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Corby's Table
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Olive Oil The Perfect Oil

* Official Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Tastings
* An Olive Oil Tasting at Home
* Spaghetti with Lemony Seared Scallops
* Grilled Halibut with Chunky Fennel Vinaigrette
* Roasted Beet, Walnut, Gorgonzola, and Arugula Salad

September 4, 1997

With Olive Oil: From Tree to Table, Peggy Knickerbocker has written a book I've long been waiting for -- one that clarifies many facts about olive oil, my favorite fat. As a veteran of many trips to olive presses and one who has climbed ladders wielding hand-shaped rubber rakes to pull olives off trees, I have a higher-than-normal curiosity about how olive oil actually behaves in the pan.

I say in the pan, because olive oil is uniquely suited to frying: it has a very high "smoke point" -- the temperature at which the oil begins to decompose, adding off-flavors and possibly dangerous compounds to the food being fried. Few outside Spain, Italy, northern Africa, or other places that produce huge quantities of olive oil would think of using it for deep-frying, but nothing is better. Knickerbocker has a clear section on frying and technical information I haven't seen anywhere else.

She is an ace writer on food and her descriptions of various oils and how to taste them are lovely; here are a few samples from her book, including good advice on how to organize your own olive-oil tasting. This isn't the frou-frou activity it might seem. Olive oil is expensive, and each one tastes very different. You should find the one you like before you lay out $30 or some improbably high amount for a small bottle. Be sure it is from the most recent harvest possible, and keep it in dark glass away from heat and light. This is all advice that Knickerbocker gives.

Knickerbocker's recipes are also appealing. In her introduction she says that Paula Wolfert, a writer whose work I follow and constantly refer to, told her not to include any recipes she wasn't in love with. Knickerbocker says that she took that advice, and I don't doubt it. Now that summer produce is at its peak, try her beet and arugula salad with walnut and gorgonzola. Her simple spaghetti with lemony seared scallops would be a good accompaniment to the salad.

I'm very pleased that the halibut recipe, with a chunky fennel vinaigrette, comes from one of my favorite Boston chefs -- -- Steve Johnson, whose Blue Room in Cambridge serves delicious local and fresh foods. (Johnson manages to avoid what I call the Too Much Food on a Plate Disease, endemic to Boston chefs; for a hilarious and merciless treatment of the subject, look for Alan Richman's dining column this month in GQ.)

For your own sampling of olive oil, look no farther than Zingerman's, the deli and mail-order gourmet store whose owner, Ari Weinzweig, has written a wonderful pamphlet on olive oil and has helped Americans appreciate the freshness of and the difference between various olive oils. Call Mo or Jude at (313) 769-1625 and tell them I sent you.

   -- Corby Kummer

Excerpts from Olive Oil: From Tree to Table, by Peggy Knickerbocker

Official Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Tastings

The Moment of Truth: Waiting for Oil at the Press

In Chianti, warmly dressed locals arrive at the communal mill in trucks and station wagons with plastic containers or sacks filled with olives and with stainless steel vessels or wicker-covered glass jugs for transporting their oil home. Sometimes there is a little pushing and shoving in the line as these small-scale growers vie for a slot of time at the press. The sounds are high-pitched, the smells are heady, and there's tension in the air. As everyone awaits the result of their hard work and nature's grace, good-humored banter alternates with tentative concern. The farmers often gather in the mill's back room to smoke and drink wine, and to warm their hands over an open fire over which they will also toast bread for dipping into their new oil. The moment of truth arrives as fresh, young, murky oil finally spouts forth. A farmer's olive harvest has the potential to keep the whole family, and even the city relatives, in olive oil for an entire year.
In the olive oil-producing countries of the Mediterranean, two tests are required to determine the quality of an oil. Once chemical tests have been performed to test for the acidity, then official tasters assemble to determine whether it meets the standards of an extra-virgin. Usually if it has a bad aroma it won't be tasted.

The tasters must follow the rules of conduct, commandments really, that have been established by the International Olive Oil Council: They shall not smoke at least thirty minutes before the time set for the test. They shall not use any perfume, cosmetic, or soap whose smell could linger during the test. They shall fast for at least one hour before the tasting is carried out. They must admit to officials if they feel their sense of smell is in any way compromised by illness, or if any persisting psychological stress might prevent concentration on the work at hand.

The process for determining the organoleptic quality (characteristics rating for odor and taste) of an olive oil is based on a specific vocabulary for its sensory analysis. To give an idea of the language olive oil tasters use, here is a list of some official words employed to assess the flavor characteristics of extra-virgin oil: almond, apple, bitter, metallic, muddy sediment, musty-humid, old, pressing mat, pungent, rancid, rough, soapy, sweet, vegetable water, winey-vinegary.

An Olive Oil Tasting at Home

The palate can't remember more than a few oils at a time, so start slow, selecting no more than four or five oils to taste. Keep in mind that extra-virgin olive oils should smell and taste of the fruit from which they are made; they should be fruity, olivey. You might choose a peppery Tuscan oil, a light Ligurian or French oil, a Greek or Spanish oil, perhaps a Californian oil, and possibly even a bulk olive oil for comparison's sake. Keep in mind some of the descriptive words used by official tasters to describe your own experiences.

Pour a little oil into a clean wineglass, cup it between your fingers the way you would a brandy snifter, warming it, then cover the top with your other hand. Swirl it around a few times. Remove your hand and smell the aroma. Then take a tiny sip. Consider the viscosity, how it feels on the roof of your mouth. Suck in air through your teeth so that the flavor is distributed throughout your mouth. Do you like the taste and feel? What flavors are invoked? Are there whispers of almond nuttiness, cucumber, freshly mowed grass, apples, green peppers, or raw artichoke? Try to describe the flavors, then decide if you like them. Before proceeding to the next oil, cleanse your palate with a slice of apple. Bread isn't appropriate for tasting because yeast slightly changes the true taste of the oil and the texture of bread can obscure an oil's viscosity in your mouth.

Try the oils on different foods -- slices of boiled potatoes, or celery, perhaps. Determine if an oil enhances your food, or if it is too overpowering on a delicate fish, for example. Might another oil be more or less assertive? Would the olive oil be better on stronger or more subtle foods? Might one oil be so exhilarating that it should only be drizzled on pastas? Is one oil fantastic with bread? Is another best on salads? At the end of the day, if you start to fall in love with olive oil, you will discover you need a few oils in your pantry.

Spaghetti with Lemony Seared Scallops

Here is a stylish pasta that requires only minutes to make. I suggest using an inexpensive extra-virgin oil for searing the scallops, then topping the pasta with a very good mild extra-virgin oil, Ligurian perhaps, or an oil that has been crushed with lemons such as the Colona Estate Granverde oil from the Molise in Italy, or "O" Olive Oil from California. This creation was inspired by chef Joe Simone of Boston.

Serves 4 to 6
3/4 to 1 pound bay scallops or sea scallops
1/2 cup white flour, preferably Wondra
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil for searing scallops
Juice of 1 lemon
3/4 pound spaghetti
1/3 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons highest quality mild extra-virgin or lemon-flavored olive oil for drizzling

Put a large pot of salted water on a stove and bring to boil. Meanwhile, if using bay scallops, leave whole; if using sea scallops, cut into quarters. In a large bowl, combine the flour with the salt and pepper. Dust the scallops with the seasoned flour, then tap off the excess.

Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat for 1 minute. Add the 2 tablespoons olive oil and warm for 30 seconds. Add the scallops and sear, turning as necessary, for not more than 1 to 2 minutes. Add the lemon juice to the pan and stir. Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm.

Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain, reserving about 1/4 cup of the pasta water. Transfer the pasta to a warmed serving bowl. Add the warm scallops and the pasta water and toss well. Sprinkle the parsley and lemon zest on top, and drizzle with the 2 tablespoons mild extra-virgin oil or lemon-flavored oil. Serve at once.

Grilled Halibut with Chunky Fennel Vinaigrette

Here is a recipe from chef Steve Johnson of the Blue Room in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The chunky fennel vinaigrette also goes well with tuna steaks or swordfish. In fact, Johnson developed this vinaigrette to go with grilled Portuguese sardines. You might try it as a dressing on crisp romaine hearts or ripe tomato slices, or toss it with pasta and sprinkle a little pecorino over the top.

The fish can also be cooked on a stove-top grill or in a cast-iron skillet, adding a little extra-virgin olive oil in both cases.

Serves 4
1 cup chopped fennel
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 oil-packed anchovy fillets, chopped
1 teaspoon salt-cured capers, rinsed, drained, and minced
1 teaspoon whole-grain mustard
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, or a little less if dried
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
4 halibut fillets or steaks, each about 1 inch thick and about 1 1/2 pounds total weight

Prepare a fire in a charcoal grill.

Put the chopped fennel, shallots, garlic, anchovies, and capers in a bowl; toss well. Add the mustard, thyme, pepper flakes, lemon juice, and olive oil and stir to mix. Season with salt and pepper.

Place the fish on an oiled grill rack 6 to 8 inches above the fire. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes on each side, turning once. To test for doneness, pierce a piece of fish with a knife; it should be opaque in the center.

Transfer the fish to a warmed platter on individual plates and spoon some of the fennel vinaigrette over the top. Serve the remaining vinaigrette in a bowl alongside.

Roasted Beet, Walnut, Gorgonzola, and Arugula Salad

Sweet beets come creeping out of obscurity when scattered atop arugula leaves and sprinkled with roasted walnuts and crumbly bits of Gorgonzola. This salad makes a great light lunch.

Serves 4 to 6

2 pounds beets
4 cups arugula leaves or spinach leaves
1/2 cup walnut pieces
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil, preferably French
1/3 cup crumbled Gorgonzola or other blue cheese (3 ounces)

Preheat an oven to 400 degrees F.

Remove the beet greens if still attached, leaving a 1/2-inch long stem; do not peel. Place the beets in a roasting pan with 1/2 inch water. Roast until the beets can be easily pierced with a fork, about 1 hour. Remove from oven. (Alternatively, place the beets in a saucepan with boiling water to cover and cook at a slow, rolling boil until tender, 45 minutes to one hour; drain.) When cool enough to handle, using a small, sharp knife, peel off the skins from the beets. Slice the beets into thin julienne strips and place in a bowl. Place the arugula or spinach leaves in a separate bowl.

In a small skillet over medium heat, toast the walnut pieces for a few minutes, shaking the pan continuously to bring out the flavor of the nuts. Remove from heat and set aside.

To make the dressing, whisk together all the dressing ingredients. Add half of the dressing to the arugula (or spinach) and toss to coat the leaves.

Arrange the leaves on a serving platter, covering the bottom so that when you mound the beets on top, some of the greens will remain visible. Toss the beets with the remaining dressing and mound on top of the leaves. Distribute the walnuts and crumbled Gorgonzola over the top. Serve at once.

  • More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

    Copyright © 1997 by Corby Kummer.
    Recipes from Olive Oil: From Tree to Table by Peggy Knickerbocker. Chronicle Books: San Francisco 1997. 168 pp. ISBN: 0-8118-1350-9. $19.95. Copyright © by Peggy Knickerbocker
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