Pour it while it’s really fresh
When food writers first exhorted us to drizzle olive oil hither and yon in the 1980s, the problem wasn’t just that drizzle is a silly word, but that the oil wasn’t right. The bland, golden olive oils then dominating the market were fine for frying, perfectly good for hummus, but there was very little around that was anywhere near good enough to garnish a newly grilled fish. Twenty years later, we are only now seeing that sort of quality. Retail outfits such as Whole Foods deserve a measure of credit for stocking not a few, but dozens of top-end Italian, Spanish and Greek oils. However, they are doing it in such an uncomprehending, disconnected way that it’s more common to see staff dusting the bottles than selling them. No, the real enlightenment has come from our farmers. For public understanding to finally stir, we’ve had to go beyond the bottles to the trees and fruit. It took California ranchers, such as Joeli Yaguda in Paso Robles, Calif., planting dozens of new olive groves, laying in shiny new presses and then getting new season oil to us in such a startlingly fresh state. This is now prompting a rethinking of how, when and why to use olive oil. There’s no shame in learning you’ve been doing it all wrong. Rome didn’t learn to drizzle in a day. Plus, like our government, we could have had better intelligence. Back in the 1980s, we were told that the key was to make sure we used “extra-virgin” olive oil from a first pressing. This meant that it had less than 1 percent oleic acid, and the oil was pressed in the first run of the fruit. It turned out that more than 70 percent of olive oil on the market is extra virgin, and if olive oil isn’t first-pressed, then it’s not edible. It’s been chemically extracted from spent pulp and will be industrial grade. Beyond an oil’s virgin status, guidance from food writers as to how to choose an edible oil was by no means clear. There are as many styles of olive oil as wine, from mild and gold to fiery and green. Elizabeth David gagged Britain by prescribing pungent green oil be used in mayonnaise, a French sauce best made with corn oil. Across, in the United States, pundits erred to blandness, giving the impression that one bottle of Bertolli fit all. Here in California, we don’t owe our recent awakening to better food writers, but to the trees. California has one of only five Mediterranean climates suitable for olive production in the world. Add to that, we’ve got the farmers who listen to chefs. For years, local oil made from trees imported by the Spanish missionaries has been nutty, golden and, often, too bland for garnishing. So instead of replanting more of the same trees, since 1992, a new wave of farmers from Napa to Ojai have been importing trees from Italy. This wave of new planting has transformed our experience of olive oil. In the last four years, pungent green oils made from Tuscan varieties such as Frantoio, Pendolino, Lucca, Leccino and Moraiolo have been appearing late every autumn in Southern Californian farmers markets. They disappear from stalls so fast that, for many of us, it’s been easier to detect the shift in styles at restaurants. Where garnishing meets cooking is the point at which we discover the sheer force of flavor of these new green, green oils. The way to manage this is, at minimum, to keep a two-oil kitchen. Never be without a good mild marching oil – Santini from Trader Joe’s is good. So when you encounter a recipe where the oil stands in for butter, such as Simon Hopkinson’s mashed potatoes, use the mild oil for the bulk, then garnish with the strong green stuff. It will save money and build layers of pepper and fruit flavors. Use the same technique with hummus, smoked eggplant puree and all those unctuous Middle Eastern spreads. Once you get a new season California oil, beware the final pitfall of the drizzle days of the 1980s. No kitchen supplement from that era was complete without a shot of oil and vinegar standing on a window sill or next to a stove. There is no worse place to store oil. Olives are fruit; olive oil is a fruit juice. You might as well leave out your orange juice and butter in the sun. If your oil has a buttery taste, then it’s probably rancid. The ideal place to store olive oil is in a cool dark cabinet, or, in very hot climates, in the refrigerator, though dealing with congealing and condensation is a bore. The art is to buy little, use it often and instead of drizzling, pour with a generous hand. — n nOlive Oil MashTotal time: 30 minutes 2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks 1/2 cup full fat milk 2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed 1 rosemary sprig 1 thyme sprig 1 cup mild-flavored olive oil 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon white pepper 1 tablespoon light green olive oil Cracked black pepper 1. Boil the potatoes in a large pot of salted water. Meanwhile, put the milk, garlic, rosemary and thyme in a small saucepan, bring to a simmer, then remove from the heat, cover and leave to infuse. 2. Drain and mash the potatoes using a potato ricer if you have one. Put in a bowl and keep warm. 3. Strain the flavored milk through a fine sieve, add the olive oil and gently reheat in a saucepan. 4. Sir the warm olive oil-milk mixture into the potatoes. Season with salt and white pepper. Garnish with the light green olive oil and sprinkle with cracked black pepper. Serves 4 to 6. Each of 6 servings: 463 calories; 3 grams protein; 27 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 39 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 3 milligrams cholesterol; 209 milligrams sodium. Adapted from a recipe in “Roast Chicken and Other Stories” by Simon Hopkinson. Orange-Olive Tapenade Total time: 15 minutes 1 cup black olives, such as Nicoise or Nyons 1 small garlic clove, peeled 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and pressed dry between towels 2 salt-packed anchovy fillets (optional) 1 orange 1 teaspoon pastis, such as Pernod or Ricard, or ouzo 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil 1. Drain and rinse the olives. Roll them dry between clean towels, then pound lightly with a mallet, meat pounder or heavy saucepan. Pick out and discard the pits. You should get about three-fourths cup. 2. Slice the garlic, then pound it in a mortar. By hand or in a processor, chop and combine the olives, garlic, capers and anchovy until you have a crumbly paste. Transfer it to a bowl. 3. Grate and work in about one-half teaspoon orange zest. Add the pastis or ouzo and the olive oil to taste. 4. Squeeze a few drops of orange juice into the tapenade just before serving. (Keeps well for a week or so refrigerated.) Makes about three-fourths cup. Each tablespoon: 23 calories; 0 protein; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 2 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 105 milligrams sodium. From “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” by Judy Rodgers
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