Extra Virgin Olive Oil: My Way

Castelventrano Olives from Sicily

As a cook in the home kitchen, extra virgin olive oil of quality is a staple in my pantry. I use it every time I cook, in one way or another, and I usually have two bottles open at any given time. One is for cooking and the other is for finishing plates or dressings. In truth, I wrote this almost a year ago. I still feel that it is valid and relevant. Timely too, especially coming into the summer season.

So, whilst being neither scientist nor nutritionist, I feel it is safe of me to say that I have perhaps tasted, and more importantly, cooked with more olive oil than any of those guys. From the viewpoint of a cook, I feel it is important to understand your ingredients and their nature, their expression and how to, well simply, play with it in the kitchen. This is what I know……and I’m only going to give you the tip of the iceberg.

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Gaeta Olives from Calabria.

But enough to get you started. Remember, this is simple cooking, so simple explanations are required. Most people I speak with want to know more about EVOO and certainly everyone has heard about it. The best way I know to explain extra virgin olive oil is to compare and contrast it with wine. For me, I need a starting point and something, a yardstick, to measure it against.

#Country of Origin:  Where does your olive oil come from? Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, Greece, Croatia, Crete, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile or even California. This is an incomplete listing. You get the idea though. Anywhere there is a grape vine, odds are, you’ll find an olive grove also. Politics enter also. Is the country of origin at war or in a state of disorder or is it a member of an economic bloc like the European Union. It is likely that you will not see any Tunisian olive oils anytime soon which is too bad.

Cerignola Olives from Puglia

#Geography: The point on the map where it lives…..latitude and longitude…..soil conditions, how much water or how much light the olive tree receives……..elevation……inland or coastal, the age of the trees. Factors like this will play a role in the flavour of the oil. In France, there is a term applied to this experience which shapes the contours of the grapes profile. The concept of “Terroir” can also be applied to olives. It is the expression of the land immediate to the vineyard or grove.

An Arrangement of Olive Oils at a Tasting

#Say That Again or What Kind of Olive: There are not two classes of olives, green and black. All olives begin green, grow, develop, mature and turn various shades of black, purple, brown or red. If you press an olive while it is still green, by and large, the oil will be grassy, peppery, spicy and pungent. When you taste it, it will catch you in the back of your throat, make you cough and cause your eyes to well up. Thats a good sign. All those anti-oxidants are entering your system and in about five minutes, the hair on your head will have a nice healthy sheen. Those are early harvest olives.

If you delay picking and let the olives ripen and turn black, like a Ligurian Taggiasca olive, again, by and large your flavor profile will an olive oil that is buttery, olivey, fruity and velvety. The spice in the finish will not be as pronounced as the anti-oxidant count is lower. Basically!

#Economics: The best olives are still hand-picked, this jacks up the price. Maybe you have seen old photos of olive trees where  there is a suspended net around the base of the tree. Sometimes the olive pickers used a long rake to scoop and pull the olives off the boughs or else they shook the entire tree. The olives fell into the net. If they fell on the ground, they were likely to bruise. One bruised olive can spoil the lot so the best olives are pressed within anywhere from eight to twenty-four hours. Today, there is more reliance on technological innovation amongst the larger EVOO producers. But you can still find true artisanal olive oils here in this country.

Grilled Asparagus finished with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Chives

#A cook’s tale: However, one of the fundamental differences between extra virgin and wine is this. Unlike wine, oil does not improve with age.  Once you crush the olive, the clock is ticking. You have about a year and a half. Store it in a cool , dark place which is not the kitchen window, or the shelf above the stove or the refridgerater. Like the way you would source your other ingredients, buy it from someone that you trust.

By law, extra virgin olive olive is the first…cold-pressed…..mechanically obtained and has to have an acidity level under 1%. There are two sorts of extra virgin olive oil coming in the US, filtered and unfiltered. Filtered extra virgin olive oil, from a health standpoint, is lower in anti-oxidants. But as cooks, it is probably easier to cook with an an filtered extra virgin olive oil. If you use an unfiltered extra virgin olive oil, which has still all the particles of olive and sediment, this can burn if you are not concentrating and spoil all your efforts, leaving a bitter taste.

Some people contend that you should not cook with extra virgin olive oils. I do, joyously and judiciously. Here is why…secondary and subsequent pressings of the olives add heat and chemicals to the equation so as to be able to leach out every last commercially available drop of oil. That’s not good. You get lamp oil with no character or flavor.

Pre-oven pizza splattered with Extra Virgin Olive Oil

The best way to learn about extra virgin olive oil is to taste as many as you can. Again, like wine, you won’t buy the same bottle repeatedly. And like wine, they all taste differently. Again, in cooking terms, if you are trying to replicate a dish from a particular region, the plate may well be enhanced by an olive oil from that area or region

I have two oils on hand. One less expensive for everyday cooking and I cook every day for myself. I use it for my homespun pizza dough and artisenal bread program, cold sauces like basil pesto, olive tapenade or hummus, marinades, vinaigrettes, light sauteeing, making soups, stews and braises and roasting vegetables. The second oil is for the table. I use it for finishing a plate. For example, I like fish. I like to either roast or grill it. Then once it is cooked and in front of me, then go glug, glug, glug and pour it over the plate of fish.

Thanks for reading and eat like a peasant.

Massachussets seafood…..Bluefish and Clams with Kohl Rabe, My Preserved Tomatoes, My Garden Herbs, White Wine and Olive Oil.

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