Think you’ve heard and read everything you need to about being ripped off by extra virgin olive oils? So did I until…
My true education about extra virgin olive oil began in December 2011, when two seemingly unrelated things came my way. The first was the publication of Tom Mueller’s book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (Norton). The second was a Christmas gift from my daughter, who had “adopted” an Italian olive tree (for one year) in my name. That meant that over the next twelve months I would receive two packages of extra-virgin olive oils from Nudo, a collaboration of small-scale artisanal olive oil producers in the Italian Apennines. (Nudo has since modified its adoption program to include four shipments a year.)
The company was founded in 2005 by an English couple, Jason Gibb and Cathy Rogers, who had bought a place of their own with an olive grove. The oils I received from the olive groves under their umbrella in Liguria and Le Marche were, in a word, delicious.
If I hadn’t read Mueller’s book, “deliciousness” would have been the only criteria I would have asked of these extra virgins. Sure, I had heard about the global olive oil scandal – especially the Italian side of it. But my thinking went something like this: Hey, if I like the taste of a particular olive oil and it’s priced right, what do I care if some of the claims on the label aren’t accurate. Maybe not all the olives (or maybe none) are from Italy, or maybe it’s not cold-pressed or first-pressed. Until I read the book for myself, all the reviews and interviews I chanced upon harped only on these shortcomings.
To be sure, these are serious shortcomings and a total rip-off, but what changed my thinking was that these low-quality, adulterated oils are not just frauds, they are often harmful to your health. It’s not just that they don’t meet some obscure scientific criteria, like 0.08% acidity, or some “expert” taste test, it’s that they at best lack the healthful qualities that give the scientific basis to their role in the Mediterranean Diet and at worst contain levels of substances that impair health, like free radicals and peroxides. Some are adulterated with machine-grade olive oil. (Who knew there even was such a thing?)
Near the end of the book, Mueller provides an exhaustive list of resources for quality extra virgin olive oil. I was happy to see among them Zingerman’s, the reputable Ann Arbor specialty food store with an extensive mail-order business. The number of companies reliably offering single-estate olive oils, like Nudo, is growing. Italities also offers verifiable, traceable estate olive oils from Italy via the Internet. The Doylestown-based business was founded by Roberto Cetrullo, who had been in the pharmaceutical/nutrition industry for decades, after he read the widely reported 2010 study by the University of California, Davis that found that 69% of imported olive oil and 10% of California olive oil did not meet the international or U.S. standards for “extra virgin.”
Olives on tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
California companies, too, are offering their own estate-grown extra virgins, often sustainably grown, milled on-site, and award winning. Worth checking out are Olivina, Da Vero, and Dry Creek Olive Company.
Here are two recipes that make use of good-quality olive oil. The first is an easy, can’t miss pasta dish from Jason Gibb of Nudo. The second is a rarity: a Bundt cake that replaces butter with olive oil and is dairy free to boot. It comes straight from the folks at about.com.
ROASTED GARLIC PESTO WITH TAGLIATELLE
Jason Gibb, Nudo
(Slightly adapted from the Nudo website version)
1 large or 2 medium whole heads garlic
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
1 tablespoon butter, softened
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling on garlic
Salt & fresh ground pepper to taste
1/4 to 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
12 ounces tagliatelle
Freshly ground pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut off the tops of the garlic heads so you can see the flesh peeking out. Place them on a square of tin foil, drizzle them with olive oil, and loosely wrap the garlic so its sides aren’t touching the foil. Roast in the oven for about 50 minutes, until the garlic is soft.
- When garlic is cool, squeeze out cloves and combine in a blender with the peas, butter, 2 teaspoons olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Blend into a smooth paste then mix in the grated Parmesan.
- Cook the tagliatelle according to the instructions on the package. Drain and mix in the pesto. Serve immediately.
LEMON OLIVE-OIL BUNDT CAKE (Dairy Free)
Ashley Adams: dairy free cooking on about.com
1/2 cup vanilla soy milk
1/3 cup lemon juice plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice, divided
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
6 large eggs
1 cup olive oil
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
- Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly oil and flour a 12-cup Bundt pan. In a small cup or bowl, combine the soy milk and 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice, mixing until just combined. Set aside.
- In a medium mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, and nutmeg. Set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, use an electric hand mixer on medium speed to beat together the sugar, eggs, and olive oil. Beat continuously for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the mixture is pale yellow in color. Add the remaining 1/3 cup lemon juice and beat until combined.
- In several additions, alternately add the flour mixture and the soy milk-lemon juice mixture to the wet ingredients, starting and ending with the flour mixture and beating well between additions. Mix until just incorporated. Carefully pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake emerges clean. Allow cake to cool for 30 minutes in the pan on a wire rack, then carefully turn out the cake onto the cooling rack to cool completely. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve at room temperature or cold.
Talk about Bang for the Buck! $29 3-Course Dinner at Bar N
I had been meaning to dine at the bar at Restaurant Nicholas literally for years, but didn’t get a chance until earlier this week. I truly cannot think of another instance in which the price/quality ratio was better. Here’s what it consisted of that particular evening:
- Pickled heirloom baby beets, olive oil mascarpone, Meyer lemon, spinach puree
- Bourbon braised suckling pig, Parisienne apples, toasted pecans, maple jus
- Dark chocolate ganache, coconut sorbet, white chocolate powder
Coffee Service at Restaurant Nicholas
It’s worth noting that the suckling pig is this top-rated NJ restaurant’s signature dish, and that there’s a different menu each evening. I was pleased to discover that even after all these years Nicholas remains on top of its game. Oh yes: I sprung for the extra $20 to get generous pours of these matching wines:
- 2011 Entre Deux Mers, Chateau Turcaud (Semillon & Sauvignon Blanc)
- 2011 Argentina, Malbec, Fabre Montmayou
- 2010 Maury, Mas Amiel (Grenache dessert wine from Languedoc-Roussillon)
I do have a couple of complaints. One, ever since dining there I feel as though I’m not getting my money’s worth anywhere else. Two, I have to drive well over an hour to reach this Red Bank restaurant. Clearly, it belongs in my neighborhood.