Extra virgin olive oil (Recipe: aioli with steamed asparagus)
Do you remember when you lost your virginity?
How about when you lost your extra virginity?
Um.... er.... extra virginity???
Yep. I remember the day I lost mine.
In the kitchen where I grew up, the oil of choice wasn't extra virgin or virgin. It wasn't even olive oil. We cooked with vegetable oil. Or butter. Or chicken fat. Honestly, I'd never heard of extra virgin olive oil until I tuned in to Julia Child on PBS after we moved to Boston in the late 1970s.
Enamored of Julia's easy style and confidence, I set out to try one of her recipes, and this required purchasing some extra virgin olive oil. I went to Boston's North End, the traditionally Italian part of town; in the market (Joe Pace's, for those who remember the neighborhood before the Big Dig), I found myself facing an entire aisle of olive oil! There were dozens of virgins and extra virgins. Some were neither; perhaps they were more experienced than virgins? Some were green, some golden, some almost clear, and some "light."
Intimidated and overwhelmed, I grabbed a bottle with a pretty label and a low price tag, and put on a brave face as I stood in line at the check-out. Then, I fled. And that, my friends, was how I lost my extra virginity.
Nobody should have to face the olive oil aisle alone, so here's my cheat sheet, collected from various sources including the International Olive Oil Council:
- Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of the fruit of the olive tree, using solely mechanical or other physical means in conditions, particularly thermal conditions, which do not alter the oil in any way. It has not undergone any treatment other than washing, decanting, centrifuging and filtering. It must have less than 1% acidity. Most expensive; best for salads and drizzling on finished dishes.
- Virgin olive oil, made in the same way as extra virgin, has an acidity less than 2%, and has a good taste. There can be no refined oil in virgin olive oil. Good for cooking, and fine for salad dressings, in a pinch.
- Olive oil is a blend of virgin oil and refined virgin oil, containing at most 1% acidity. Mild flavor; for cooking only.
- Refined olive oil, also called pure oil, is a lesser grade than virgin. No real good use for this.
I wouldn't think of being without EVOO (yes, I abbreviate it on paper, though I never ever say "e-v-o-o" out loud) any more than I'd let my pantry run out of salt, or onions. I keep several kinds of olive oil on hand, not because I'm an oil snob, but because I don't want to cook with EVOO (which has a low smoke point of 375°F) when cooking with regular blended olive oil (438°F) tastes better and is more economical. For deep frying, I prefer peanut oil (450°F) or rice bran oil (490°F).
One extra virgin does not fit all, so purchase oil in small quantities — buy the best you can afford — and taste several to find your favorites. Some are fruity, some are peppery, some are grassy, and some are good enough to drink right from the bottle. You can find extra virgin olive oils from California, Spain, South Africa, Mozambique, New Zealand and Turkey at Zingerman's, or treat yourself to a lovely sampler box of small-producer artisan oils from Alejandro & Martin.
And once you've lost your extra virginity, you'll be able to whip up the most amazing gremolata potatoes, chicken salad with oranges and olives, rosemary-sage bread, ginger-spiced gobi paratha, three-cheese pizza, and your very own signature vinaigrette.
Aioli with steamed asparagus
Every summer, The #1 Cooking Group celebrates with a Grand Aioli. What’s a Grand Aioli? Nothing more than a giant potluck, really. In Provence, whole towns come together to celebrate the various saints of the villages; a grand aioli might also be served in winter, for Christmas Eve or New Year’s. Aioli (from the words ail – garlic – and oli, the Provencal word for oil) is both the sauce, and the celebration. Traditionally, the women make the aioli sauce while the men prepare the rest of the feast. Fishermen bring their catch; farmers might contribute potatoes and vegetables, lamb and chicken. The village baker would bring some baguettes. The point is to use locally available products, and add whatever you enjoy. The aioli itself — really a garlic mayonnaise — is the key, and its success depends on the very best olive oil.
For the aioli:
1 head garlic, cloves separated, peeled and slightly crushed
2 egg yolks (at room temperature)
pinch coarse sea salt
2 cups extra virgin olive oil (at room temperature)
1-2 teaspoons water
In a marble mortar with a heavy pestle, pound the garlic and salt together into a paste. Add egg yolks and stir until they are light in color.
Slowly, drop by drop, begin to incorporate the olive oil, turning the pestle constantly. As the mixture begins to thicken, add the oil a little faster, always turning the pestle.
When it is quite thick (this could take up to 45 minutes!), add the water to loosen it. Continue mixing until the oil is completely mixed in. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
WHILE THE AIOLI IS CHILLING, MAKE THE ASPARAGUS: Trim 2 lbs of asparagus spears; if the stalks are thick, peel them with a vegetable peeler. In a large saucepan, bring 1/2 inch of water to a boil. Add a good sprinkling of salt, and the asparagus. Cover, and cook for 2 minutes. Immediately remove the asparagus and plunge them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Then, drain and dry the asparagus, and set out on a platter with the aioli sauce in a bowl for dipping.