Olive Oil: Virgin, Extra Virgin, and Delicious
Here is what I learned about olive oil in Italy. It carries the flavor of where the olives grow…sometimes peppery, sometimes herbal, sometimes floral, mild or sharp. It is a flavoring in and of itself. Actually, I knew that. The most memorable olive oil I ever tasted was the oil made from olives that Drew and I helped pick in Yugoslavia way back in the old days. We helped our landlord harvest his trees and took the olives to the local mill, where they were pressed into beautiful green, flavorful oil. It tasted alive.
Olive oil pressed on the farm where we stayed in Abruzzo was so peppery and sharp we were shocked. Serra Gambetta produces a golden amber oil, with an aroma of herbs and a slight taste of bitter almond. Stir it into some cooked greens or some boiled beans, drizzle it on bread or a bowl of chopped tomatoes…you have something good.
There are “ordinary virgins” and “extra virgins “in the world of olive oil. “Extra virgin” is made from the first pressing of raw olives and is the most flavorful. It’s useful to buy a few jars and do a side-by-side taste test to get an idea of the range of flavors. .”Ordinary virgin” is produced from a subsequent pressing and has less distinctive flavor (sometimes that’s what you want). Many extra virgin or virgin olive oils found in the supermarket are mild-flavored and affordable–I use them all the time for cooking. Really great olive oil is expensive, so I use it when it will really be tasted.
This is how you take care of good olive oil. Store it in a cool place–not next to the stove where it is handy! Air is the enemy, so if you buy it in a large container, pour it into several smaller jars (dark glass, please) once it is open.
Making an Ordinary Extra Virgin into Something Special
“Ordinary extra virgin” sounds like an oxymoron, but there is a lot of it around. Infusing ordinary extra virgin olive oil with other flavors can transform it into a drizzle-worthy condiment.
*The easiest way to bump up the flavor of olive oil is to infuse it with olives. Fill a jar half way with unpitted olives and fill the rest of the jar with olive oil. Screw on the lid and store in a dark, cool place. The oil will soon taste more interesting, and the olive are wonderful, too.
*Pour oil over sun-dried tomatoes and let them impart their flavor and color to the oil. I like to use this to drizzle on pasta, pizza or focaccia, make a tapenade, or dress a salad or cooked vegetables.
*Flavor oil with lemon zest and garlic: Make a paste with 1 garlic clove, the zest of 1 lemon, and a pinch of coarse salt. Gradually stir in 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil.
*Infuse oil with tender herbs such as basil, chives, mint, or tarragon: Finely chop the herbs and pound them to a coarse paste in a mortar or small wooden bowl. Gradually stir in the olive oil. Use about 1/4 cup herbs for 1/2 cup oil. Infuse 30 minutes or so before using.
*Infuse oil with strong herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, or savory: These woody herbs need a little heat to extract their flavor. Use 4 to 6 Tbs chopped fresh leaves, singly or in combination, to infuse 1 cup extra virgin olive oil. Heat the herbs and oil together in a small pan over low heat until small bubbles rise around the leaves. Cook 3 minutes over very low heat. Remove from heat and infuse 2 to 12 hours. Strain before storing in the refrigerator.
*My favorite: Rosemary, thyme, red chile, and garlic. Chop the flavorings. Heat them gently in olive oil and steep 1 hour or so before using. Drizzle on grilled, roasted or steamed vegetables, pasta or polenta, bean salads, bread or pizza. I usually make this in small amounts and don’t bother to strain it.