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I hardly think it needs saying, but I will say it anyway: Olive oil is the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, without which this vaunted eating style is simply a “sort of” — sort of vegetarian, sort of seafood-happy, sort of low in consumption of red meat, sort of devoted to whole grains and legumes.
But olive oil — extra virgin olive oil — is what truly sets it apart, and extra virgin olive oil, with its combination of monounsaturated fats and a big component of antioxidants and other phytochemicals (plant-based, naturally occurring chemicals), is a vital part of the good health message we hear over and over about why we should eat the Mediterranean way.
So it was shocking to see the prominent headline displayed on a full page, suggestively tinted olive green, in the New York Times Sunday Week in Review section on Jan. 26, 2014:
And in slightly smaller type just below:
“The Adulteration of Italian Olive Oil”
“Why are you shocked?” asked my friend Beatrice Ughi, who imports, through her company gustiamo.com, excellent oils from Italy. “You know it’s true.”
Yes, I know that some (a lot!) of Italian olive oil is not what it says it is on the bottle. And so is a lot of Spanish oil and a lot of oils from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. But I know, too, that some of the best extra virgin oils in the world come from Italy, and it is painful to see all Italian oils tarred, as it were, with the same brush. How could a superior oil such as Badia a Coltibuono or Cappezzana from Tuscany, or Titone from Sicily, or Francesco Travaglini’s Il Tratturello from Molise, survive in a market in which they are universally condemned as fraudulent, probably not even Italian, possibly not even oil produced by the olive fruit? To my eyes (and to my palate), such a statement is seriously misleading, enough so as to question the wisdom of The Times’ editors in allowing it to be published.
Beyond that, the “article” (or however you describe a series of graphic images, like a comic strip, in the opinion pages) was rife with error and misinterpretation, so much so that I was not surprised to hear later that Tom Mueller, author of “Extra Virginity” (2011), to whom the designer of the graphic attributed all the information he purveyed, had divorced himself in no uncertain terms from the article. Later, The Times, too, published an elongated correction at the end of the graphic acknowledging that an earlier version “contained several errors” and that “several of [Mueller's] findings were misinterpreted.”
One of the most startling misinterpretations is that “69% of imported olive oil labeled extra virgin” for sale in the U.S. fails to “meet the standard” for that designation. This refers to an oft-cited report compiled at the University of California at Davis in 2010. (A second, somewhat more detailed report, was published in 2011.) The report was funded by Corto Olive and California Olive Ranch, two prominent California producers, and by the California Olive Oil Council, which exists to promote California oil.
Not surprisingly, the report raised eyebrows, given the uncomfortable sponsorship. But its statistical significance was also questioned, given the fact that only 14 “popular import brands” were sampled in three separate California locations. That makes a total of 42 oils sampled — hardly a significant number given the vast number of imported oils sold in this U.S.
I would be the last person to deny there is a lot of scam in imported olive oil, just as there is a lot in many other imported products, especially those that purport to be from Italy, which equates in many folks’ minds to quality. The food industry is, and always has been, a prime area for fraud, at least in part because most food is ephemeral in nature and the fraud will have disappeared by the time the good-food cops are on the case.
Do your research when buying olive oil
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That said, with extra virgin olive oil, as with fine wine, as with Spanish jamón de bellota, as with English Stilton, the bottom line will tell you a good part of the story. You wouldn’t expect a $10 bottle of bubbly to contain Champagne, would you? If you’re spending $7.50 on a liter of oil, don’t expect it to be a fine, estate-bottled, Tuscan oil. The bottle alone, not including shipping costs, will not be covered by that price. Fine, hand-harvested, estate-bottled oils are not cheap, any more than fine Champagne, and that, it seems to me, goes to the heart of the problem. We too often treat olive oil as if it were mere kitchen grease — and in that sense, we get what we deserve and what we’re willing to pay for.
Beyond that, to assure you are buying high-quality olive oil, read the labels. I cannot say this often enough: Read the fine print. If an olive oil comes in a can or a dark glass bottle, if it has both harvest date and information about where it was processed and it is clearly written on the label, you can pretty much be certain it’s what it says it is. Not all oil will have that information and often, alas, the information will be in Italian or Spanish or Greek. But don’t let that throw you off: Learn what the important terms are in those languages (honestly, it’s easy), and read the labels.
In addition, find a merchant you can trust, either in a specialty shop or online. My most-trusted sources for great olive oil are the following (I am always eager to learn of others; please let me know of any you think are particularly reliable):
Manicaretti in Oakland, Calif., imports oil but distributes only to retail outlets and restaurants. If you see a particular oil on its website that interests you, however, you can find out from them where you might be able to acquire it.
As I write, I’m looking at a bottle of Marfuga extra virgin from Perugia in Umbria, available at olio2go.com. It’s in a dark green bottle, and it has a “use by” date of February 2015, from which I can judge that it was probably produced in fall 2013 (and I also can get that from other information on the bottle). It’s a monocultivar, or monovarietal, oil made from moraiolo olives, one of the most characteristic Umbrian varieties. It’s also excellent olive oil, rich with complex flavors yet smooth on the palate. I used it to make the following simplest and best salad dressing:
½ a small clove of garlic, minced
½ teaspoon of sea salt or Maldon salt
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice or good wine vinegar (not balsamic)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1. In the bottom of a salad bowl, combine the garlic and salt and, using the back of a spoon, crush the two together to make a paste. Stir in the lemon juice or vinegar. When it is fully incorporated, whisk in the olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding a little more salt, a drop or two more of acid, or another spoonful of oil.
2. When ready to serve, pile washed and dried salad greens on top and mix at table.
Top photo: A drizzle of fresh Tuscan olive oil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Sun, Sea & Olives: It isn’t easy getting people to eat what they’re not used to, and if what they’re used to is a hefty steak and baked potato with butter and sour cream on top, it can take a lot of diplomacy to convince the guy (it’s almost always a guy) that fish and salad are a better choice. So what to do?
For people who’ve been eating the Mediterranean way for years — lots of vegetables, very little dairy, plenty of seafood, not much meat and an ample glug of olive oil on top — it seems like a no-brainer. The food is delicious even or especially if it’s good for you. How could you not like it? But what about those die-hard American beef eaters? How do you get them to switch to a Mediterranean diet and be happy doing so?
Slowly, slowly and little by little is my advice. Add fish once a week but make it really good — tempting, tasty, irresistible — as in the recipe below for breaded fried fish. Serve it with a spicy salsa made with diced fresh tomatoes, avocados and a little green chili or make a tomato sauce, just like a pasta sauce, only add plenty of crushed red pepper, a bit of cumin and a spritz of lemon juice to liven things up. The walls of culinary resistance may come tumbling down and soon enough you’ll be serving, and loving, braised salmon, crisp green salad and bitter greens to take the place of that baked potato.
Better than an ode to childhood meals
Sun, Sea & Olives
One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.
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Fried Breaded Fish Sticks
Use a meaty, white-fleshed fish for this; cod, haddock, halibut or hake are all good choices. Buy boneless fillets or have a whole fish boned and filleted. To approximate 2 pounds of fillets, you will need 4 pounds of whole fish (sometimes called “round weight”).
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 pounds white-meat fish fillets (see suggestions above)
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
¼ to ½ teaspoon ground chili pepper
1 cup toasted bread crumbs, preferably made from whole grain bread
¼ cup finely chopped or ground walnuts or almonds
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Garnish: Tomato sauce, tomato-avocado salsa, or plain lemon juice
1. Rinse the fish fillets and pat them dry. Run your hands over the fillets to be sure all the pin bones have been removed. If any remain, use tweezers to pull them out.
2. Cut the fillets in smaller pieces, either one piece to a serving or, if you wish, make fish fingers, about 1 inch wide by 2½ inches long.
3. Set out three soup plates. Put the two flours and the salt in one plate and toss together with a fork. Crack the egg into the second plate. Add a teaspoon of water and beat the egg and water together with a fork. Combine the bread crumbs and nuts in the third plate.
4. Dip a piece of fish in the flour, turning it to coat lightly all sides. Shake off any excess. Then dip it in the egg, again turning to coat lightly all sides and letting excess drip off. Finally dip the piece in the bread-crumb-nut mixture, pressing well to let the crumbs adhere to the fish on all sides. Set each fish piece on a wire rack to dry slightly while you finish all of them.
5. Add the oil to a heavy skillet large enough to hold a number of fish pieces in a single layer and set the skillet over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer slightly, add as many fish pieces as you comfortably can fit in the pan. The fish should sizzle and brown on one side in 3 to 5 minutes; turn gently, using tongs, and brown the other side. Resist the temptation to keep turning the fish — that will reduce the amount of oil absorbed. When each piece is done, set it on a rack covered with paper towels. (If you’re doing a lot of fish, you might want to transfer the drained pieces to a very low oven — 150 F to keep warm.)
6. When all the fish is done, serve immediately, accompanied by tomato sauce (recipe below), or make a simple tomato-avocado salsa with chopped red onion, a little green chili and basil.
This is a variation on the simple tomato sauce I often serve with pasta. Serve it as is or spice it up with cumin, crushed red chili pepper and a spritz of lemon juice.
Makes about 2 cups of sauce
2 garlic cloves, sliced very thin
1 small green jalapeño pepper, seeded and thinly sliced (optional)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 (28 ounce) can of whole peeled tomatoes
1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs (flat-leaf parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme) or ½ teaspoon ground cumin
Juice of half a lemon or to taste
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine garlic, jalapeño if using, and oil in a saucepan and set over low heat. Let cook very gently, just until the vegetables are softened, but do not let them brown.
2. Add the tomatoes with their liquid and raise the heat to medium low. Add in the minced fresh herbs or the cumin. Simmer while breaking up the whole tomatoes with the side of a spoon as they cook down and the sauce thickens.
3. When the sauce is very thick (after 20 or 30 minutes of simmering), remove from the heat and purée the contents of the pan in a food processor or blender or using a vegetable mill or handheld blender. Taste and add lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.
Note: If you don’t use all the sauce, it will keep for a week in the refrigerator. You can also freeze it in half-cup quantities to use later for pasta, pizza or in place of commercial ketchup.
Top photo: Fried breaded fish sticks with tomato sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Sun, Sea & Olives: Pizza is health food? Yes, it is, at least in the Mediterranean, and that doesn’t mean pizza with beans and tofu, either.
Make dough with part whole-wheat flour, keep the toppings simple, don’t overload the cheese, and truly you will have something good to eat, simple to make and totally nourishing. Best of all, in my experience, rare is the child who does not love pizza. Even the pickiest eaters will happily munch on a slice of pizza fresh from the oven.
Incidentally, pizza is also a great way to introduce kids to the pleasure of making their food, especially if you give them a choice of toppings to play around with.
Good pizza starts with good dough
Sun, Sea & Olives
One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.
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Basic pizza dough, according to Neapolitans who know more about it than anyone else, is nothing but flour, water, salt and leavening from dough made the day before — what we call sourdough, though it shouldn’t be sour at all. In the absence of sourdough, I make pizza dough with a very small amount of instant yeast and add a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to make it supple.
I make a starter dough a day or so in advance to give it plenty of time to develop flavor. But this recipe works just as well if you make it all at once, just giving it an hour or so to rise. While the dough is rising, you can caramelize a couple of big, fat onions sliced very thin and make a simple tomato sauce.
What else will you need? Olives — black or green or both? Anchovies if you love them (most kids don’t)? Fresh mushrooms to slice and sauté briefly in olive oil? Fresh, ripe tomatoes sliced not too thin? Garlic sliced the same way? Sweet peppers or perhaps a little chili pepper? Thinly sliced sausage or ham? Cooked greens (kale is wonderful on pizza if handled right)? Ricotta or fresh goat’s cheese? Mozzarella (only the finest kind — not that rubbery stuff from the supermarket)? Flaked tuna? And hard cheese — parmigiano is preferable but a well-aged cheddar will do — to grate on top.
The possibilities are endless; just don’t make pizza a catch-all for what’s tucked in the back of the refrigerator. Remember, fresher is better, and simpler is best of all. The most famous pizza in the world is pizza margherita, made with garlic-enhanced tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil, the leaves torn over the top of the hot pizza when it comes from the oven. Red, white and green, the simple colors of the Italian flag.
Makes enough for four 8- to 10-inch pizzas.
2 cups whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1½ to 2 cups warm water
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons plus ½ teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1. Combine in a bowl 1 cup of whole-wheat flour with the yeast, then stir in 1 cup warm water. Don’t worry if it’s pretty sloppy. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a cool place to rise overnight.
2. The next day (or that evening) add the remaining cup of whole-wheat flour. Set aside ¼ cup of all-purpose flour to use on the board and add the remaining 1¾ cups to the dough along with ½ cup warm water, 2 tablespoons of the extra virgin olive oil and a good big pinch of sea salt. Mix all together, then knead in the bowl.
3. When everything has come together, turn it out on a board lightly floured with the remaining ¼ cup of flour. Knead, gradually incorporating the extra flour, until the dough has lost its stickiness. (If necessary, add a little warm water.)
4. Rinse and dry the bowl and smear the remaining ½ teaspoon of oil around the inside. Turn the ball of dough in the oil to coat on all sides, cover once more with plastic and set aside to rise until doubled — about 1 hour. While the dough is rising, make caramelized onions.
1½ to 2 pounds fresh yellow onions, peeled, halved and sliced
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine the sliced onions and olive oil in a deep, heavy sauté pan or skillet. Set over medium-low heat and cook very slowly, stirring frequently, for about 30 minutes, until the onions are thoroughly melted and almost dissolved in the oil.
2. Stir in salt and pepper. You may use the onions as-is on the pizza, but if you want to caramelize them, pulling out more of their natural sweetness, raise the heat to medium and continue cooking and stirring another 15 to 20 minutes, watching constantly to be sure they don’t burn. When the onions are done to your liking, remove from the heat and taste, adjusting the seasoning. While the onions are cooking, make tomato sauce.
Use top-quality canned tomatoes with no added seasonings beyond salt.
2 garlic cloves, sliced very thin
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 (28-ounce) can of whole peeled tomatoes
1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs (flat-leaf parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine garlic and oil in a saucepan and set over low heat. Let cook very gently just until the garlic is softened, but do not let it brown.
2. Add the tomatoes with their liquid and raise the heat to medium low. Add in the minced fresh herbs. Simmer while breaking up the whole tomatoes with the side of a spoon as they cook down and the sauce thickens.
3. When the sauce is very thick (after 20 or 30 minutes of simmering), remove from the heat and purée the contents of the pan in a food processor or blender or using a vegetable mill or handheld blender. You should have about 2 cups of sauce. Taste and add salt and pepper.
1. Preheat the oven to 500 F.
2. Punch down the dough, knead it again briefly, then cut into four or five pieces (if you’re using a kitchen scale, each should weigh about 8 ounces).
3. Roll a piece into a ball then, using a rolling pin, roll it out into a disk. Don’t be concerned about rolling a perfect circle — your disk can be oblong or even totally misshapen. The important thing is that the dough should be roughly the same thickness throughout the disk. If you want to be Neapolitan, you can raise a dough edge around the disk, but it’s OK to have it perfectly flat too.
4. Lightly oil a cookie sheet. Stretch the dough on the sheet and dribble a little oil on top. Spoon on the tomato sauce in a thin layer, not trying to cover the dough entirely with sauce. Spread some caramelized onions over the top. Then add other toppings, perhaps dabs of goat cheese, feta or ricotta, maybe a few little cherry tomatoes sliced, or thinly sliced red and green peppers, or some anchovies or squares of bacon or ham. But don’t try to put all of this on top — just experiment with the different pizzas you have available.
5. When the topping is finished, sprinkle some grated cheese over it and dribble on more oil. (Note: If you use cooked kale, spinach or another green vegetable on top, cover the vegetable well with grated cheese and/or oil to keep it from burning in the hot oven.)
6. Slide the sheet into the oven and bake 10 minutes, by which time the dough should be cooked through and everything on top sizzling merrily. Remove, slice and consume immediately.
Top photo: Cooked pizza. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Sun, Sea & Olives: Thumbs up yet again for the Mediterranean diet. Those tireless researchers in Spain who brought us the good news a year ago about positive effects on heart disease and stroke from following a Mediterranean-style diet have added to their pitch: It now looks as though the Med diet can also be beneficial against diabetes, especially among older adults at high risk for heart disease. This is all part of the same large-scale study of the effects of the Mediterranean diet on cardiovascular disease that has been ongoing among several different medical centers in Spain.
Sun, Sea & Olives
First in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet
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Experts, including the Joslin Diabetes Center and the American Heart Association, tell us there’s a clear relationship between diabetes and heart disease. Heart disease and stroke are the main causes of death and disability among diabetics; furthermore, adults with Type 2 diabetes are two to four times more likely to suffer heart disease or stroke than adults without it. So preventing heart disease could begin with preventing Type 2 diabetes.
The details of the latest study-within-a-study are in the January 2014 issue of The Annals of Internal Medicine, Vol. 160, No. 1. The conclusion is already drawing attention from medical and public health establishments. Most significant are the ages of the 3,500 participants (between 55 and 80) and the length of the study (more than four years), indicating, in the words of the lead author of the study, Dr. Jordi Salas-Salvado, that “it’s never too late to switch.” Even for older adults with several markers for a strong risk of heart disease, even without calorie restriction, even without increasing exercise, changing to a Mediterranean-style diet can bring positive results. (And if you do cut calories and bump up the exercise, so much the better.)
And it’s not just diabetes. The Mediterranean diet is also known to be protective against other catastrophic illnesses — heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure (hypertension), certain cancers and neurological decline. Beyond that, the evidence is clear that people who follow a Mediterranean type of diet often not only live longer but have a healthier old age.
Mediterranean diet is simple, easy, inexpensive
So what is this Mediterranean diet that we keep hearing so much about?
I’ve been fortunate for much of my adult life to live, work, cook and raise a family in several Mediterranean countries, and I’ve spent much of the past 20 years studying the diet from that perspective — that is, not of a scientist, a nutritionist or a chef, but simply a person who wants to provide herself, family and friends with good, healthy food and to grow old gradually but gracefully with most systems still in place.
It’s puzzling to me why more people don’t seem able to make the relatively effortless and uncomplicated switch to a Mediterranean way of cooking and eating. After all, it’s simple, it’s easy, it’s not expensive. It requires no ingredients that aren’t readily available in any well-stocked supermarket and no techniques for which a culinary degree is necessary. Anyone who knows how to boil water or fry an egg, anyone who has access to a good supermarket, anyone who’s willing to buy into the idea that investing a bit of time in preparing food is an investment with terrific payoffs in terms of satisfaction as well as good health — anyone like that ought to be able to do this.
If you’re timid, here are a few principles to start you off:
- Increase the amount of vegetables you consume, especially fresh, seasonal vegetables like, right now, spicy greens, squashes and root vegetables.
- Replace most of the red meat (beef, pork, lamb) in your diet with fish and legumes — eat fish three times a week, beans at least twice. (That includes lentils, chickpeas, fava, black beans, borlotti and many others — just Google “legumes” for a look at this astonishingly broad category.)
- Substitute extra virgin olive oil for the other fats you now consume, whether butter or vegetable oils. Use it as a garnish, but use it also for cooking — it is simply not true that you can’t cook with extra virgin.
And here’s a quick and easy recipe, incorporating olive oil and lots of vegetables, to get you on the road to a healthy Mediterranean diet and a more delicious way to eat. Serve this on top of a brown rice pilaf topped with chopped almonds, maybe accompanied by a salad of greens and avocados, and you’ll have a complete meal that is undeniably good-tasting and even more undeniably good for you too:
A Medley of Roasted Winter Vegetables
You may use any of a number of different winter vegetables, mostly roots, for the dish, but count on at least a pound plus a little more for each person, not including garnishes like chili peppers and chopped herbs. To make 4½ pounds of vegetables, I assembled 2 medium beets, 1 smallish celery root, 1 medium sweet potato, 5 small carrots, 2 small white turnips, 2 fat leeks and 6 small potatoes.
Makes 4 servings
4½ pounds assorted vegetables
2 or 3 garlic cloves
2 celery ribs
2 fresh green chili peppers
Half a medium fresh red sweet (bell) pepper
About ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of red chili flakes, if desired
Juice of half a lemon
About ¼ cup minced fresh green herbs (flat-leaf parsley and basil, thyme, rosemary or chives)
1. Set the oven on 400 F.
2. Prepare the vegetables, peeling and trimming them, then cutting them into regular cubes or chunks, not more than 1 to 1½ inches on a side. Coarsely chop the garlic. If using beets, keep them separate from the other vegetables so they don’t bleed their deep, ruddy color into the paler roots. If using leeks, trim, wash and slice about ½-inch thick and set aside. Slice the celery ½-inch thick and set aside. Trim the peppers, sliver lengthwise and set aside.
3. Bring a tea kettle of water to a boil.
4. Combine all the vegetables except the beets, leeks, celery and peppers. In an oven dish large enough to hold everything, toss the vegetables with ¼ cup of oil and the salt and pepper. Add a pinch of red chili flakes if you wish. Stir in the lemon juice and add boiling water to come halfway up the vegetables.
5. In a separate, smaller oven dish, toss the beet chunks with the remaining olive oil plus salt and pepper. (No need to add lemon juice or boiling water.)
6. Set the two dishes in the preheated oven and let them roast, uncovered, for about 25 minutes or until the vegetable chunks are tender all the way through.
7. Remove both dishes from the oven. Add the sliced leeks and celery, along with the slivered peppers, to the vegetable medley and stir everything together so the browned vegetables on top of the dish are mixed in and the paler ones on the bottom are brought to the top. Return the dish to the oven for an additional 15 minutes of roasting.
8. When the main vegetable dish is done, remove and spoon the beets, with some of their juices, into the rest of the vegetables. Sprinkle with the fresh herbs and serve immediately. Note that this is also a dish that does not have to be served piping hot from the oven. Many people prefer it at room temperature or a little warmer.
Variations: You could add a cup or two of cooked beans or chickpeas (garbanzos) to the vegetables after they’ve finished roasting; you could also add a handful of small cremini mushroom caps along with the leeks and celery to the final roasting. If you have leftovers, purée them in a blender or food processor with some chicken or vegetable stock and reheat to make an old-fashioned but deeply satisfying classic French potage bonne femme.
Top photo: You can include vegetables such as carrots, turnips, leeks, sweet potatoes and chili peppers in your roasted vegetable medley. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Making a healthy start to 2014, I went into the kitchen on New Year’s Day to cook with olive oil. Now I know there are all sorts of people, chefs among them, who will claim “you can’t cook with extra virgin olive oil.”
Where they get this from is a mystery, but it’s a myth that’s passed around with great regularity. (I have my suspicions as to its origin, but I’m not free to issue a j’accuse just yet.) And the charge against olive oil simply is not true — as I’ve seen over and over again in kitchens large and small, domestic and thoroughly professional, all over the Mediterranean world, where chefs and cooks alike use nothing else.
It’s fine for your spaghetti with clam sauce, your ratatouille, your paella valenciana. But pastries? Cakes? Cookies? Don’t they fall apart? Don’t they taste peculiarly of olive oil?
Olive oil adds rich dimension to brownies
Not at all! You might detect the taste of extra virgin in the raw batter, but I defy you, once they’re cooked, to tell me from the flavor which fat has been used. And there’s an advantage too, which was most prominent in the olive oil brownies — a lush, rich, fudgy, almost gooey texture that is such a delicious hallmark of brownie perfection. I found agreement from Leslie Revsin, a wonderful cook and chef who died almost 10 years ago at much too early an age. Writing in the magazine Fine Cooking about her experiments using vegetable oil or olive oil, she said the olive oil versions of classic chocolate and carrot cakes had a strikingly richer, deeper character: “The olive oil seemed to act like an invisible helper,” she said, “somehow coaxing superior savor and clarity from the ingredients, weaving them together to create a richer, more alive whole.”
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I’m not going to tout chocolate brownies or cranberry almond cookies as health food, but certainly they are minimally better for us if we use olive oil. And the walnuts in the brownies add a powerful quotient of Omega-3 fatty acids, while the almonds in the cookies are demonstrably heart healthy, loaded with vitamin E and other beneficial nutrients. Truly, though, forget about health food for the moment and just enjoy these luscious treats for what they are, made even more delectable with olive oil.
What olive oil should you use with these recipes? Stay away from aggressively flavored oils and especially from fresh, new oils, which are naturally more pronounced in aromatics than older oils. This is one time when you can look at the date on a bottle and happily use a 2012 or even a 2011 harvest oil — just so long as it has been handled properly and not subject to anything that would develop rancidity or off aromas. If the oil smells good but is perhaps a little bland, if it tastes good but without any immediately discernible flavors — that’s the oil you’ll want to use.
The source of the oil is not so important. It could be from California or Chile, from Spain or Greece or anywhere in between, and it could be made from a single cultivar like arbequina (noted for its soft flavors) or from a mixture of oils carefully blended by the producer to make an unassertive oil, much as a winery will blend softer, sweeter varietals with rougher wines to create a pleasant assemblage. (And note that I unashamedly use butter for the brownie pan — olive oil just doesn’t stick to the sides in the same way.)
Olive Oil Brownies
Makes 16 brownies
Butter for the pan
4 ounces dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
⅓ cup fruity olive oil
¾ cup sugar
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chopped walnut meats
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter an 8-inch-by-8-inch square pan.
2. Break up the chocolate in small pieces and set it in an oven-safe dish, then put it in the oven to melt thoroughly. When it is completely soft, combine it with the olive oil, beating with a fork to mix thoroughly. Set aside to cool, but do not refrigerate.
3. Beat the eggs until they are thick and foamy, then beat in the sugar, about ¼ cup at a time. When the sugar is thoroughly incorporated and the chocolate mixture has cooled down, combine the two, stirring them together with a spatula or wooden spoon (do not beat).
4. Using a rubber spatula, stir in the flour, vanilla and walnuts. Spread the mixture in the prepared brownie pan and transfer to the preheated oven.
5. Bake 25 minutes or until the edges start to pull away from the pan. Remove from the oven and set on a wire rack to cool completely before cutting into squares.
Mrs. Fancelli’s Olive Oil Cookies With Almonds and Cranberries
Feliciano Fancelli runs an oil mill, or frantoio, in the hills behind Assisi in Umbria, Italy. It is one of the last old-fashioned, crush-and-press mills still functioning, and it has been in his family for umpteen generations. Mrs. Fancelli gave me this recipe for a simple cookie that is typical of Italian country sweets. For sweet wine, she uses a local sagrantino passito from nearby Montefalco, but a sweet moscato will do very well instead; I sometimes use a Tuscan vin santo, one that is rather drier than sweet. If you don’t want to use alcohol, you could substitute a not-too-sweet apple cider.
Toast the nuts in a 350 F oven until they are golden; when they are cool enough to handle, chop or process briefly in the food processor to make a coarse mix, not at all pasty.
Makes 34 to 40 cookies.
2¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
Pinch of sea salt
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1½ cups chopped toasted almonds or hazelnuts, or a mixture
1½ cups raisins, coarsely chopped
⅔ cup extra virgin olive oil
⅔ cup sweet wine
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spread sheets of parchment paper on two or three cookie sheets. Have ready a wire rack for cooling the cookies.
2. Toss together in a bowl the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder, then stir in the nuts and raisins.
3. Whisk together the eggs and combine, whisking, with the oil and wine. Pour over the flour mixture.
4. Stir and knead slightly with your hands to mix the liquids thoroughly into the flour.
5. Drop the cookie mixture by tablespoons onto the prepared cookie sheets and transfer to the preheated oven.
6. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the cookies are lightly golden. Remove and transfer immediately to the wire rack to cool.
Top photo: Brownies and cookies made with olive oil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
I caught Ed Behr on the phone just as the writer was wrapping up a story about what he called, in an atypical struggle for the right word, “contemporary, innovative, imaginative, fashionable, modern restaurant cooking.” It would be the lead story for the 92nd edition of “The Art of Eating,” the quarterly newsletter he founded almost 30 years ago and has been publishing more or less regularly ever since.
But the highly evolved and ultra-complex haute cuisine of modern restaurant chefs seemed, at least to me, a long way from the subject of my phone call, which was Behr’s latest book, “50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste,” just published by Penguin Press. The book is a series of essays on a gamut of foods Behr finds interesting, challenging or curious, for one reason or another. A lot of the foods he writes about — cantaloupe, for instance, or cabbage, green beans, lemons, corn, rice, lettuce — are the kind of fundamental, even humble ingredients to be found in the kitchen of just about anyone who cooks.
So how does this relate to modern restaurants, to the radical creations of stars like Ferran Adrià or Heston Blumenthal, to mention two names that Behr brought up?
He was quick to explain: “The topics in ‘50 Foods,’ ” he said, “are timeless; they’ll be around for a long time to come. And that’s what I set out to write, a book that would endure for a very long time. Now, with this article, I want to make the connection between those topics and modern cuisine” — and, he might have added, with the almost relentless pursuit of novelty and the esoteric that seems to characterize contemporary cooking at that high professional level.
“With all this sophistication,” he went on, “there’s an enormous lack of information about particular topics, even about food in general. In the book, I wanted to get to the essence of the thing, the nuts and bolts of what it is, along with how to choose it, the flavors that might complement it, buying information, and even when it’s relevant, what wine to drink with it.”
’50 Foods’ not a cookbook, but may inspire readers to head to the kitchen
There is not a recipe, however, anywhere in the book, although an experienced cook could certainly derive some excellent ideas to put into practice. But this is decidedly not a cookbook, even if reading it may eventually drive you into the kitchen to try out a project.
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By Edward Behr
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And not all the 50 foods are basics, by any means, although it’s true that what’s exotic for one diner or cook can be dead ordinary for another. Take honey, for instance, which Behr calls “one of the most varied, delicious tastes of all foods, and it’s possibly the food most obviously and directly linked to the place it comes from, sometimes to a short period of days and the particular plants then in flower.” In 9½ tightly organized pages, Behr teases out the esoterica of bees and bee pasture; nectar; colony collapse disorder; industrial and artisanal honey production; honeycombs and why they’re important; the flavors of various honeys (acacia, lime, lemon, tupelo); what to look for when you buy honey; how to store it; how to substitute honey for sugar in a recipe; what complements it best (yogurt, very fresh cheeses); and how (not) to serve it with wine. In short, if you’re interested in honey, here is everything you will need to know short of how to make it yourself. And if you’re not interested in honey (I’m not, though I found the entry fascinating), just move on to the next topic, “Lamb and Mutton,” or the one before it, “Ham and Bacon.”
“50 Foods” is not an encyclopedia, not at all. Part history, part aesthetic appreciation, part a series of strong, knowledgeable and educated value judgments, this is a reading book, a delightful companion on the bedside table where, if you’re like me, you might pick it up in the middle of the night in order to peruse a section on, say, butter, where you will learn of this ideal complement: “crisp raw radishes eaten French style, with unsalted butter, coarse sea salt, and bread that’s either fully dark or tan from flour containing a portion of bran.” It’s enough to make a girl get up and raid the refrigerator right then and there!
Caviar, oysters, salmon and truffles are among the fancy, expensive, perhaps elitist foods he covers, but he goes into great detail also about pears, plums and apples. If you read the section on “The Baguette” and then the one on “The ‘Country’ Loaf,” you will have an excellent summation of the recent, somewhat troubled history of bread in France. And if you read the several sections on various cheeses you may well conclude, as Behr does in the preface, that “cheese is probably the best food just as wine is the best drink.”
In short, the words are those of a superbly opinionated writer. But not an ignorant writer, because Ed Behr is famous for the perspicacity with which he tackles almost any subject, but especially any topic having to do with food or drink.
“The Art of Eating”
You may not have heard of “The Art of Eating,” but it is a publication read with attention and fascination by the likes of Alice Waters, René Redzepi, Dan Barber and lesser-known but equally important movers and shakers in the world of food and wine. The first issue, a scant eight pages, was written and produced entirely by Behr, and it continued that way for several years. Now, “The Art of Eating” runs to 48 information-packed pages, handsomely produced with the help of his wife, Kim, who functions as something between marketing manager and communications director. And it frequently includes contributions from others, both known and unknown (I’ve occasionally written for it). The current issue includes articles on Maryland hot peppers, old-fashioned blanquette de veau, a practically unknown Italian wine called Pelaverga, book reviews, restaurant reviews — in short an eclectic and provocative mix. You can read a few samples from back issues or subscribe (a nice holiday gift, perhaps to go with a copy of “50 Foods”) at www.artofeating.com.
Top photo: “50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste” by Edward Behr. Author photo credit: Natalie Stultz