My morning was punctuated by tough questions:
1. “Paper or plastic?” asked the young man bagging my groceries.
I gave him my well-rehearsed deer-in-the-headlights look, which signals that despite being around for the very first Earth Day, I still don’t have a clue which answer is more environmentally friendly. I mean, I really do try…but do I have a shoe size of 7 and a “carbon footprint” of 13-1/2?
“Paper and plastic, then,” he said diplomatically.
Perfect. He didn’t even hazard a look at my feet.
2. Schlepping groceries into the kitchen, I loosely interpreted the furtive glances exchanged by the family felines as meaning, “I thought she said she was going to the store for cat food. What’s up with all the bottles in brown paper bags? More olive oil? Like the 28 bottles in her cupboard aren’t enough?”
3. Should I abandon my low-carb diet (which I’ve been on for 28 hours, six minutes, and thirty-four seconds) for the greater good of the olive oil-loving community? After all, olive oils should first be tasted alone, and then with welcoming, “arms wide open” foods like pasta, bread, or potatoes, don’t you agree?
4. Do supermarkets stock olive oils worth buying?
5. If so, which oils?
Why all these questions?
Well, several months ago Cook’s Illustrated Senior Editor Lisa McManus, the fabulously advertisement-free magazine for serious foodies and the progenitor of “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS (www.cooksillustrated.com), soilcited my comments on “supermarket” olive oils.
She e-mailed me a series of thoughtful questions. I responded with a six-page single-spaced, typo-laced rant explaining why American grocery stores are generally poor sources of decent olive oil.
Entitled “The Problem with Supermarket Oils,” the story appears in the July/August issue and is on newsstands now. My missive was distilled into a single economical line: “Americans mostly shop the world’s olive oil dregs, the low-rung stuff.”
To find out “if there were any extra-virgin olive oils truly worth bringing home from the supermarket,” Lisa and her team of 21 intrepid tasters collected 10 of the top-selling supermarket brands and conducted a blind tasting. The oils’ prices ranged from $11.99 to $39.98 per liter.
Only one oil in the line-up, Columela, was “highly recommended” by the magazine, with just two oils receiving more tepid “recommended” endorsements. On a scale of 10, Lisa reported, the highest average scores barely reached 5, leading her to conclude that the supermarket isn't the place to shop for extra-virgin olive oil.
That’s been my line for years. And I could’ve left it at that, content that she and her colleagues reached the same conclusion I had.
But I had a niggling and persistent curiosity about the oils recommended by Cook’s Illustrated. At the very least, I wanted to investigate its tasters’ top three picks.
More importantly, I wanted the answer to this fundamental question:
Are there any widely distributed olive oils—preferably ones that don’t cost nearly $40 a liter—I would use, at least for some purposes, in my own kitchen?
At this point, you might be wondering why an unrepentant and incorrigible olive oil snob would deign to shop for olive oil where she buys toilet paper and laundry detergent—and cat food.
It’s simple: I come from a frugal and practical family.
I don’t believe top-of-the-line olive oils should be squandered in preparations where they are heated or where they don’t have a starring role.
Savvy cooks stock their pantries with more than one olive oil. A fabulous and food-friendly top-of-the-line olive oil—so good you wish it could be made into a cocktail—is a necessity.
Other times, a modestly-priced but eminently palatable olive oil is called for—in a marinade or cooked sauce, for example, or for sautéing, frying, or baking. There’s an obvious analogy in wine: We’re always told not to use wine in cooking that we wouldn’t drink: But you wouldn't use Opus One to soak the coq au vin.
Actually, a chef I know in New York City is famous for his coq au vin, and he uses Gallo Burgundy—in the big, economical jugs!—for the chicken’s first wet, purplish romp. Similarly, don’t use olive oil in your cooking that is the oleaginous equivalent of plonk.
To be fair, this isn't the best time of year to conduct an olive oil survey. Few supermarket oils have a harvest date or “use by” date
(always exceedingly optimistic when they do appear) on their labels, making their relative ages indeterminate. At best, the oils on store shelves this time of year are seven to eight months old, and at worst, they're several years old.
As you know, olive oil, like fresh bread, is never better than on the day it's made.
Nevertheless, I rounded up 13 oils from several grocery chains—the three oils that had fared best in the Cook’s Illustrated
tasting—and 10 widely-available oils selected somewhat randomly.
Lisa McManus and her team tasted the oils blind, then tossed them with plain pasta. So I followed suit. I’ll do the low-carb thing another time, maybe.
To be honest, I didn't share their enthusiasm for Columela. But I must acknowledge taste is a very subjective thing. Who knows? Maybe I just got a bad bottle.
Confusingly, the label indicated this Spanish oil was an Arbequina monovarietal. But a brochure tied to the neck of the bottle says it is a blend of Ocal, Arbequina, Hojiblanca, and Picual olives. The oil wasn’t bad but at $35.95 per liter I would’ve expected more than simply inoffensive. And the “peppery finish” referenced by Cook’s Illustrated never materialized for me.
While packaged in an attractive octagonal bottle, the Lucini Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil that earned a buy recommendation from Lisa’s team also failed to impress. To me, it had an off-putting taste more reminiscent of furniture poilsh than olive fruit. At $39.98 per liter, it was the most expensive oil in their line-up.
Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil, also recommended, had a bitterness on mid-tongue that was amplified in the finish, but that might make it interesting as a cooking oil. It sells for $23.98 per liter.
Of the remaining bottles in the supermarket olive oil game, here are my favorites:
The best value I found, by far, was the simply named Extra Virgin California Olive Oil, an unfiltered oil distributed by Trader Joe’s, a chain of stores more heavily concentrated on both coasts, but with Midwestern outposts as well (www.traderjoes.com).
At $5.99 for a 500 ml bottle ($11.98 per liter), this oil was not only pocketbook-friendly, but had nice balance and flavor. I’d use it for focaccia and pizza dough, cooked pasta sauces, weekday vinaigrettes, marinades, soups, long-cooked legumes, grilled vegetables, roasted chicken, and certainly for sautéing. Only drawback? No harvest or “use by” date. Not a deal-breaker for me, though…at least not this year.
By the way, all current recommendations are timely and subject to expiration. Like recommendations for all agricultural products.
Not inexpensive at $39.98 per liter, McEvoy Ranch Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Marin County, Cal., is often compared to an early-harvest Tuscan oil because of its throat-pinching pepper. This can be off-putting to some people.
In fact, Cook’s Illustrated panned this oil in a December 2006 story. Three months later, I found myself seated with six representatives of McEvoy Ranch at an olive and food pairing exercise at U.C. Davis…and whooooboy, were they offended by the unfavorable press!
This is a fantastic oil, especially if you’ve sworn off the “light” olive oils. It pairs very nicely with food. And I say this without a gun to my head.
On more than one occasion, I have toted back from Spain an oil called Merula from the wine and olive oil estate of Marques de Valdueza. I was pleased to find it locally, and at a friendly price—$13 and change for a 500 ml tin.
If you recognize the name it's because I've recommended this oil before. It's become popular with restaurant chefs who demand quality, but who must always keep an eye on food cost.
Merula is also available online through www.rogersintl.com. It's an affable and well-balanced blend of Hojiblanca, Arbequina, Morisca and Picual olives.
Italy—the place everyone thinks of when olive oil is mentioned— was represented in my unilateral tasting, but not especially well. Many of the oils that pretend allegiance to Italy are actually blends of oils from several countries including Spain, Tunisia, and Greece. The phrase “Packed in Italy” can be taken very literally.
One exception was Frantoia from M. Barbera & Figli of Palermo, Sicily (about $28.00 per liter). Green and unfiltered, this oil is a blend of Nocellara, Biancoillla and Ogliarola.
I know Manfredi Barbera, the head of this family firm, to be a talented blender who cherry picks the best olive oil growers in Italy, and I have enjoyed his top-of-the-line oils in the past, some right at his table, like when he cooked dinner for TJ and me one night.
Though I purchased my Frantoia at a local grocery store, I have also seen this company’s oils at Trader Joe’s (see above) for substantially less money.
Collectively, the Cook’s Illustrated team and I evaluated 20 olive oils (there were three duplications). As expected, there were few thrills; frankly, some of the oils have no business being near food and should be repurposed to power hybrid cars, poilsh furniture, or condition pets’ coats. But the oils I recommend above are good enough to play at least a supporting role in your cooking.
Below is the kind of recipe that can befriend a decent olive oil. It's about the only thing I have retained from a pasta-making class I took in the mid-1980s from Italian cooking authority Giuliano Bugialli.
It’s a perfect dish for summer, and has everything going for it when tomatoes are in season; it’s easy, quick, and can be served hot or at room temperature. Accompany with great bread and a simple green salad.
PASTA WITH TOMATOES AND BASIL
- 4 large, lusciously ripe tomatoes, cored and sliced into
- Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
- About 2 teaspoons anchovy paste, or more to taste
- 1-1/2 teaspoon sun-dried tomato paste (optional)
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, or more as needed
- 1 small bunch fresh basil, slivered, or leaves torn into small pieces
- 1 pound dried or fresh pasta, cooked al dente according
to package directions (spaghetti, angel hair, fettucine, pappar-
delle, linguine, etc.)
- 3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Arrange the tomato slices in a large nonreactive baking dish in a single layer. Season generously with salt and pepper. Evenly sprinkle the garlic over the tomatoes.
Put the anchovy paste and tomato paste (if using) in a small mixing bowl. (Do not skip the anchovy paste, even if you don’t love anchovies. It adds tremendously to the depth of flavor in the dish.) Whisk in the olive oil. Pour the oil mixture evenly over the sliced tomatoes.
Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the tomatoes are tender. (Do not let the garlic burn.) Meanwhile, settle down with a Campari and soda.
Remove the tomato mixture from the oven, and break up the tomatoes with a fork or wooden spoon. Pour over the pasta. Add slivered or torn basil leaves and toss pasta gently to mix. Add more olive oil if needed. Top with cheese. Serves 4.
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