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Elaine Corn

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Sacramento, California

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Elaine Corn is a former news editor turned food editor and author. Her journalism career began with a bachelors of journalism from the University of Texas-Austin followed by jobs as a copy editor at the Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

While in Austin, Elaine became interested in food and created the paper’s first food section, becoming its first food editor. To learn more about food, she cooked her way from Europe to Israel and onto a private yacht sailing from Greece to Turkey as its only cook.

Back in America, she headed up food sections for the Louisville Courier-Journal and Sacramento Bee. While at the Bee, the paper won awards for Best Food Section and Best Food Reporting from the Association of Food Journalists.

Corn is author of six cookbooks. “Now You’re Cooking: Everything a Beginner Needs to Know to Start Cooking Today” won Julia Child and James Beard cookbook awards. Five years ago, Elaine began her conversion from print to radio journalism. Several stories have aired nationally on NPR. Elaine continues the search for food stories in every corner of life.

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It’s Alive! For Probiotic Extremists, Kimchi Rules Image

Kimchi, the national dish of Korea, has been prepared, fermented and served as a daily tradition for more than 2,000 years. It’s served cold but is so spicy you take another bite to cool your mouth.

This extremely spicy recipe may be a side dish, but it has mythical standing at the Korean table.

“It tastes good. It will make you live long,” says Byong Joo “B.J.” Yu, owner of the gargantuan Koreana Plaza mega food store in Rancho Cordova, Calif.. His store doesn’t merely offer kimchi. It’s displayed in a refrigerated case so large you feel as if you’re approaching the Great Wall of Kimchi.

When Yu was growing up in Korea, he was served his mother’s homemade kimchi every day, Yu remembers. “It doesn’t matter how old the kimchi is. It’s good from the first day to as long as it lasts. You can eat it all the way — no waste.”

When it ages and the taste leans to sour, it’s served in soup.

Because Korea is a cold country, cool-weather-loving cabbage and radish (daikon) dominate the favored types of vegetables for kimchi, although there are nearly 200 versions.

What begins as a pickle morphs into a fermented dish. Koreans famously place new kimchi in big black pottery jars and bury them in the ground to keep the very-much-alive cultures in kimchi at an even, cool temperature.

Yu eats kimchi every day. “It makes your stomach comfortable.”

Yu may not know why he’s right, but he is.

“There’s been a real emergence in the public, and a real mystique, about the wonders of fermented foods,” says Maria Marco, assistant professor at the University of California, Davis’ department of food science and technology. “The flavor profiles change, because the microorganisms continue to grow. It’s nature’s way of making food taste different.”

Health benefits

Kimchi is a powerful vegetable probiotic, Marco says. It contributes health benefits in a manner similar to that provided by dairy probiotic foods, such as in yogurt.

And with many in the medical community now referring to the gut as the second brain, kimchi benefits that gut IQ by helping the body absorb nutrients.

“There’s a microbial zoo in there,” Marco says of kimchi. “The bacteria consume the sugars on the vegetable and they spit out the organic acids, which are easily digested by our bodies,” Marco says, all of which increases gut flora and aids digestion.

Kimchi is also nature’s way of preserving food.

Yu said that despite its ability to age, most kimchi is about a 3 months old or just-made. About a year is enough for the flavor to change from something fresh, spicy and cole slaw-like to what Yu describes as sour.

Byong Joo "B.J." Yu at his Koreana Plaza mega food store in Rancho Cordova, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn

Byong Joo “B.J.” Yu at his Koreana Plaza mega food store in Rancho Cordova, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn

“Usually youngsters like the sour taste. As you get older, you prefer the fresh. I’m 57 and I still like it sour.” When kimchi is highly fermented, Yu says the best way to serve it is in cold soup.

At a Korean restaurant, kimchi is never ordered alone. It just shows up when you order your entrée along with lots of other side dishes called banchan. Restaurant kimchi is invariably fresh.

It’s not hard to make kimchi, but it takes time. Napa cabbage (also called Chinese cabbage) is wilted in salted water several hours and rinsed well. Then, packed under each leaf, is a marinade of Korean red pepper powder, sugar, a good deal of garlic and fresh ginger, shredded daikon and tiny shrimp. This marinade may have soy sauce or fish sauce, anchovy or dried oyster or a combination.

The most obvious ingredient, at least to the taste buds, is Korean red pepper powder. It is not cayenne or paprika, but a member of the capsicum family called gochugaru that is incredibly hot. It’s called and sold under a variety of brands in flakes or coarse and medium grind.

For some, kimchi may be too spicy. Yu says for Koreans, there’s no such thing. “It’s not spicy to us.”

Kimchi is so readily available that it’s rarely made at home. At Koreana Plaza, it’s made on site every day. For beginners, Yu recommends picking up a small container of fresh kimchi either from a Korean or Asian store that makes it on site. Or, choose among a half dozen of high quality commercial brands sold in jars and kept cold in the produce section of many grocery stores.

Best temperature for kimchi?

Kimchi of any age sold cold is best. If the jar is shelf stable at room temperature, the heat from being processed has most likely destroyed kimchi’s best properties.

Kimchi is typically mixed with other foods on the table, such as rice, noodles and stews. Recently I thinly sliced prepared kimchi and added it to a batch of basic American cole slaw, mayonnaise dressing and all. This surprise addition of kimchi, which will stump guests trying to guess the surprise ingredient, keeps the cabbage theme while adding a vague sourness and an extreme hit of spice.

Main photo: Freshly made kimchi. Credit: 4kodiak / iStockphoto

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Grapefruit And Avocado Pair Up For A Fresh Seasonal Salad Image

As winter salads go, it’s a combination of two fruits you’d never think belong together — avocado and red-fleshed grapefruit. Not pink grapefruit — but red, redder, reddest. The cravings start now, as red grapefruit and avocado appear in stores at the same time, November through April.

The story of this odd combo starts in South Texas, a region with a year-round temperate growing zone and fertile soil enriched by the Rio Grande. The grapefruit and avocado pairing’s origin might be as simple as rhubarb and strawberries sharing a season and ending up in pie together. Or the now-cordial association of summer tomatoes with watermelon. Could it be that South Texas locals, faced with two major simultaneous crops, may have had an inevitable epiphany based more on the avocado than the grapefruit?

The evolution of grapefruit’s redness

Grapefruit isn’t all that versatile. But avocado lovers will stick an avocado into a chicken dish, on top of steak, inside an enchilada, a burrito or a quesadilla. They’ll add chunks of it to a zucchini salad, sneak it into tuna fish, and mash it and use it as frosting on a Jell-O mold. Why not section a grapefruit and toss it with avocado slices? At the very least, the acid from the grapefruit will prevent the avocado from turning brown.

There was plenty of time for the grapefruit and avocado dish to evolve. The first grapefruits in South Texas were white. They got there by Spanish missionaries. In 1929, an accidental sighting of a red grapefruit hanging on a pink grapefruit tree amazed growers. Its flesh was so gorgeous that growers raced to breed redder bud mutations. So many South Texans were naming red grapefruit varieties after themselves that to end the confusion the term “ruby” was adopted for all.

The Ruby Red Grapefruit was the first grapefruit to hold a U.S. patent. Its offspring are trademarked. The Rio Star, which I buy in California, combines the two reddest varieties, Rio Red and Star Ruby. It’s seven to 10 times redder than the original Ruby Red. The Ruby-Sweet is three to five times redder than a Ruby Red. (Sunkist also grows red grapefruit in California and Arizona under the names Star Ruby and Rio Red, among others.)

High time for avocado

As to the avocado, also coming into production in South Texas, the variety there is Lula. It’s much bigger than California’s or Mexico’s Hass, weighing nearly a pound. But the flesh is comparable — buttery with 15% to 26% oil.

Depending on where you live, you’ll use the avocado available. In these pre-Super Bowl times, avocados presumed destined to vats of guacamole are piled high in stores and priced low.

To offset grapefruit’s acid, the typical dressing for grapefruit avocado salad trends sweet. The dressing turns pink from red onion and red wine vinegar, a suitable color for a really red grapefruit.

Grapefruit and Avocado Salad With Pink Poppy Seed Dressing

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

½ medium red onion, in chunks

½ cup red wine vinegar (not too darkly colored)

½ cup sugar

¼ teaspoon dry mustard or prepared Dijon

⅓ cup vegetable oil

⅓ cup olive oil

¼ cup fresh chopped cilantro leaves

⅓ cup fresh chopped mint leaves

2 tablespoons finely minced jalapeño, divided

1½ tablespoons poppy seeds

3 red grapefruits

3 just-ripe avocados (not too soft)

Butter lettuce

Lime wedges

Directions

1. To make the dressing, in a blender or food processor, combine onion, vinegar, sugar and mustard. With machine running, slowly add all the oil. With one or two bursts, pulse in the prepped cilantro, mint, half the jalapeño, and poppy seeds. You should have about 2 cups.

2. Using a long sharp knife, slice off skin and all of the bitter white pith from each entire grapefruit. Holding the grapefruit in one hand and working over a bowl, cut in between the membranes to release the sections.

3. Squeeze the juice from the membranes into the dressing; discard the membranes.

4. Slice avocados ¼-inch thick. Arrange grapefruit sections and avocado slices on butter lettuce. Spoon dressing over the fruit. Squeeze lime juice over each salad. Sprinkle with remaining minced jalapeño and serve.

The dressing and the grapefruit may be prepared several hours ahead of serving, covered and refrigerated. The avocados and lettuce should be prepared just before serving.

Top photo: Grapefruit and avocado salad. Credit: Elaine Corn

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This Turkey And Gravy Kugel Has A State Secret Image

The once-in-a-lifetime mashup of the all-American holiday of Thanksgiving with the second night of the eight-night Jewish holiday of Hanukkah brings us to Thanksgivukkah.

So, what’s to eat? Sweet potato latkes? Too obvious. Pumpkin-spiced sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts)? Too weird.

With Thanksgiving leftovers lasting well into the remaining days of Hanukkah, what could better combine the two holidays than Turkey and Gravy Kugel?

What’s kugel? According to “Yiddish Cuisine” by Robert Steinberg, kugel is an Eastern European dish of privation for people unable to afford meat. Steinberg says kugel is a rich dish that American Jews typically serve as a side dish but that can be equally good as a main course. The best part of a noodle kugel is that the top gets very browned and crunchy.

Turkey meets kugel

As to Turkey and Gravy Kugel, I admit I’ve never had such a dish in my life. It never occurred to my mother or grandmothers to merge Thanksgiving turkey with wide egg noodles in a baked casserole, possibly because in their lifetimes — and mine — the two holidays had never intersected.

Calculations by Jewish genealogist Stephen P. Morse show that the last time Thanksgiving and Hanukkah overlapped was more than 100 years ago. Based on the lunar Hebrew calendar, it won’t happen again in our lifetimes.

This year, the convergence has given me a new family tradition. To test the recipe, I stuck a turkey in the oven to harvest pan juices and meat for shredding into the gravy.

To make sure I had enough gravy, I took a cue from the second edition of “The Texas Holiday Cookbook” by Dotty Griffith. Her mother’s gravy was legendary. Best of all, it was always made a few days before the holiday to avoid the last-minute rush when all the dishes are set on the Thanksgiving table.

To keep the kugel a meat dish — meat combined with dairy is not kosher — I avoided butter in Griffith’s roux and instead used the congealed fat that rose to the top of the liquid the giblets boiled in. Kugel is like most dishes of Eastern European origin. The secret ingredient is onion, lots of it.

Turkey and Gravy Kugel

Serves 8

Ingredients

1 pound turkey and chicken necks

½ pound chicken and turkey gizzards and hearts

4½ cups water

about 1 cup of shredded turkey

3 tablespoons risen fat, vegetable oil or schmaltz

1 large onion, minced

½ cup flour

Reserved pan drippings from roasted turkey, if available

Salt and black or white pepper, to taste

12 ounce package wide egg noodles, boiled in salted water according to package directions

3 large eggs, beaten

Directions

1. To make the stock, start by rinsing the necks, gizzards and hearts. Place these in a large saucepan. Cover with the water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to simmer. Using a large spoon, skim off foam until liquid is clear. Cook 2 to 3 hours, uncovered, until gizzards and hearts are soft and tender.

2. This should yield about 3 cups chopped, cooked gizzards and hearts, plus shredded meat from the cooked necks. Add some shredded meat from your Thanksgiving turkey until you have 4 cups.

3. Strain stock into a storage container, reserving cooked gizzards, necks and hearts in another container. Refrigerate both several hours or up to 2 days.

4. To make gravy, begin by carefully lifting the layer of congealed fat off chilled stock. You should have about 3 tablespoons. (If there is not enough, add vegetable oil.)

5. In a large saucepan, heat the 3 tablespoons fat over high heat. Add onion, reducing heat to medium. Cook until very soft, but do not allow onion to color, about 10 minutes.

6. Add the chopped gizzards and shredded meats, stirring with a wooden spatula to coat with fat. Add flour, stirring over medium high heat until meat becomes thick, pasty and tan, about 3 to 5 minutes.

7. Add the stock, stirring well to prevent lumps. At this point, add pan juices from your Thanksgiving turkey. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat so sauce simmers and becomes thick, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat; leave in pan.

8. To complete the kugel, first cook the noodles. Drain but do not rinse them.

9. Heat the oven to 375 F. Generously oil a 9-by-12-inch baking dish, or an attractive oven-to-table serving dish of similar size.

10. Take about a cup of the hot gravy and stir it quickly into the beaten eggs. Pour this egg mixture back into the gravy, stirring.

11. In a large bowl, combine the cooked noodles with all the gravy. Pour the noodles into the prepared baking dish.

12. Bake 1 hour, or until the noodles form a dark brown crunchy top. Serve with cranberry sauce.

Top photo: Turkey and Gravy Kugel for Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. Credit: Elaine Corn

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A Foolproof Rosh Hashana Brisket With A Perfect Sauce Image

When brisket is served on a special occasion, it had better be special.

I’m not talking everyday barbecued brisket, but an entire brisket made as the centerpiece for a traditional Jewish New Year meal when a family is of Eastern European extraction and most likely entered America on the East Coast.

A brisket of such proportions might show up at other celebrations, too. In the case of the best Jewish-styled brisket I’ve ever tasted (sorry, Mom), it turned up in Tulsa, Okla., in a rehearsal dinner buffet at the home of the bride’s parents, my cousins David and Michele Schwartz.

It’s a long story of how David Schwartz of New York City and the former Michele Steinberg of Pittsburgh got to Tulsa, where I experienced this magical meat. It was presented in a deep serving vessel swathed in a lush dark red sauce. The slices were easily retrieved by tongs. Getting at the sweet-sourish sauce was helpfully aided by a big spoon. The meat melted in my mouth.

This was kosher meat. The Schwartzes keep a kosher home. Michele’s father once owned a kosher slaughterhouse in Pittsburgh, so my cousin grew up familiar with meat cuts. Michele, 67, orders kosher beef, lamb, chicken and turkey from St. Louis.

Michele’s mother made whole briskets the same way Michele makes them to this day. This recipe is more than 80 years old.

Original Heinz from Pittsburgh

Suspend your impulses for purity. The main ingredient is also from Pittsburgh and one of the city’s most famous products — Heinz ketchup, begun in 1869. Before Heinz turned to making ketchup with high fructose corn syrup, the product used by Michele’s mother during the World War II years most likely resembled the recently introduced retro ketchup Heinz is now making with regular sugar, called Simply Heinz.

A typical entire brisket can weigh up to 15 pounds. Considering a brisket takes up the volume of an average turkey, Michele bakes it in two aluminum turkey-roasting pans nested together for doubled strength. “When you’re finished, the oven’s clean and I just throw them away,” she said.

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Cousin Michele’s Best Brisket in Lush Sauce for Rosh Hashana. Credit: Elaine Corn

Instead of an enormous whole brisket, I used what is called a brisket top flat or a single brisket, depending on the part of the country in which you’re buying meat. This smaller piece comes right off the top of the whole brisket, as if the whole brisket were a sandwich with nothing between the two slabs, and the butcher gives you the top piece of bread. My brisket flat weighed 6.22 pounds and fit nicely in a lasagna pan. Count on 20% shrinkage during cooking.

Preserving a family recipe

Obtaining the recipe took about an hour on the phone with Michele.

“I never measure,” she said. “My mother just showed me, and I’ve shown my kids. I look at it and think it could use a little more seasoning or ketchup, like Julia Child.”

This recipe is nearly foolproof. My first trial came out great. And like Michele, I’ve already stashed the leftovers in heavy-duty plastic zip bags in the freezer.

I’ve named this recipe Cousin Michele’s Best Brisket in Lush Sauce. I plan to serve it for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown Wednesday, Sept. 4. Luckily, I already have plenty in the freezer.

Cousin Michele’s Best Brisket in Lush Sauce

From my cousin Michele Schwartz of Tulsa, Okla., whose father once owned a kosher slaughterhouse in Pittsburgh, comes this recipe from her mother for brisket in a lush gravy.

Michele uses only kosher meat in her home. For that reason, she begins with a small amount of seasoned salt, as kosher meat goes through salting during processing. If you use regular brisket, you’ll have to salt your way through this, starting small and adjusting along the way. Not to worry, there are plenty of opportunities to taste and fix. The sauce should be gravy-like with lots of body and hints of perceivable garlic.  

Ingredients

1½ pounds onions

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon granulated garlic (not garlic powder)

1 teaspoon Lawry’s Seasoned Salt

Ground black pepper, to taste

1 (5- to 6-pound) single brisket, sometimes called top flat, fat trimmed as desired

2 cups Heinz ketchup, such as Simply Heinz made without high fructose corn syrup

Splash sweet red wine, such as Manischewitz Concord Grape

Directions

1. Heat oven to 400 F. Slice onions in rings.

2. Spread two-thirds of the onions on the bottom of a disposable aluminum roasting pan or a large baking dish, such as a lasagna pan. Sprinkle with half the granulated garlic, seasoned salt and black pepper.

3. Lay the meat on top of the onions, fat side up. Scatter remaining one-third of the onions on top of the meat. Sprinkle with remaining seasonings.

4. Pour the ketchup into a 2-cup measuring cup and then pour it over the meat. Fill the ketchup’s measuring cup with about 1 cup water, swish around to pick up any ketchup still in the measure, and pour this water over the meat. Add a splash of the sweet red wine.

5. Using your hands or a big spoon, combine the elements together, making sure some slides off the meat and down the sides. You should have the beginnings of a sauce.

6. Cover the roasting pan with heavy duty foil, crimping sides to seal. Bake for 45 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 F and bake 30 to 40 minutes more.

7. Open cover and prick the meat with a fork. If the brisket resists the puncture and still feels tough, return to the oven for 30 minutes more. The idea is to stop the cooking when the meat is about three-fourths of the way cooked; more cooking will ensue after slicing.

8. When satisfied with the cooking progress, remove the pan from the oven. Uncover and cool on counter, saving the foil cover. When cool, recover the roasting pan and refrigerate the meat in the sauce overnight. The next day, skim solidified fat that has risen to the top (Michele leaves a tiny bit of fat, for flavor.)

9. Lift the brisket out of the sauce and place on a cutting board, leaving sauce in the baking pan.

10. Starting at the pointed end, use a long sharp slicing knife to cut slices about a quarter-inch thick, cutting across the grain. When this portion is sliced, turn the brisket to finish slicing across the grain for the rest of the cut.

11. Taste the gravy. Correct seasonings, adding more ketchup if you prefer it to be thicker. Return sliced meat to the sauce, turning meat to coat it. You may do this in advance and return it to the refrigerator, or proceed to the next step.

12. Closer to serving, reheat the meat in the sauce, covered, at 350 F for 1 hour. Bring it to the table hot with a serving fork to pick up the meat and a big spoon for the gravy.

Top photo: Cousin Michele’s Best Brisket in Lush Sauce for Rosh Hashana. Credit: Elaine Corn

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Consumers Still In The Dark: 6 Tips To Buying Better Olive Oil Image

Have you ever wondered what exactly you’re getting when you purchase a bottle of olive oil? Extra virgin? Pure?

“Pure,” explains Dan Flynn of the University of California Davis Olive Center, “which is such a great word from a marketing standpoint, indicates to a lot of consumers that they’re buying the very best olive oil. But in fact, it’s a lower grade.”

Extra virgin is the highest grade for olive oil.

Flynn, the olive center’s executive director, and his associate Selina Wang, its research director, recently released a study called “Consumer Attitudes on Olive Oil.” It revealed problems with consumers’ notions of this product that would make lovers of great olive oil, or those knowledgeable about it, cringe.

Only one in four of us understands olive oil grades, the report found. Eighty percent cited flavor as an important factor in buying olive oil, yet earlier studies have shown that a majority of imported oils have off flavors or are already rancid. Rancidity negatively affects the human body by forming free radicals and depleting certain B vitamins. If you’re using olive oil for your health, ingesting a rancid one will not bear the valuable antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and viable polyphenols.

Consumers also did not think that the terminology olive oil professionals used to convey positive attributes, such as “grassy,” “peppery” and “fruity,” made the product sound tasty. They were also confused by the term “refined.”

“It doesn’t mean elegant or high class,” Flynn said. Typical of labeling that intends to mislead, refined means just the opposite. Refined olive oil has been processed with solvents to mask off odors and flavors. This do-over is done because the oil might have started out with olives of questionable quality, or it’s a blend of low-grade oils gushing around the Mediterranean from Turkey, Greece or Spain, or it’s been cut with other oils, such as hazelnut or safflower. In these cases, that’s all got to be covered up.

Wang designed the consumer study. She is originally from Taiwan, where olive oil is not so familiar. “It probably took me several months to figure out all the terminology and nomenclature,” she said. “It’s very confusing.”

olive oil label

Olive oil label. Credit: Elaine Corn

The conclusion is there is much work to be done to better communicate what’s in the bottle instead of focusing on devising language that masks unscrupulous practices.

So how do you read an olive oil label to make sure it’s the best extra virgin you can afford?

There are six things to do. With advice from Orietta Gianjorio, a UC Davis Olive Oil Taste Panel member who grew up in Rome and is familiar with these terms we’ve inherited from Europe, here are some clues about how to read a label. In general, look for the term extra virgin. But don’t take it for granted.

Turn the bottle over. Where is the oil from? Just because it was packed or produced in Italy doesn’t mean the oil’s Italian. Oils come from all over the Mediterranean — Tunisia, Spain, Greece and Turkey — to Italy just to be packaged. That’s a lot of traveling. To impress you, the label may even brag that the oil has come from many countries. But now that you’re becoming an expert, you’ll know that the longer the time between harvest and processing, the better the chance the oil has of degrading.

Look for the harvest date. Remember that olive oil is the opposite of wine. It is not meant to age. Think of it as fresh fruit juice. Olive oil is good for about two years if stored in optimum conditions, which means in a dark, room-temperature cupboard. “If the back of the label doesn’t have the harvest date, you may consider putting that bottle back on the shelf,” Gianjorio advised.

Look for seals of approval. Many California olive oils are sent, for a fee, to the California Olive Oil Council’s panel of trained tasters. If the oil passes, the producer is given permission to place the COOC seal on the label. Most often, this is placed on the back of the bottle. However, many fine California oils from small producers are never sent to the COOC because of costs. Usually, these bottles show a harvest date.

Smell it and taste it. Because you can’t very well take a swig at the store, Gianjorio said that as soon as you get the olive oil home, smell it and taste it. Ideally you won’t encounter the off odors, which Gianjorio described as wax, bad salami, old peanut butter, baby diaper, manure or sweaty socks.

Take it back. “This is America. You take everything back,” Gianjorio said. Tell the store manager that the oil is rancid and return it. If the manager is unable to lead you to a better product, find a shop that specializes in fine olive oil, or look for good olive oil online.

Favor domestic oil. First, this is not an us vs. them: There are high-quality producers all over the world. Olive oils made in the U.S. consistently score higher in quality than imports. California furnishes 97% of the olive oil produced in the U.S. If there’s a shorthand way of looking for quality, reach for olive oil from the Golden State.

Top photo: Olive oils line shelves at Corti Brothers in Sacramento, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn

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Cut Food Stamps? A Food Writer Knows That’s Wrong Image

As something of a general-assignment reporter on the food beat, I cover everything from elite top chefs in the farm-to-fork realm, to Napa winemakers, to boutique growers, to farmers market advocates and culinary academics.

But I also see food banks — a world of hurt no one in the food industry should ignore.

Tom Colicchio, a New York City chef who’s around the good stuff all the time but who believes that no one in America should be hungry, is co-producer of the documentary “A Place at the Table.”

"That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable." -- Richard Nixon


More from Zester Daily:

» The politics of the plate

» Fixing school lunches

» Time for a food bank deposit

» Farm bill anxiety

One of the movie’s shattering facts is that in the 1970s, hunger in America was all but eradicated. By the 1980s, hunger returned with a vengeance and now afflicts more people than any other time in the country’s history. A record 47.8 million Americans are on food stamps. Seventeen million are children. More than 33,000 food stamp users hold doctoral degrees. Enrollment in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has increased 70% since the economic collapse of 2008.

It would appear to be a good time to enrich the food stamp system. But that’s not what’s happening in Congress.

Just when people rely on food stamps more than ever, the Senate voted June 10 for a farm bill that cuts SNAP by about $4 billion over the next 10 years.

And that’s the good news.

The Senate cut is peanuts compared to the $20-billion slash the House of Representatives is proposing. To protest, several of members of Congress tried a budget of $4.50 a day for 3 days this week to see what living on food stamps was like — not easy. The House version of the bill will knock nearly 2 million households off the rolls during a weak economy, with unemployment stalled at 7.6% and 15% of Americans living below the poverty line, the highest in poverty in half a century.

Most people on food stamps work. But if those jobs pay only minimum wage, such as Alabama’s $2.13 an hour for tipped employees, all minimum wage workers easily qualify for benefits.

Hard times can happen to anyone

I was on food stamps in California in 2005. My husband and I had lost a business and became instantly unemployed. As staunchly middle class, closer to upper-middle class growing up, I’d never heard of most of the programs that aid distressed Americans. Only one came to mind — food stamps.

Even though I owned a home and car, it looked as if I would be eligible. Only recently had ownership of a car been stricken as a disqualifying asset. I was shocked that people obviously in poverty were once punished if they owned a car to use to get to work or to look for a job. Then I got fingerprinted. (California no longer fingerprints food stamp applicants.)

I was issued a debit-like credit card loaded with funds every month. It’s called Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT.

I shopped for what would keep us healthy and un-hungry, such as vegetables, fruits, juice, meat, eggs, and OK, chocolate. I’m a good cook, so my shopping habits didn’t change much. I never got into the living-on-beans thing. I didn’t squander precious food-stamp dollars on soda, chips, frozen TV dinners, disgusting canned peas, lunchmeat or cookies, all of which are permitted. Participants who buy Ding Dongs and Hungry-Mans, and can’t cook, burn through their balance sooner.

Once I got the hang of it, I was going to EBT stores like Whole Foods and buying leg of lamb and brie. The program even allowed me to buy seeds and plants to grow a garden.

I thought that being on food stamps was like manna from heaven. But it’s not perfect. Aside from fraud traced mostly to the grocers’ end, the most imperfect thing about SNAP is its recent message about health.

In 2008, it changed its name to SNAP so it would be thought of as a nutrition program. The only problem here is that SNAP’s N-word, nutrition, doesn’t mean much when enrollees can buy liters of Pepsi and bags of Cheetos, and attract the scorn of politicians and the uninformed. My style of food stamp usage is equally criticized as food stamp elitism. How dare I buy high-quality ingredients while on the government dole?

But food is food, and any change to this definition in the Food and Nutrition Act would require an act of Congress. The people on the Hill gave up when they became tangled in the unruly theories of what makes a food too luxurious or too junky. Why not offer food stamp users nutrition classes? Oh, silly me. SNAP’s education funding had already been cut.

Food stamps benefits multiply

Every time an EBT card is swiped at a store, a nearly instantaneous transfer of funds from Washington starts a cash ripple effect locally. For example, the federal reimbursement of an 89-cent head of broccoli benefits the grower, the distributor, the store and the person who consumes the broccoli’s nutrition — for the full 89 cents.

Slashing billions of dollars from SNAP may starve the government beast, but it’s going to starve actual human beings, too.

If the minimum wage is not a living wage, and until the economy becomes unstuck, expect even more people to need that plastic EBT card like the one I keep in my wallet to this day.

Top photo: Clients collecting food at the River City Food Bank in Sacramento, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn

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