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Cooking for One: Olive oil tasting party a slick excuse for a summer rendezvous

Thursday, July 12, 2001

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Look out, here come the heirloom tomatoes, bibb lettuces, peppers and all their veggie partners and cousins from the stalls at the farmers' markets. To show them off, you don't need to do much work. Some can be eaten raw, others benefit from a quick broil, others need a couple of minutes on the grill. The only thing that's added at the table is a drizzle of olive oil.

For the solo cook, that's often all you need for dinner.

Which olive oil will you use? Do you have more than one in the pantry? All olive oils are different and each one, like good wine, has a unique flavor profile. If this is a news bulletin, maybe it's time for a little summer school.

Now this may come as a shock, but the Italians do not own the recipe rights to olive oil. Olive oil is not just one flavor from one country. Olives are grown all over the world, with Spain being the largest producer of olives and olive oil. Others in the Mediterranean region include France, Portugal, Greece, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt and, of course, Italy. Our own growers in California produce wonderful olive oils, too.

Each region and each grower produces olive oils with unique character and appeal owing to soil, climate and type of olive. On the consumers' end, the character changes depending on the ingredients with which it's paired.

So what does this mean to you?

With so many olive oils on gourmet and supermarket shelves, a good and curious cook might want to compare various types and try to identify their characteristics in order to be able to make informed decisions about which olive oils are best for cooking, salads, drizzling on dishes or just dunking with bread.

I suggest you turn some homework into fun. Why not host an olive oil tasting party? Invite, say, six to eight tasters to sample oils in a side-by side tasting, then follow it with a simple buffet of dishes showcasing the various oils. Make it potluck all around with each guest bringing an olive oil and a dish.

An olive oil tasting is conducted much like a wine tasting. Figure on five to seven olive oils. Any more than that and the flavors of the oils will blur and start to taste the same. You can choose oils from different countries, all Mediterranean, or choose different oils from within a region, such as all Californian.

Set out palate cleansers. Slices of green apple, water and cubes of country bread are all you need.

At a recent tasting in my home, seven small bottles, all extra-virgin olive oil, were lined up on the kitchen island. They ranged in size from 8 to 17 ounces. Cost ranged from $1.75 to $3 an ounce. Some of the olive oils were gifts, some were purchased on travels. One oil was from California trees, another from California trees grown from Tuscan stock. There were one each from Portugal, Greece, Spain, Italy and France. All of the oils were from 1999 vintages. Only one was a 1998.

Yes, olive oils have vintages just as wines do. But unlike wines, which often improve with age, olive oils deteriorate with age. They should be used within a year, two at the most, of pressing.

Small white saucers each held a sample puddle of oil. A basket of bread cubes held the dippers. We observed the clarity and color of the oils. Hues ranged from golden and greenish golden to grassy green. One oil was unfiltered, therefore cloudy. An eighth saucer held brand X, an unidentified oil.

We each dipped a cube of bread into one oil at a time and discussed it before moving on to the next. How do I like this? What would I like to serve this with? Would it be good for cooking or drizzling?

As you sniff and taste, expect a wide range of fragrances and flavors. Four general taste categories cover the flavors of most olive oils.

Mild and buttery -- These are subtle oils, good for mild dishes such as a simple fish or salad dressing. They tend to be light golden-green.

Fruity and spicy -- You can smell the herbs in these green oils. They are delicious with cooked vegetables and seafood and are easy to love.

Fruity and peppery --These will get your attention with a long peppery finish. Their assertive flavors are good companions with sandwich fillings or as a drizzle on garlicky dishes such as pastas or grilled meats. They are often dark green-gold.

Full-bodied and earthy -- Like a big wine, these are big olive oils. Rich mouthfeel with a full flavor characterize the golden oils.

In addition, suggest a fuller vocabulary of descriptions: flowery, grassy, piquant, peppery, bitter, sharp, sweet, smooth, mellow, voluptuous.

Now back to your party. Following the tasting, a simple buffet almost suggests itself.

Set out as many kinds of olives as you can find. Offer bruschetta for an appetizer (rub slices of bone dry baguette with the cut side of a clove of garlic, drizzle with olive oil and top with a roasted tomato or shave of air-dried ham). Roast a chicken with lemon in the style of the Greeks, or make a hot chicken salad. Toss a salad of bibb lettuce and herbs with vinaigrette. Serve a bowl of pasta with a simple sauce, roasted garlic and a drizzle of olive oil. Add a colorful platter of grilled or roasted onions, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini and peppers, drizzled with olive oil. Bake a simple fruit tart for dessert and complement it with a scoop of ice cream or creme fraiche.

And what was Brand X, the eighth olive oil? It was a plain, non-virgin, heavy-handed cooking --grade oil put there for comparison as a gag. Which it was.

HOT MEDITERRANEAN CHICKEN SALAD

6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1/2 cup olive oil, about
1 medium onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried
3/4 cup Greek or Nicoise olives
1 cup cooked small green beans
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 to 2 tablespoons wine vine- gar
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste
6 cups finely shredded lettuce
Lemon wedges

Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper and saute in a little of the olive oil over medium heat until just done, about 5 minutes a side. Do not overcook. Cool, and pull the meat into bite-size pieces. Set aside.

Add onion to additional olive oil and saute until softened. Add garlic and oregano and cook one more minute. Add olives, cooked beans, tomatoes and lemon zest and stir until heated through. Add reserved chicken and season to taste with vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

To serve, season lettuce with remaining olive oil, salt, pepper and a bit of lemon juice. Divide equally on 6 plates. Spoon hot chicken salad onto lettuce and serve. Makes 6 servings.

OLIVE SAUCE FOR PASTA

1 1/4 cups Kalamata olives, pit- ted and chopped
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 pound pasta, any shape
Red pepper flakes, optional

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and toss with olive sauce. Add pepper flakes to taste. Makes enough for 4 servings of pasta.

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