De-mystifying olive oil

June 19, 2013 

Olive oil is the staff of life to people in the Mediterranean.

Every nation that borders that great sea makes olive oil and each claims theirs is the best. We most often think of Italian oil as being the wisest choice, but the Italians are, in fact, masters of marketing and produce not much more than 20 percent of Europe's oil.

If you see a bottle of oil that claims to have been bottled in Italy you can be pretty sure it was produced in Spain, trucked to Italy and only bottled there.

In the grocery store, we most often encounter virgin and extra virgin oil. Virgin means the olives were pressed and no chemicals were used and extra virgin means only that it is of the highest quality. First cold press indicates that the olives were pressed when the fruit was cold, generally below 77 degrees, but there is no second pressing of virgin oil.

The quality and flavor of extra virgin olive oil varies tremendously, as indicated by prices. You can find oil from $10 a bottle to $100 a bottle, but often what you are buying is a fancy bottle and middle of the road oil. The best bet is to shop around and find an oil you like. Remember that the oil you buy in the big box store is fine for cooking, but it is not of the quality you would like for drizzling on your favorite pasta or bruschetta.

There are some very good oils made in the United States. California Olive Ranch comes very highly rated and is not excessively pricey. Try its Limited Reserve or Arbosana EVO. It can be ordered online at www.californiaoliveranch.com, but quantities are limited. You may also want to try oils from Lucero,

Katz or Clearly.

Here are a few things to remember about storing olive oil: Olive oil has about a two-year shelf life when bottled. It deteriorates when exposed to sunlight so keep it in a dark pantry and try to keep it below 70 degrees. Once opened and exposed to the air, it will start to decline in quality and flavor.

Olive oil will enhance the flavor of almost anything. Try drizzling it on a just grilled steak, over sautéed shrimp, scrambled eggs or over a variety of fresh salads. Don't get carried away and overdo it; it doesn't take much to do the job when using a fragrant oil.

SIMPLE BRUSCHETTA

This is the classic Italian bruschetta, or at least one version of it, and it does require a wood-burning fire to get it right.

1 loaf crusty country-style bread

4 cloves of garlic

Best-quality olive oil

Salt and pepper

This is a great recipe to make when you have fired up the grill for something else and want to serve bruschetta as a first course. Slice the bread thickly and grill over the hot fire, turning once, until it is toasted, but not quite finished. Remove and rub the bread thoroughly with the garlic and then return to the grill to finish. Remove and drizzle with your favorite oil, add just a pinch of salt and pepper if you like and serve immediately. Pick a nice Italian red to go with this appetizer, such as Col Di Sasso or a good Chianti.

ROASTED GARLIC

This is another very simple recipe that's quite good as a starter. It can be made in advance and can await your guests as they arrive at the table. Who wants guests to sit down to an empty table?

1 cup olive oil

1-2 whole garlic bulb

2 sprigs rosemary

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Crusty bread

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the top half inch of the garlic bulb off. Add the oil to a small oven-proof pot with a lid and then add the garlic and rosemary. Drizzle the balsamic in, place the lid on and bake until the garlic is soft and fragrant, about 30 minutes. All to cool then show your guests how to squeeze a garlic toe out and use a slice of bread to dip into the mixture and top with the garlic.

Again, serve with a robust Italian red wine.

WHITE BEAN STEW

This simple recipe is sometimes referred to as a Tuscan stew. What makes this recipe work is the drizzling of good olive oil at the very end. This just might best be served over thick slices of crusty country style-bread.

Note: don't be afraid to use canned precooked beans, just make sure to rinse them to get the goop and excess salt off.

1 loaf crusty country style bread

3 cups prepared white or cannellini beans

1/4 cup chopped smoked sausage

3/4 cup chopped red onion

1/2 cup chopped red and green bell peppers

4-6 cloves chopped garlic

Olive oil for cooking

Better olive oil for drizzling

Parmigiano-Reggiano for grating

Fresh ground black pepper

Herbs de Provence or dried oregano

Sauté the chopped sausage in a little oil until well browned, remove from the pan and add the onions and bell pepper. Sauté for 5 minutes, remembering to season as you go. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more, now add the beans, taste and season again. If it appears a little dry add a little chicken stock or water. Simmer for 5 minutes. Cut thick slices of bread, toast in a little olive oil, then top with the stew. Drizzle generously with olive oil and garnish with plenty of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

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