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The Culinary World’s Most Important Commodity
By Kirk Leins
Given its many uses, olive oil may well be the most essential food item found in any kitchen. Not only is it a wonderful medium in which to cook, it's also a critical ingredient for many dishes, as well as a complementary, yet understated condiment. Follow me on a gastronomic journey, complete with tips for tasting and buying olive oil, not to mention a few delectable recipes that aptly feature this wonderful product.
Olive oil can be a complicated subject. Like wine, it is produced in many different countries, each lending their own indigenous characteristics to the oil. Also like wine, many olive oils are intended for specific uses, even specific foods. That being said, my plan is to proceed logically and judiciously. Instead of looking at the subject as a whole, I'll focus on the olive oils from a country that produces some of the world's finest.
Italy and Olive Oil
Over the years, I've been fortunate enough to spend a considerable amount of time in Europe. My heritage is German, but I have an uncle by marriage who is 100% Italian. His name is Tino, and he is a diehard expounder on how Italian food products, such as olive oil, are the best in the entire world.
During one visit, my cousins and I drove through Italy, meeting up with Tino and my aunt in San Benedetto, a small beach town located along the Adriatic Sea. Tino was born in San Benedetto and still keeps an apartment there.
I was eating a sumptuous dinner with the family when Tino began one of his rants about the superiority of Italian products. Having heard enough, I respectfully chimed in. "You know, Tino, all of the products that you talk about, we can get them in the United States." Tino began laughing uncontrollably.
Once he settled down, Tino explained to me that the vast majority of the Italian products we receive in the States are "specially" produced for us. According to him, Italians keep the cream of the crop for themselves and export the stuff they don't want. As an example, while a bottle of olive oil may state "Imported from Italy", oftentimes the olives are imported into Italy from other countries, manufactured into oil, and then exported abroad. Read a few labels and you'll see that my uncle Tino is right.
In 1999, Jeff Chandler, an owner of a small IT firm, was sitting in a Villa in Tuscany with his wife. The two were reminiscing over the wonderful, artisan olive oils they had been enjoying on their trip when one of them posed the following question. Why can't we get the same quality oil in America? The Chandlers should have consulted my uncle Tino. He'd have told 'em.
Nonetheless, the couple came home from their trip with a satchel full of Italian olive oils. They returned to Tuscany in 2000 (an unfortunate year for Italian olives) and fell in love with the oil that was being served at their villa. After begging the villa's countess to part with ten invaluable liters, and causing an argument between the countess and the housekeeper, Chandler sought an easier way to procure this prized nectar.
Admitting, "It was an experiment from the beginning," Chandler and his wife decided to import olive oil and sell it via the Internet. By focusing on the olive oils they'd already tried and loved, the two began forging relationships with the different artisan makers and figuring their way through the process of importing.
By 2001, Chandler launched Olio2go.com, an online company that imports and sells only the highest quality, 100% Italian olive oil. Featuring nearly 70 different olive oils from dozens of regions within Italy, the website also sells Italian vinegar, truffles, and sea salt.
Chandler boasts that he does his best to accommodate customers by offering great products at reasonable prices for what they're getting. He also offers gift selections as well as various shipping options. Jeff claims that some customers are so taken with the oil he sells, they actually have it shipped to their vacation destinations.
Chandler on Olive Oil
To begin an olive oil tasting, Jeff suggests pouring a small amount into a wine glass. Examine the color; it can range from a golden yellow to a bright green. It is not uncommon to find sediment within the oil as many of the artisan varieties are left unfiltered. Don't let this scare you. It's actually a very good sign.
Allow the olive oil to slightly warm by holding your hand on the bottom of the glass as opposed to the stem. Cover the top of your glass with your other hand and give it a swirl. Lift your hand from the top, put your nose into the glass, and smell it, really smell it. Chandler says that if the oil smells rancid, it has gone bad and there's no need to taste. He says the aroma should be closer to that of vegetables, herbs, or even grass.
Now it's time to give it a taste. When it comes to flavor, olive oil runs the gamut. Instead of looking at this as an overwhelming obstacle, use it to your advantage. Write down what you taste for future reference. Chandler says, "One oil may taste like almonds, while another may invoke the flavor of fresh herbs." An example he gives of a regional taste characteristic is the oil from Tuscany and its tendency to be peppery.
One last thing to examine when tasting olive oil is its viscosity, or thickness. They can be light, medium, or heavy. The point is that once you've determined each of the individual characteristics, you can better pair the oil with food.
In the past, oil was extracted from the olives by putting them through a press. Nowadays, the task is mostly accomplished via centrifuge. With either method, no heat is applied to the olives during extraction. This first pressing or centrifuging of the olives is what produces the oil known as extra virgin. Virgin olive oil is also a by-product of the aforementioned process, but refers to any oil that is above the 1% acidity level.
There's also lower grade oil known as pomace. Produced by applying heat to the olive paste left behind from the first pressing, the paste is pressed again for a second yielding of oil. Chandler says because of the lower price, many restaurants use this type of oil in their cooking. However, he urges home cooks to stay away from it because of the marked inferiority in taste.
Tips for Buying
Chandler has two other rules of thumb for blindly picking a good olive oil. Generally, the better olive oils have more information about the product printed on the label. Second, if the oil is unfiltered, there's a good chance it came from an artisan producer and it's going to be of good quality.
I asked Chandler if he were to buy an "everyday" olive oil off the shelf of an American supermarket, which one would it be? Believe it or not, he finds Whole Foods 360 brand of olive oil to be pretty good for general use. He says, "The oil is imported from Tunisia. It's consistent in quality and affordable in price."
Jeff chose two olive oils for this recipe, claiming it would be a nice taste test to serve half the Bruschetta prepared with one oil and the remaining half with the other. The first oil is Montevertine. Hailing from the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany, this oil has a strong aroma of fresh olives, cut grass, and grated apple skins. The taste is bittersweet with both nutty and fruity flavors. It has a medium pepper and sweet aftertaste.
Oil number two is Gianfranco Becchina Olio Verde. From Sicily, this oil is unfiltered and very green. Its fragrance is a combination of fresh cut grass and green olives. Its taste would be described as well-balanced and fruity, with a long peppery finish.Authentic Italian Bruschetta
Preheat your oven's broiler. Place slices of bread onto a baking sheet, and broil in oven until a light golden brown (approximately 2 minutes on one side and 1 minute on the other). Remove from broiler. Generously rub the top of each slice with the cut side of the garlic. Lightly brush each slice with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Arrange the bread on a platter and serve alongside the diced tomatoes, basil, and the bottle of olive oil you've chosen to use. Grab a slice, spoon on a few tomatoes, top with basil (that you've torn by hand), drizzle with a touch more olive oil – and enjoy.
For this recipe, Jeff chose Vittorio Cassini olive oil. Produced in Liguria, Chandler describes this intensely yellow oil as having a lighter fragrance and body. He describes the taste as delicate with almond overtones. While Vittorio Cassini oil meshes well with more pungent ingredients, it also lends its own uniqueness to recipes such as vinaigrette.Carrot-Sherry Vinaigrette
In a bowl, whisk together mustard, carrot juice, and vinegar. While continuing to whisk, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Once the vinaigrette has emulsified, season to taste with salt and pepper.
In Burgundy, a classic service for this vinaigrette would be in a salad comprised of baby arugula, sliced radish, and raw beets sliced paper-thin. Feel free, however, to utilize it in any type of salad, or even as a condiment for steamed or roasted asparagus. No matter how you use it, I would suggest a garnish of sliced almonds that have been lightly toasted as a way to mimic the almond nuances in the oil.
Unlike the previous offerings, this recipe will use the olive oil as a vehicle for cooking the dish. Jeff's choice for this meal is Frantoio Franci Toscano IGP. IGP is a European Union designation that covers the entire region of Tuscany and refers to oil that has been produced from start to finish within Tuscany. This includes everything – from the olive growing through the bottling.
Frantoio Franci Toscano has an acidity level of .6% and every bottle is numbered, providing enough information to research its production. Chandler describes the oil's fragrance as having medium intensity with a clear scent of olives, fresh hay, artichokes, and ripe fruit. He says it is an outstanding all-purpose olive oil.Chicken with 40 Cloves
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rub chicken with a touch of olive oil, and season generously with salt and pepper. On your stovetop, heat 2 Tbsp of olive oil in a large oven-safe skillet. Brown the chicken pieces on both sides. Remove skillet from heat. Add garlic cloves, fresh thyme, and the 1/2 C of oil. Cover and bake for 1 hour or until breasts reach an interior temperature of 160 degrees and thighs reach 175 degrees.
Remove the chicken pieces to a platter and allow them to rest for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, use a slotted spoon to remove the garlic cloves from the skillet and transfer them to a small serving bowl. Serve the chicken and garlic alongside a green salad and crusty bread. Use the cooked garlic cloves as a smear for the bread.
Our journey is now complete! I hope you enjoyed it, while also learning a little something about olive oil. Before I say goodbye, I'd like to urge you to visit www.olio2go.com. Whether you purchase Jeff's olive oils for your own kitchen, or as a gift for someone else, you can't go wrong. The worst-case scenario is that you'll get hooked on this important and delicious ingredient.
Kirk Leins has been cooking his entire life. No stranger to professional kitchens, he currently devotes most of his time to cooking instruction, food writing, and producing television. Kirk also provides his services as a personal chef in and around the Los Angeles area. He has made several TV appearances on both the national and local level, and is the Executive Chef for YOU Magazine. His free newsletter, The Everyday Gourmet, is available by contacting Kirk at EGcuisine@gmail.com.
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