Monday, January 23, 2012

pantry staples ~ olive oil

I couldn’t cook without olive oil.  It is probably the single most important ingredient I use in my kitchen. It enhances the flavors of nearly all of my vegetable dishes and salads as well as soups, and even drizzled over pasta or fish.

Butter has its place in my cooking-lending richness and velvety smoothness to dishes, but more often than not I will reach for a bottle of olive oil that is always close at hand.  It is of course better for you than butter, but as always taste to me is the most important thing, and there isn’t quite anything as lovely as a rich, fruity olive oil.

The first oils are extracted purely by cold press where neither heat nor chemicals are used in the extraction process; the oil is then allowed to settle and then filtered. Extra virgin olive oil is obtained from the first pressing of the olives.  It can be robust with a round rich nutty or even grassy taste.  Other varieties can be fruity, buttery or even spicy with a distinctive lingering peppery finish.  Different varieties have their own unique flavor.  The color can range from deep murky olive green to pale and golden and every shade in between.  The price can also range from modest to extremely expensive. 

I usually have two grades on hand; a less expensive, neutral flavored olive oil for cooking and I tend to save the best extra virgin olive oil for dishes that I feel showcase the virtues of a full flavored oil.

It’s good to try different olive oils to find those you like and fit within your budget.  Look for labels indicating that the oil has been bottled on the estate on which the olives have been grown, hand-picked and pressed.  This is usually a sign of a superior quality.  

Although a good quality olive oil is expensive compared to other ingredients, there’s no comparing how it transforms the simplest foods.

Finally, olive oil should be treated with respect and care.  It does not respond well to heat, light or when exposed to air all of which will cause it to oxidize.

Here are some of my favorite Olive Oils:

Olio Novello Olive Oil

Distinguished by its cloudy golden hue with a distinctive green tint, this “new” olive oil is cold-pressed from the first olives of the season. From the Lucero family, producers of olive oil for three generations, the unfiltered blend of 100% California-grown, hand-harvested Servillano, Mission and Manzanillo olives yields an oil rich and robust in flavor with a medium pungency. The finish is big and fruity with hints of apple and grass.

Ravida Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil

This award-winning certified organic extra-virgin olive oil is produced by the Ravida family on their estate in Menfi, Sicily, from 300-year-old wild olive trees. Pressed within eight hours of hand picking, the distinctive blend of Sicilian olives brims with the flavor and aroma of green grass, tomato and almonds.  It is cold-pressed from a blend of Cerasuola, Biancolilla and Nocellara olives hand harvested from 300-year-old groves.The unfiltered oil bursts with intense, fruity aromas and flavors of green grass, tomato and almonds.

Marques De Griñon Extra Virgin Olive Oil


This world-renowned olive oil represents the very finest that Spain has to offer. Exhibiting an intensely fresh aroma and complex fruity flavor, it hails from Dominio de Valdepusa, a family estate near Toledo dating back to the medieval 13th century. Led by pioneering winemaker Carlos Falcó, the estate crafts exceptional wines and olive oils using innovative technology.  Marqués de Griñón Capilla del Fraile is a 100% estate-bottled extra-virgin olive oil from the Montes de Toledo region of Spain.  It is cold-pressed from a blend of three olives -  Arbequina, Picual and Manzilla within two hours of hand harvesting.  Gleaming golden hue with very light grass-green tones.  The aromas are exceptionally vivid and intense with reminiscences of green tomatoes, freshly mown grass, artichokes and green almonds.  Smooth, fruity, complex flavor reveals a persistent finish dominated by a pleasant spiciness.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

ingredients & the pantry

To become a cook you only need a few essentials:  an appetite, some ingredients, a kitchen to work in, a few tools and a little inspiration.  The desire to eat good food is the motivation to become a good cook.  By taking pleasure in the process of thinking about food, imagining how it might taste, the flavors and textures you want to achieve, reading books and recipes are a great start.

You do have to spend time in the kitchen before your own ideas come easily, when cooking becomes instinctive.  Ideas on what to cook come from a thought process and from practice.  One of the best places to start is with ingredients; they have always been my best source of inspiration.

First and foremost you have to have something to cook.  One of the best places to look for the freshest most seasonal ingredients is from the farmers’ markets or markets that sell organic and locally grown foods.  Go to the market with an open mind before you decide what to cook, see what’s there.  Be open to what’s available.  I have learned a lot from talking with the farmer’s and those working there.  Ask questions like what variety is this?  How was it grown? How do you cook it?  How long is it in season?

When it’s not possible to frequent the farmers’ market and the supermarket is the only option, stick to the periphery of the store, where the fresh, unprocessed food is usually found and avoid the aisles upon aisles of processed food.

Ingredients for stocking a pantry I believe should vary with the season.  For the winter pantry items such as:

Olive oil
Black peppercorns
Dried and canned beans: cannellini, chickpeas, black, pinto
French green and brown lentils
Arborio and basmati rice
Assorted pasta
Dried mushrooms
Dried chilies
Canned whole San Marzano tomatoes
Imported oil-packed tuna 
Baking Powder and baking soda
Good chocolate

If your pantry is stocked with these ingredients, you can be secure in the knowledge that no matter what time it is, and no matter who shows up hungry on your doorstep, there will always be something to eat.


Friday, January 6, 2012

starting from scratch

With the New Year upon us and all those resolutions listed out like a giant “To-Do” list, I thought that the idea of simplifying our lives in other areas could be helpful.  Living more simply, but doing it well. 
This will be the first in a series on starting from scratch, a review on the basics of simple food.  We’ll cover things like how to choose fresh ingredients,  stock a pantry and how to decide what to cook.  There will be a focus on essential cooking techniques learning the whys and wherefores and simple model recipes.  By learning some fundamental techniques by heart you then are free to enjoy the sheer pleasure of preparing and sharing simple food with your friends and family. Other topics covered will be how to eat seasonally, shop at farmers’ markets, and even plant a garden.  

I’m convinced that the underlying principles of good cooking are the same everywhere.  These principles have less to do with recipes and techniques than they do with gathering good ingredients, which is the essence of good cooking.

The foundation of this idea on getting back to basics is for us to bring the family back to the table.  Where we can share life and reconnect.  This to me is a huge part of what life is all about.   The idea of simplifying what seems to be an increasingly complicated concept I believe will be a breath of fresh air.  Living life simply and beautifully isn't a new idea, but it is one that deserves to be welcomed back home with open arms.