johnny’s.Those smart crows don’t go near the tender shoots of corn when the tape is around. I wonder if it would keep the bluejays at bay? Unfortunately it doesn’t work for squirrels who know exactly when to pick the walnuts. Happy Thanksgiving!

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