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Extra Virgin Olive Oil

While Americans use plenty of cooking oil in our food, we use just under a quart (about one liter) of good olive oil per person each year. This is a fraction of what citizens of Mediterranean countries use. For instance, Greeks use olive oil at the rate of forty liters per person per year, and Spain and Italy are similarly enamored of the stuff. What have we been missing?

Most Americans know extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) as a dressing to bring out the natural flavors in a salad, or as a dip that replaces butter on bread. But if growers and producers of the product in Mediterranean Europe have their way, you will soon learn to use it a lot more. A new campaign for foodie-rich countries — such as our own — called Flavor Your Life — is bent on showing us how to choose, use, and enjoy extra virgin olive oil as part of a diet rich in natural ingredients.

How It’s Made

The best extra virgin olive oil is produced with great care and attention to the fruit. With the exception of a small rake that is sometimes used to loosen the olives from the branches of the trees, it’s a by-hand process to keep the fruit intact until pressing. Extraction of the juice at a nearby mill — fruit for extra virgin olive oil is always pressed very close to where it is grown — is another painstaking process using no heat or chemicals, to retain the integrity and the natural flavors of the olives. The oil’s taste on the palate will vary by region, climate, soil and handling.

What to Look For

Recently Giulio Scatolini, the head taster for Unaprol —an organization of more than 700,000 growers and millers of olive oil in Italy —talked about the product’s qualities, comparing and contrasting it to fine wine.  

Scatolini, a native of Umbria, demonstrated how to taste olive oil, which is customarily done in small blue colored containers (the oil’s color is not a quality factor). After first warming the container in your palm, covering its open top with the palm of your other hand and allowing the oil to release its full range of taste and aroma, you take a tiny bit between your lower lip and tongue. A great olive oil has a distinctive aroma and is full of flavor. Since you may not get the opportunity to taste-test before you buy, here are some pointers he noted for judging the EVOOs on the shelves of your local market.

  • Use EVOO while it’s young. Unlike fine wine, which improves with age, extra virgin olive oil has a shelf life of about 18 to 24 months. Look for a date — not a “sell by” date but a date of harvest. Olives harvested in Italy in the current harvest will have a “2012-13” crop date and be good until the fall/winter of 2014.
  • Look for labels. A label showing place of origin (DOP or IGP, or a regional label such as “Toscano” for Tuscany) means that the oil is grown and produced there — a fine distinction not made on all EVOOs just yet, but coming.

Once you've purchased your EVOO, keep these tips in mind:

  • Store your oil in a cool dark place. Light and heat are the enemies of freshness. Those pretty olive oil bottles may be worthy of display, but keep them in a cabinet, out of sunlight and away from the stove.
  • Use EVOO on salads and bread. Use extra virgin olive oil liberally. It is customary to serve bruschetta (grilled slices of bread rubbed with garlic, with a garnish of local produce — broccoli rabe, cauliflower, or any mix of fall veggies — drizzled with the olive oil fresh from the mill) as a harvest treat in olive oil country. 
  • Make EVOO your oil of choice for recipes. Recently, I had the opportunity to taste an olive oil cake that was amazing. Who knew?

Olive Oil Cake (Torta di Olio di Oliva)

Makes 10 servings

  • 3 eggs
  • 424 g granulated sugar
  • 300 ml milk
  • 350 ml extra extra virgin olive oil
  • 60 ml blood orange juice
  • grated zest of 1 orange
  • 250 g 00 flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • pinch salt
  • 112g whole almonds, finely chopped
  • powdered sugar for garnish
  • Makes 10 cake
  • This is great with a scoop of fiore di latte & fragola gelato

Preheat oven 175 C (375 F). Oil a 10 inch cake pan. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, olive oil, milk, orange juice, zest. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Mix the dry mixture into the wet mixture. Whisk until well blended. Stir in the almonds. Pour into an oiled cake pan. Bake for 1 hour. Cool on a rack. Run a knife around the edges and place the cake on a plate. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve. Hint: this is great with a scoop of fiore di latte & fragola gelato

 Prosecco Zabaglione

  • 8 egg yolks
  • 8 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 12 oz prosecco or other white wine

Combine yolks and sugar in a bowl. Whisk to combine. Add prosecco and whisk again. Select a saucepan on which the bowl will sit. Fill with 1 inch of water. Heat the water to simmering and place the bowl over the pan. Whisk continuously until the mixture thickens and is very frothy. Remove from the heat. Use as a sauce for Chocolate Cake or fresh fruit.

You can find more ideas at Flavor Your Life recipes

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