Extra virgin olive oil (Recipe: tangerine and feta salad)
When I think back to how I lost my extra virginity, I have to laugh.
Confronted with so many choices of extra virgin olive oil at my favorite Italian market in Boston, I panicked, grabbed one bottle off the shelf, and fled with my ignorance.
Thirty years later, drafting a program of cooking classes to host in my Rhode Island kitchen, I added "Olive Oil Tasting" to my list. Why not, I thought, sample oils from Spain, Greece, Australia and the United States, as well as from Italy? Why not, I thought, compare color, aroma and viscosity?
Why not, indeed.
Why didn't I think of that years ago?
I grew up in the days before the Mediterranean diet was the Mediterranean diet, before we knew about the health benefits of olive oil, and before the rest of us who didn't grow up in Italian or Greek families realized how delicious and versatile it is.
Versatile, yes. All-purpose? No. If you are a fan of certain cooking shows, you'll see eee-vee-oh-oh used to cook, slather and drizzle on almost everything. But one oil does not fit all.
Made by the first pressing of olives, extra virgin olive oil depends heavily upon the variety of the fruit and the terroir (the soil, water, air) for its flavor and body. The taste can be green and grassy, bright and fruity, mild or even a bit sharp. The color, too, ranges from pale gold to bright green.
In my pantry I keep several olive oils, all labeled "extra virgin". My favorite, Nuñez de Prado, comes from a family farm in Spain; it's the oil I prefer for salads, when I want to taste every single drop, and for drizzling on cheese. I also have smaller sampling bottles of Greek and Australian oils, which lend their unique flavors to fish and roasted vegetables.
For cooking, I use a more refined (i.e., less artisanal) extra virgin olive oil from Trader Joe's; at $6.99 per liter, it's both good and cheap. Sometimes I buy Colavita oil in the supermarket (also good-tasting and cheap). These are the workhorse oils, with a slightly higher smoke point than the artisanal oils, and they're perfect for kale and olive oil mashed potatoes, hummus tahini with spiced oil, linguine with garlic and oil, zucchini olive oil cake with lemon crunch glaze, marrow beans in garlic, lemon and oregano, or olive oil cake with apricots.
Once opened, extra virgin olive oil will keep for six months in a cool, dry pantry, or for up to a year in the refrigerator. If you store it in the fridge, it will become cloudy, so be sure to leave it at room temperature for a few hours before you use it.
Are you ready to find your favorite? Tasting is the only way. Some restaurants and gourmet markets host olive oil tastings, so watch for those. Or, why not host your own olive oil tasting? Start with one of the samplers on the market, and add a few supermarket oils for comparison (some of them might surprise you). Or, for the ultimate extra virginity, treat yourself to membership in the Zingerman's Rare Olive Oil Club.
Tangerine and feta salad
Improvise with any greens, fruit and cheese you have on hand. Serves 2, for lunch, with a bowl of soup.
3 cups mixed lettuces
1/2 tangerine, peeled and diced
Handful of blueberries or blackberries
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp tangerine juice (from the remaining half of the fruit)
1-2 drops of agave nectar, to taste
Pinch of fresh black pepper
Combine the lettuces, diced tangerine, berries and cheese in a serving bowl. In a small jar, combine remaining ingredients, and shake well to emulsify the dressing. Drizzle dressing over the salad, and serve.