Part I: Discovering Liquid Gold; an Olive Oil Appreciation Dinner
By Robin Swanson
As a culinary-challenged thirty-something, I’ve learned to “appreciate” a lot of things – speed dial to my favorite sushi restaurant, happy hour appetizers as dinner and Trader Joe’s frozen food aisle, to name a few – but olive oil? I appreciate that it keeps my pasta from sticking together – does that count?
My unenlightened, unworldly views on olive oil changed on a balmy Thursday night in October, when I attended a class on olive oil at Sacramento’s Natural Foods Co-op. With my two partners-in-crime, Michael and Krista, we found our way to the Co-op’s cooking school (just around the corner from the store) and met our olive oil authorities for the evening: Albert Katz of Katz Olive Oil and Pablo Voitzuk of Apollo Olive Oil.
On our table were three round tumblers of olive oil. No bread for dipping (yet) – just the straight up “juice.” It turns out you taste olive oil much like you taste wine: smell, sip, swish, hold it on the back of your tongue, swallow – all of the fanfare, just none of the buzz. (Though we wouldn’t be denied that with the wine over dinner…)
Like a lot of the food mass-produced in our country, (see Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Inc., etc., and you’ll never want to eat again) most olive oil here is a bastardized, processed, cheap version of the original. Unlike in Europe, here we have no standards or laws regulating what “extra virgin olive oil” really means. Sorry Rachel Ray – apparently you may as well use Crisco over the “EVOO” we mass-produce in America. It needs to be certified by the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) if you want to make sure your olive oil is the real-deal.
And despite how cute the bottle of decorative, sub-par, chemically-altered olive oil looks sitting on my oven, (a deceptive prop to make guests believe I spend time cooking), true olive oil actually deteriorates when not stored properly, and unlike wine, spoils with age. Pablo says a good bottle of olive oil should be used within 18 months.
After learning that the Star-brand EVOO I’ve been using for all of these years may as well be used to lube-up my bicycle chain, Pablo walked us through how to taste and enjoy the good stuff. There are three key components to olive oil tasting: perfume, bitterness and pungency.
An olive oil’s “perfume” is, not surprisingly, evaluated by sticking your schnoz in the glass and taking a good whiff. It helps to warm up the glass of olive oil and cover the top with your hands for a few moments before tasting. The good olive oils smelled at times strong, smooth, spicy and rich. The imposter smelled like a mowed lawn.
The “bitterness” (which is a good thing) is tasted by running the olive oil through the back of your teeth and holding it on the back of your tongue until you cough. For those of you trying to impress a date – this is decidedly NOT an attractive endeavor – envision an Andy Rooney impression, jaw sticking out, with the potential of olive oil dripping out of the corners of your mouth. (Or maybe that was just me… totally not hot.)
And the “pungency” is what’s left in your mouth. With good olive oils, there’s no residue – but the cheap stuff leaves your mouth covered in a filmy, oily substance. That’s because the imposter is made with all kinds of ingredients that have nothing to do with olives or their oil.
Krista had the good sense to wash down the ghastly (how is it possible have we been so deceived all of these years?) imitation oil with the wine that magically appeared on the table, so I followed suit. And then came the food… a culinary experience that rivaled some of the most delectable dinners I’ve had at the likes of Ella’s and Mulvaney’s… except we were seated in plastic chairs at fold-up tables in a kitchen classroom.
For our first course, Chef Dionisio Esperas served us a mouth-watering Roasted Beet Salad with Goat Cheese and Toasted hazelnuts made with Katz Organic Meyer Lemon Olive Oil and Katz Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc Vinegar.
Katz’s olive oil is used at The Grange restaurant in downtown Sacramento and even at Alice Waters’ world-famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, home of the sustainable, locally grown, “slow foods” movement that has sufficiently ended my 15-year love affair with Lean Cuisines. Albert Katz told us that his Meyers lemon olive oil is picked in December, so the “oilio nuovo” (literal translation – new olive oil) will be ready in early 2010 – it takes about 2 months to decant after harvest.
Next came the Tuscan White Bean Soup, made with Apollo Sierra Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Katz Chef’s Pick Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Wiping away tears of joy after tasting this little bowl of manna from above, I made a note to self: must immediately become Chef Dionisio’s new best friend. Always a pillar of strength during my moments of weakness, Krista instead had the more sensible idea to ask Chef D for his recipe, which he actually e-mailed her a few days later. If you’d also like to stalk him for his soup recipe, his contact info is on www.ahealthykitchensac.com.
Dinner came in the form of two entrees: a Pan Roasted Halibut with Katz Organic Meyer Lemon Olive Oil and Sauteed Kale with Apollo Mistral Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and Organic Prather Ranch New York Strip with Arugula, using Apollo Barouni Gold and Katz Chef’s Pick Extra Virgin. Having already found religion in the white bean soup, these dishes could also only be described as divine.
And who knew you could use olive oil to make dessert? But he’s a clever one, that Chef D, serving up a tasty Walnut Orange Torte using Apollo Mistral Extra Virgin.
Would I be able to tell if these dishes had been prepared with the bicycle-lube version of olive oil? Not sure. But I do know that this night of olive oil exploration somehow gave me the confidence to purchase two big bottles of the golden elixir and commit to throwing a dinner party emulating Chef D’s menu. Though my most useful kitchen utensil to date has been the keypad on my phone, I’m committed to ensuring that the fresh olive oil sitting in my pantry doesn’t become an ornament, like the decorative bottle on my oven. And if it doesn’t work, well, the sushi restaurant is still on speed-dial. Stay tuned for part II of this adventure – the dinner party…