Olive Oil Exposed

Tom Mueller began his 13 August 2007 New Yorker article, Slippery Business, with an incident that is sadly typical.

Two decades ago a tanker freighter filled with hazel nut oil in Turkey eventually arrived in Italy, where the cargo was described on official ship documents as olive oil from Greece. Passing through customs unchallenged it was bottled, perhaps as part of a blend, and sold to consumers as real olive oil.

The author provides convincing evidence of widespread fraud that continues both in Europe and the United States. Over the last five years he’s continued researching the subject worldwide.

Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller, W.W. Norton, 2012, is a fascinating book and a must-read for both food lovers and health advocates.

He not only uncovers the abuses in the industry but also highlights individuals who are attempting to reform and promote the benefits of an authentic high-quality product. He interviews both those accused, and in some cases convicted, of selling lampante (lamp oil) as extra virgin, and others who continue to champion practices and safeguards that will insure the sale of honest and healthful olive oil.

Some of the largest Italian distributors of olive oil are supplying inferior oil to consumers through supermarkets nationwide.  Too often the Italian flags and appellation found on bottles is part of the scam. Mueller writes that more than half of what is sold in the United States, a rapidly growing and totally unregulated market, is bogus.

He includes advice about shopping and storing extra virgin olive oil and lists sources he believes are reliable in his book as well as his web site.

I was glad to find several growers and bottlers in Northern California listed and am enjoying the oil of one family-owned company he cited several times during a recent interview on a local radio station. Others may find Australian, Italian, or Spanish olive oil to their liking.

Do read this book!

copyright © 2012 by N. A. Diaman, all rights reserved

Spaghetti With Nettles

I shop for organic produce at the Ferry Plaza Famers Market in San Francisco every Saturday morning and buy stinging nettles when they’re available. I caution anyone handling them that they need to either use tongs or wear rubber gloves because the green in its raw state irritates the skin. I like to eat stinging nettles with pasta.

The ingredients needed for the two-serving recipe that follows are: about ½ pound fresh stinging nettles, 6 ounces dry spaghetti, ½ cup raw or toasted pecans, ½ cup crumbled feta cheese, 6 olives, 2 cloves garlic or one stalk green garlic when in season, 1 ounce canned anchovies, olive oil, a large cooking pot, a colander, kitchen shears, a serving bowl or platter, a garlic press, and a kitchen timer.

This dish doesn’t take long to prepare and is best served immediately. I start by putting everything I need on the kitchen counter. I fill the pot with cold water and light the burner to heat it. I weigh the spaghetti so it’s ready. I put the colander in the sink and begin dumping the stinging nettles into it in batches and using the shears to cut it into smaller pieces so it doesn’t form clumps when it’s cooked.

Whenever the water reaches the boiling point, I slide in the spaghetti, setting the timer for ten minutes from the water resumes boiling. I make sure to stir the spaghetti once softens to separate the strands. It takes more than ten minutes for it to become al dente but the timer gives me a bit of advance warning to keep an eye on it while I complete the preparations below.

I break the pecans into pieces in the serving bowl, add the crumbled feta, remove any pits from the olives and cut into small pieces before also adding them. I clean the garlic and push through a garlic press or slice the green garlic and add to the other ingredients. I chop up the anchovies as fine as I can and add them along with the olive oil they’re packed in plus a bit more olive oil.

Just before the spaghetti is done I turn off the burner, add the stinging nettles to the pot and press down any that aren’t submerged. They take about a minute to cook. I return the colander to the sink where I drain both the pasta and greens. Once all the water is removed, I add the cooked spaghetti and nettles to the bowl and mix well before serving.

image & text copyright © 2012 by N. A. Diaman, all rights reserved

Butter To Olive Oil

In The Food Of France, published by Knopf in 1958, Waverley Root divides French cuisine into three domains: butter, lard, and oil. The book is a delightful tour, province by province, describing what is eaten and how it is prepared.

When I read the book I was already a Julia Child fan, preparing meals for my friends from the first volume of Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, Knopf, 1961. I had a set of Le Creuset enameled, cast iron cookware and some of the other kitchen tools she recommended. I enjoyed the many rich sauces containing butter and cream.

My introduction to French food was in San Francisco just a few years earlier. Roderick, my roommate at the time, received money from his parents in England for his birthday. Instead of spending it on himself he generously invited his ex-girlfriend, Jill, and me to have dinner with him at Chez Marguerite, a small North Beach restaurant.

The meal began with escargot traditionally prepared with butter and garlic. I ordered filet of sole in a Mornay sauce, Jill had the tournedos and Roderick Châteaubriand. I don’t remember dessert; perhaps it was Crème Brûlée.

I couldn’t imagine not having butter daily with meals, preferring sweet rather salted butter most Americans use.

Visiting my father in Greece, where he lived after his retirement, most of the food his wife cooked was served swimming in oil and tomato sauce I left uneaten. My father praised the benefits of olive oil while I held firm to my preference for butter. The virtues of the Mediterranean diet weren’t widely publicized then.

Athens lunch, 2004

However, years later when consuming fatty foods became problematic for me, I gradually cut down on my personal use of butter. By then I more often cooked Italian rather than French food. Now during summer I make pesto weekly with fresh organic basil I buy at the Saturday famers market and eat it with homemade fettuccini I also make from scratch.

I still keep sweet butter in the freezer for recipes that require it but it’s no longer in my daily diet. I’ve definitely developed a taste for olive oil and can’t imagine living without it.

image & text copyright © 2012 by N. A. Diaman, all rights reserved