Tag Archives: olive oil

Make a resolution, pay attention to your olives!

Don't take olives for granted!

It’s a shame to take the olive for granted when there’s so much variety!

I love olives. Green, black, stuffed, unstuffed, in salads, or plain. I only thought about the history of this fabulous fruit after a small gathering at a friend’s home not long ago. My friend, the historian, told us that the reason we use olive branches as a sign of peace is that it takes so long to grow olive trees that can bear edible fruit.  For a couple of varieties (Arbequina and Koroneiki) it takes 3 years but for most varieties it takes 5-12 years!  The tree itself has been around for millions of years. Ancient written records left in tombs and on stone tablets suggest that we’ve been harvesting olives for about 7,000 years – that’s before the Bronze Age!

Today, there are enough varieties of olives to match just about any palate—even those that are hard to satisfy. Which brings to mind an article I read in Epicurious where the writer, contemplating the joy of olives, asks us to “think outside the jar.” Or “can,” as it may be.

By my own count, there are about 15 truly top of the line varieties of the delicious fruit. And very much like wine, some olive flavors are robust to the taste—it all depends on how adventurous you want to be. Among olive varieties I’ve heard of or experienced: Alfonso, Amfissa, Beldi, Castelvetrano (one of my favorites), Cerignola, Frantoio, Gaeta, Gordal, Kalamatas, Leccino, Manzanilla, Mission, Niçoise, Nyon, and Picual. But there are literally dozens more which, depending on the cuisine and location, can be extremely popular to no one else but the locals.

No matter the variety, you can’t eat raw olives–they’re way too bitter.  Technically, I suppose you COULD, but the vast majority of people (myself included) prefer olives that are cured. I’ve never met anyone that actually tried an uncured olive and ever wanted to repeat the experience! Most commercial olives are picked by machine–which leads people to believe that all olives ripen on the tree at the same rate. Not true!

This is one food that can range from very simple and elegant (like the noble Mission) to the truly exotic (like Nyon). And the most significant difference among the varieties is not the plant itself, but the ripeness at the time they are picked and cured. Highest quality olives are picked, sorted and even stuffed by hand. That’s why some jars of olives can be quite pricey.

There are all kinds of ways to cure olives: by oil, water, or just laid out to dry. The most common method of curing is using a lye solution and then a saltwater brine. The process is intended to draw out the bitterness and start fermentation, which leaves many varieties with a briny (or salty) flavoring.  Ripe olives that are lye-cured and then exposed to oxygen produces a black, smooth, mild tasting olive.  Ones that aren’t oxidized stay green.

Some specialty varieties are cured only lightly in lye and then washed in water. Since these are unfermented, they tend to be the sweetest tasting olives; slightly buttery. Dry-curing with salt only is unique to Morocco. The salt pulls out the bitterness and leaves a wrinkly olive super packed with flavor. These are called Beldi olives, and they are absolutely fabulous in salads.

True olive enthusiasts look for olives that are unpitted.  Flavors stay more intact when the skin isn’t broken so you’ll find gourmet varieties and preparations unpitted. There’s a reason for this. Pitted olives, though more convenient, soften and take on more of the brine flavor that they’re sitting in.

Unopened jarred and canned olives can keep for months.  But, if you want to truly enjoy a variety without having to purchase a lot of any one type, try buying them from the fresh olive bar at the market. If you do, remember that olives should be stored mostly submerged in brine. If there’s not a lot of brine in the bin they will dry out so watch for the bin to have enough brine.  Spoon some extra brine into your container and store them that way until you’re ready to eat them. Keep them refrigerated, and they can stay for 2-3 weeks.

Check out my video for another perspective on bringing olives into your next gathering.

Enjoy!

How to dress your salad AND make sure it doesn’t wilt

A little “insider” trick that keeps your salad from wilting.

The fact is, a slightly wilted salad isn’t bad for you. But, it looks terrible on the table and it certainly isn’t very appealing either. There’s nothing worse than a soggy salad to ruin a beautiful meal.  When you have guests over, not only do you want your food to be appetizing and tasty, but you also want your guests to be eager and happy to try every dish you serve – including the salad.

It should be no surprise that as a restauranteur for more than twenty years, I had the same goals. I was always on the lookout for tricks and ideas that made our food taste great and look the very best. Some of the “tricks” I picked up from my chefs (they always had the best ideas). Others were simply things that are passed along from one kitchen to another. In business terminology you’d call it “best practices.”

Well, here’s a “best practice” for serving salad to your guests. You’ll dress your salad before your party, and it won’t wilt before they’re ready to eat.

First, plan your meal well. When having guests over for dinner, I very often serve my favorite simple salad. The only exception is if the salad IS the center of the meal. Otherwise, keep it simple so that it doesn’t upstage the main course. Simplicity also helps solve the issue of wilting, which we’ll get to in a bit.

Second, think strategically. The biggest problem is timing: having the salad ready to serve but keeping the greens crisp and not EVER letting them wilt.  There’s nothing worse than making a fresh salad too early so the greens are soggy and wilted by the time your guests are reaching for the salad bowl.

Once you take care of those steps, you’ll want to follow this guideline to make sure your salad tastes as good as it looks. Here’s how to do it in five easy steps.

  1. Remember your “plan.” Keep the salad simple so it won’t fight with the rest of the beautiful meal you’ve prepared. The best simple salad I’ve found is just fresh Butter Lettuce and my champagne vinaigrette. Here’s the recipe and here’s a video that shows how easy it is to make.
  2. I recommend ‘living’ Butter Lettuce. Butter Lettuce has a very delicate flavor and is the perfect vehicle for a great vinaigrette. Living Butter Lettuce is the freshest I’ve ever found, and most people love it. Remove the leaves from the stem (it’s attached to a root ball – which is very interesting and why it stays fresh for an incredibly long time in your refrigerator).
  3. Rinse the leaves gently (Butter Lettuce is delicate) and shake them lightly to get most of the moisture off the leaves. Then lay them in a single layer on paper towels to dry. Once they’re reasonably dry, tear the leaves into the size of pieces that you like.
  4. Pour your champagne vinaigrette in the BOTTOM of your salad bowl and gently lay the lettuce on top of the dressing BUT DO NOT TOSS.
  5. Now comes the strategy. When you’re ready to serve dinner, and your guests are seated, that’s when you toss the salad. Tossing the salad bruises the leaves a bit and makes them wilt faster. This goes for just about any large green, not just Butter Lettuce. So, toss it when you’re ready to serve, but definitely not earlier. That way it won’t be soggy from the dressing either!

Your salad will never be wilted again, it’ll taste good and look great. Need more? Take a look at this week’s video on salads.

Simple Recipe for Champagne Vinaigrette

And so easy to make: Dijon Mustard, sea salt, champagne vinegar, and olive oil.

You know me. I love to turn even the simplest things into a conversation. One easy topic that has a great and colorful history: anything and everything about the culinary arts. In fact, each major culture from all over the planet has their own story about how a certain dish came to be or how a particular recipe started.

Interestingly, there is actually a long and lovely history of salad dressings. Seriously! Approximately 4,000 years ago, Babylonians may have been the first in Western Civilization to mix oil and vinegar for salads. Egyptians picked up the idea and added spices to the mix.

After that, salad dressing became a standard for nobility with chefs from different houses competing for the most extravagant and delicious ones. The kitchens of every royal court from Italy to the English Isles to the Norwegian fjords did everything they could to exceed the previous delight. The competition between the courts was so fierce that in some cases, the very lives of the chefs depended on their ability to do better than the chefs of the other royal houses! They mixed exotic greens with flower petals, fish, herbs of all kinds, nuts, fruits and of course the standards like potatoes, celery, carrots, radishes, tomatoes and anything else that was palatable. In the hundreds of years of competition, I imagine that there were some pretty spectacular failures. But there also must have been some very memorable successes because I think those are the ones or modern versions of those that we enjoy today.

One survivor is this perfect recipe for Champagne Vinaigrette. The recipe was handed down from one chef to another. Nobody really knows who created it, but it is a favorite, and because it’s so simple, it is also portable and quick to whip up at a moment’s notice. All you need is some Dijon mustard, sea salt, champagne vinegar, and olive oil. When mixed together it becomes a perfect champagne vinaigrette that turns a simple salad into a perfect side for any meal. I recommend using just simple butter lettuce (my favorite) but it’s really perfect on any green.  This dressing is so delicious that you need nothing else but a simple green as a vehicle.

Everything is done to taste but it will end up close to the basis for all vinaigrettes –  1 part vinegar to 3 parts olive oil. There aren’t any real measurements more than this guideline.  Again, mix to suit your palette.

  1. First, drop a dollop of Dijon into a medium mixing bowl. Then add sea salt. Trust me, you will need much more than you think – so start with a couple of really big pinches.
  2. Next, add the champagne vinegar. The vinegar will dissolve the salt.
  3. Whisk to blend, and keep whisking as you slowly drizzle in the olive oil (remember 1 part vinegar, 3 parts olive oil). Just a note on the olive oil, this is one of those times that the flavor of the oil really matters. See my tips on picking a great bottle of olive oil. The Dijon mustard will act as an emulsifier and keep the oil and vinegar blended together.
  4. Very important: taste as you go. Salt is an essential part of the seasoning. You really don’t need anything else, but make sure you taste as you go so that you can add enough salt.
  5. If you have leftovers, it will keep for about 3-4 days in your refrigerator.

Watch my video. You’ll see that this preparation will only take a few minutes from start to finish. Now, go serve a meal suited for a baroness’s table.

Food Tip – The best croutons for your summer salads!

home-made croutons

Add a kick to your salads with home-made croutons – and it’s so easy.

I love crunchy carbs, don’t you? The specific carb that’s on my mind right now are croutons. Okay – so not exactly health food. I think of home-made croutons as a sort of “love food” – for the love of cooking and entertaining friends. They can be used so many different ways – perfect for topping salads and crumbled over grilled asparagus just to name a few.

Diving back to my restaurant days, croutons originate from France, early 19th Century, when an unknown chef had an idea to put small pieces of toasted bread crust into food. It was such a great idea that fragments of croûte (crust) found its way into all sorts of recipes, and eventually salads.

Now, of course, we can buy croutons in all shapes and sizes; ready and prepared for soups, salads, or whatever. Some are okay, but the best is home-made. I picked up a recipe from my favorite magazine and website, Bon Appetit. I loved it so much that I recreated the recipe in this video.

A friend of mine uses this recipe for her fried chicken breadcrumb spice mix. Not exactly health food either, but that’s a recipe that defines “love food.” I showed this recipe to another friend who loves to snack on them with a glass of red wine on “down time” nights when she binges on her favorite streaming video programs. To each her own, right?

The recipe indeed starts off simple enough, with a loaf of day old bread from your favorite baker. I love the Röckenwagner Farmer’s Market brand. It’s where I can find my favorite loaf of bread – rosemary olive oil. But your bread can be anything – a pure sourdough, a French loaf – it doesn’t matter.

Next step, preheat your oven to 375°F.

Take your loaf of day-old bread and trim off the crust all the way around. You don’t have to be careful with the trimming, because after you’re done, you’re going to take the whole loaf and tear it into irregular, jagged pieces. The pieces should be about the size of your thumb leaving behind plenty of nooks and crannies.

In a single layer on a baking sheet, pour a few glugs of good extra virgin olive oil over your pieces of bread. I’m a little particular about my olive oil – I wrote a whole explanation you may want to read. In this case, I use Terra di Brisighella that I brought back from Italy. It’s real Italian, extra virgin and has an excellent taste.  But, as long as it’s good olive oil and you like the taste it’s the perfect one for your recipe.

Sprinkle salt generously. I use sea salt because it’s not as salty tasting as table salt. It’s perfect for this kind of preparation.

Next, squeeze all of the pieces of bread with your hands to help them absorb the olive oil and salt. Then spread the pieces out again.

Slip the baking sheet into the oven for about 10 minutes.  Watch the oven (not all ovens heat the same) and make sure you take them out before they burn!

Then enjoy some tasty croutons, made by your own hands!

How to pick olive oil – read the labels!

olive oil fran berger

Want a great olive oil? Here are 6 tips for reading labels and looking for signs.

I went to dinner at one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Beverly Hills with a group of friends. My history buff friend was there. I told you that he’s never without some interesting anecdote or interesting factoid. He calls it an occupational hazard of being a university professor.

Well, this time we were commenting on the olive oil that the chef used; a stand-out flavor that made my Braciole di Manzo (beef rolls with prosciutto and tomato sauce) scream out amo l’italiano! (I love Italian!) In a break in the conversation, our history buff told us that the reason we use olive branches as a sign of peace is that it takes several years to grow an olive tree mature enough to produce olives. During war, ancient armies went straight to the olive tree groves and burned them down.

It takes years to produce a good crop and decades to form a legacy of taste. That’s why good chefs do not fiddle with cheap olive oil. It just doesn’t happen.

I love olive oil. It’s great to cook with – sautés, sauces, salads, even just for dipping great bread – not just for Italian food, but for almost any dish you can imagine where you want to add that wonderful and timeless flavor. And like many of my friends who are chefs, I am a little picky when it comes to selecting my bottle of olive oil.

There are big differences in brands, and it’s actually easy to tell which ones are better – if you know what to look for! And just like wine, you just need to know how to read the label:

  1. ‘Extra Virgin’ is the highest quality given to olive oil – it means it’s unrefined, free of chemicals and other ‘defects’ like rancidity and never treated with heat. There’s still quality variations within ‘extra virgin’ but it’s the best way for an overall guarantee of purity.
  2. My recommendation, if true flavor is what you want, then stay away from any bottles of olive oil that say “light.” Oil is always 100% fat – it can NEVER be “light.” What the label really means is that the oil has been distilled and treated in such a way that strips away the true odor and color of olive oil. If all you need for your recipe is a common cooking oil, then buy an inexpensive neutral oil like peanut or grapeseed.
  3. If the bottle is inexpensive and still labeled ‘Product of Italy’ then there’s a pretty good chance that the olives weren’t grown or pressed in Italy. The label may mean that’s where the product was placed in the bottle – which is a whole other thing, right? They can still claim it’s a ‘product of Italy’ if it was only bottled there.  So, the oil could come from just about anywhere. Look carefully on the back of the label for “IT” (Italy) or “GR” (Greece) or “SP” (Spain) as the source of the olives.  If you can, buy one that comes from one farm or collective but at the very least from one country.
  4. Not all great olive oil comes from Italy. Some of it comes from California. One hint: if the oil comes from somewhere that also produces good wine, then there’s a good possibility they have great olive oil too!
  5. Let’s end an old fable right now: just because the olive oil is darker and greener doesn’t mean it’s a higher quality oil. Some very high quality olive oil is light yellow. So, color doesn’t really matter. Like wine, good olive oil has a great aroma and taste. It all depends on what you like personally.
  6. One thing that is not a fable: good olive oil never come in a clear plastic or clear glass bottle. Ever. The ‘good stuff’ usually comes in an opaque or dark glass, or metal. The reason is that good olive oil goes bad fairly quickly. Exposure to light and heat speeds up that process.

One last point, good olive oil doesn’t HAVE to be used with Italian food. Find a flavor you like for the dish you want to prepare – could be continental, Americano, or even Asian – and love it!

 

My Favorite Secret Italian Sauce

italian tomato sauce

You’ll flip when you see how easy it is.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love all types of cuisine. But Italian cooking – that’s my absolute go-to favorite. Many of my favorite restaurants are Italian – in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Sfixo in Beverly Hills is still – hands down – my favorite local Italian. It’s really fabulous if you’re a fan of dishes that come from northern Italy.

Many people think that all Italian food is basically the same – pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, etc.  But, there are real variations all along the entire country – traditional Italian cooking is strongly region-based. In northern Italy, you’ll find an emphasis on rich cream sauces, polenta and stuffed meats, Southern Italians embrace the Mediterranean diet with tomato sauces and lots of sea food with everything in between.

I travel to Italy as often as possible – at least once a year – and during each visit I make sure that I take at least one cooking class to learn “secrets” from great Italian cooks.  I follow several of them on social media – two have even become friends – Judy Witts Francini (@divinacucina) and Helena Kyriakides (@yummyyummyitaly).  It’s the only real way to understand a cuisine – take a class, tour an area of the country and eat the food!

The truth is, you don’t have to be a great cook to make a great dish – just understand some basic rules of the cuisine. All you really need is a sense of adventure. My recommendation, start small, and work your way up!

For instance, I was watching a post by Judy on how to prepare a simple Tuscan tomato dish (they’re in season right now) that you can use as a sauce, a side dish, or even as part of the main course.  And, in that post I learned a secret about olive oil and fresh garlic (by the way – true Italian cooks uses very little garlic – they prefer to let the fresh ingredients shine).

Ingredients

  • 1 Clove Garlic, sliced (add more if you’re cooking a lot of tomatoes).
  • Whole Cherry Tomatoes (I recommend organic). Use multi colored ones for fun or slightly larger ones that you can cut into fourths.
  • Enough EVOO – that’s “extra-virgin olive oil” to lightly cover the bottom of your frying pan or saucepan. I recommend Long Meadow Ranch Winery Prato Lungo Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It has just the right flavor for Italy.
  • Sea Salt (to flavor).
  • Fresh Basil (to flavor).

Preparation

  • Add sliced garlic to the COLD oil. Here’s the “secret” I learned from my friend: never put fresh garlic in hot oil – it will burn almost immediately and become very bitter. You’ll just have to throw the whole thing away and start over. By adding garlic to the cold oil, the garlic has more cook time in the olive oil adding flavor to the oil and will turn golden very slowly so you can remove any bits that start to get too dark.
  • Medium heat.
  • Sauté garlic till golden.
  • Add the tomatoes to the pan.
  • Add sea salt (to flavor).
  • Slowly cook down the tomatoes until tender and they begin to burst.
  • Add the fresh basil (cut into thin ribbons – chiffonade) at the end if you’re using the tomatoes on pasta.

As I mentioned before, this preparation is very flexible. You can use this as aside for a grilled steak or on top of pounded and sautéed (Paillard) chicken breast with some baby arugula. You can use it to dress up grilled fish, or as a simple sauce for pasta or over small noodles for a simple pasta salad. And personally speaking, the basil leaves are a must – for the aroma and the flavor.

See? It’s so simple. Doesn’t this make you want to jump up and cook?