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A SHORT COURSE ON OLIVE OIL
One of the most ancient foods, olive oil has been a part of the human diet for thousands of years, and although the technologies for harvesting, hauling, and crushing have evolved, at its best olive oil remains essentially the same pure juice of the olive it has always been.
Today olive cultivation has spread around the world, though the Mediterranean region retains its central role. Spain leads the world in volume, followed by Italy and Greece. Other European producers include (in descending order by number of hectares of olives under cultivation) Portugal, Albania, Croatia, France, Yugoslavia, Slovenia, and Malta. In Africa, Tunisia leads the way, followed by Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, South Africa, and Angola. In the Americas, Argentina is the significant producer, followed by the United States, where our California olive oils are becoming notable. Mexico is the next largest grower of olives, though they produce little oil, followed by Peru, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil. In Asia, olives are grown in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Cyprus, Iran, and China. In the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand and Australia have created outstanding olive oils.
Like wine grapes, olives respond strongly to variations in climate, soil, cultivation practices, harvesting methods and timing, processing, and age. While we can speak of Sicilian or Tuscan oils, just as we identify wines from these regions, we can also (again, like wines) talk about olive oil flavors. Although the tasting notes included here do allude to region, varieties of olives, and (occasionally) harvesting or processing methods, my focus is on broad flavor categories. Just as we can speak of fruity white wines, so can we identify a fruity olive oil. Similarly, a leafy green and grassy oil has the intensity of a full-bodied tannic red wine.
It's important to remember, however, that in fact there are many factors that account for the taste of an oil. Some obvious differences are accounted for by the variety of olive and by the climate (or microclimate) that the olive tree grows in. Every variety of olive has different flavor characteristics due in large part to differences in chemical composition and to the actual taste of the fruit. (It may be useful here to use apples as an analogy: Granny Smiths taste different from Red Delicious.) Like cider makers, olive oil producers frequently create a blend of oils from different varieties both to achieve a particular flavor profile and also to enhance the keeping ability of the oil, because some varieties of olives are more stable than others. Thus in Spain, producers often blend Arbequina olives (which have a delicate flavor) with Picual olives (which have a very distinctive flavor and high stability, prolonging shelf life) to make a longer-lasting oil with good flavor characteristics.
Less obvious factors that profoundly affect flavor include the difference between an oil made from underripe olives and one made from olives that are so ripe they've dropped from the tree. Very underripe olives are green, astringent, bitter, pungent, and intensely leafy-herbal and olive-fruity, whereas ripe olives tend to be sweet, low in antioxidants, light, flowery, and more nutty-fruity. The timing of the harvest is often a matter of regional tradition: In Italy, Tuscan oils, such as Laudemio, owe their pungency in large part to the fact that they are harvested early, while Ligurian oils, such as ROI, known for their delicate, light, and fruity flavors, are made from ripe olives.
Climate and cultivation practices affect the taste of an oil. Growers want a good rain (or the ability to irrigate) during critical growth periods, and then very little rain until just before harvest, because olives, like most fruits, acquire the most flavor when they are thirsty. Assuming a good climate and location for cultivation, the three most important factors in producing a good oil are the variety of olive, the age and vigor of the trees, and the quality of the soil. Olive farmers influence the acidity of the olives by their judicious use of fertilizer and water, and by their choice of the moment to harvest. While there is an influential movement in favor of organic oil production (and there are many organic oil producers), the majority of large producers practice nonorganic pest management in their groves to combat the olive moth, the olive fly, and black beetles, as well as a number of fungal diseases.
This brings us to the dark side of current olive production in countries of the European Union: According to the World Wildlife Fund and Birdlife International, European Union farm subsidies are creating an environmental problem. Because the subsidies are linked to production rather than providing flat-rate payments based on the area of cultivation, farmers are in effect subsidized to increase their production. According to the WWF, this policy "encourages the intensification of production, irrigation and the expansion of olive growing." It has led to an enormous increase in land devoted to olive culture. The WWF estimates that up to 80 million tons of topsoil are being destroyed annually as a result of intensive olive cultivation in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece. Further, the irrigation needs of increased olive production have led to serious water shortages in Crete, Puglia, and Andalucia. These subsidies have encouraged growers to clear both natural habitats and ancient olive groves to create intensive plantations in Greece, Spain, and Portugal. Today these subsidies amount to $1.9 billion per year. Reform in these policies is expected in 2003.1
However olives are grown, the speed with which they are harvested and pressed is one of the most important factors that affect taste. Olive oil producers are always aiming for a balance of sweetness and acidity, and because fresh olives are inedible before brining or curing, growers rely on practice, experience, and/or laboratories to do a chemical analysis to determine the precise moment to harvest. When the olives are judged to be ready, time is of the essence in getting those olives off the tree and to the mill, because olives oxidize and degrade rapidly. In order to make extra virgin olive oil of the required low acidity and perfect flavor characteristics, an olive has to be transported from the tree and through the mill in less than twenty-four hours. To visit an olive grove in the midst of harvest is to see many people working purposefully and ceaselessly until the harvest is done.
There are a number of harvesting methods, some antique and some brutally modern. Not surprisingly, many growers feel that the best oil comes from the most ancient method, hand-harvesting. (You'll see that many of the best oils have labels that indicate that the olives were picked by hand it's a signal of artisanal production and pride in the product.) Other methods include spreading nets under the trees to collect either ripe olives that fall naturally or olives that fall as a result of manual beating of the branches, hand-held electric combs that strip the fruit from the branches, and tree-shaking machines. These machines look like Matchbox trucks, but they have a kind of brutality that belies their appearance when they are driven up to a tree and proceed to grip and shake the trunk vigorously, causing the olives to fall. These machines are loud, they belch harsh diesel fumes, and they seem discordant among the orderly rows of trees in full fruit. Growers who use such machines say they don't hurt the trees or affect their production, but seeing them in action can be disturbing.
As the olives are harvested, the varieties are kept separate. Each farmer delivers his own olives to the press or factory, where they are tagged according to grower and variety. Although many of us imagine an old mill with grinding stones to crush olives into paste, where the oil is hand-poured bottle by bottle (and indeed, some of these do still exist and are in use), many oils are extracted and bottled in spotless modern factories equipped with stainless steel machinery controlled by a computer and a single operator. Here's the process as I saw it in a number of large olive oil factories in central and southern Spain:
Once delivered to the factory, the olives are inspected for quality and cleaned of leaves and debris by blasts of air, and then (if necessary) by water. The containers of olives are weighed, and the farmer is paid accordingly. The olives then travel to the mill, which is actually a series of metallic hammers (a hammer mill) that crush the mass of olives and/or cut the olives with a series of parallel knives (the paste looks like tapenade at this point). Then the paste is pumped to a malaxator, where it goes through a fifteen- to thirty-minute four-stage mixing process, which agglomerates the oil globules. The paste then moves from the malaxator to a horizontal centrifuge, which separates the oil, water, and pomace from the sludgy paste in a two- or three-phase process. The oil is then sent through a vertical separator, which further separates oil from olive water, just as cream is separated from milk.
(There are several other methods for extracting olive oil: One is a method of selective filtration using Sinolea equipment, which uses the attraction of oil to metal to separate the oil; another is called the "flowering" of the oil [affioranto in Italian, or lagrima in Spanish], which extracts a very special oil by skimming off the oil that rises to the top of the malaxated paste.)
After the olive oil is extracted, it's given a chance to settle and then is drawn off to rest in large containers, often for months, before any further treatment (unless it is being sold as New Oil, in which case it will be bottled sooner). The oil may be filtered at the depository, or it may be sold as unfiltered oil. The leftover pomace is often sold to another producer, who then uses powerful chemical solvents to separate more oil from it to produce olive pomace oil. Sometimes on large olive estates such as those I saw in Jaen, the olive pomace stays on the property, where it is used as fertilizer; often it's returned to the groves it came from.
The depository is frequently in another building or in a wing of the same building. It too is filled with stainless steel pipes, and cases of clean bottles there await filling. After racking, the oil is pumped from the mill to the depository, where bottles (generally under gas pressure) are placed on a bottling line to be filled by machine. (The gas is inert and is used to create headroom in the bottles and to preserve the oil.) The bottles are sealed, labels are slapped on, and the bottles are packed by the dozen into cases to be shipped all over the world. Workers at a factory I visited in southern Spain said their prize-winning Estepa oil, sold under a variety of brand names, is shipped from their facility in Seville to Australia, the U.S., Portugal, the U.K., Sweden, France, Italy, Germany, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel.
THE GRADES OF OLIVE OIL
EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL. The highest class within the designation "Virgin Olive Oil." These oils must, by regulation, have less than 1% acidity. (Expect this standard to become even more stringent in the future; proposals are under way to reduce the acidity limit for extra virgin to 0.8%.) Many of the finest oils in this class already have less than 0.5% acidity (Siurana, a Spanish DOC oil, for instance, has 0.4%). Characterized by an extraordinary range of colors, flavors, and textures, these oils are never subjected to heat or chemicals in their production. They must be mechanically (not chemically) produced, and milling and extraction nearly always occur within twenty-four hours of the harvest; frequently the interval is shorter. They cannot have any smell or taste defects. Extra virgin olive oil is the subject of this book.
VIRGIN OLIVE OIL. These oils range in acidity from 1.5% up to 2%. Their less distinctive flavor makes them economical candidates for deep-frying and for baking.
OLIVE OIL. A blend of chemically refined oil with virgin or extra virgin oils. ("Refined" means that they have been treated with caustic chemicals to achieve a neutral taste.) It is sometimes labeled "Light" when the amount of extra virgin olive oil in the mix is low. Contrary to popular assumption, in this case "Light" does not mean lower in calories it means lower in flavor!
LAMPANTE OIL. Any oil which has been sent for rectification (it may have been rancid or had extreme defects) or which has over 2% oleic acid. It must be refined before it can be used as a foodstuff. Its name refers to its function in antiquity, when it was used as lamp oil. Lampate Oil is the refined oil that forms the base of "Olive Oil" (see above).
OLIVE POMACE OIL. A by-product of the production of olive oil. The pomace the pulp left after the oil is extracted is dried and then heated, and more oil is extracted from it by means of evaporation and chemical solvents. This oil is then rectified to remove the solvents, and then further rectified to be rendered flavorless. It is blended with virgin olive oil to be sold as "fit for consumption" but must, by regulations, be labeled "Olive Pomace Oil" and never "Olive Oil."
EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL AND HUMAN HEALTH
Our awareness of the benefits of olive oil in the diet date from the famed Seven Country Study conducted by Ancel Keys and Francisco Grande Covian in the 1950s.2 They looked at the diet, serum (blood) cholesterol, and incidence of coronary heart disease in twenty-two populations spread over seven countries. They found that populations that ate little saturated fat had low levels of serum cholesterol and a much lower incidence of coronary heart disease than did populations that ate high levels of saturated fat. Interestingly, they found that coronary health in a given population wasn't attributable to avoiding fat altogether, but varied according to which fat was consumed. (We now know that other vital elements include regular physical activity and a high intake of greens, other vegetables, whole grains, and fruits. In Crete, the area that had one of the most exemplary health profiles, second only to Japan, we have seen that as the Cretan lifestyle became more sedentary and the diet more "American" in terms of meat consumption, coronary health worsened even though they still used olive oil as their primary fat.)
In the 1950s, populations that followed a traditional Mediterranean lifestyle and ate a traditional Mediterranean diet, in which their primary fat was in the form of olive oil (a source of monounsaturated fatty acids), had much lower cholesterol levels and a lower incidence of heart disease.
In the decades that followed, a number of different fats were touted by researchers and health authorities. As British nutritionist Rosemary Stanton portrays it, our thinking about what constituted a "good" fat has changed nearly every twenty years, as our scientific research has become more sophisticated and focused. I think it's useful to look at her formulation decade by decade, because it helps to explain why it is that we are still confused on this issue.
In the 1950s and '60s, researchers began studies that looked at different types of fat, and reported that polyunsaturated fatty acids seemed to reduce serum cholesterol levels better than monounsaturated fats.
Thus was the age of vegetable fats born in the United States. As Stanton says, "The result of this era was that polyunsaturated fats were praised, saturated fats (animal fats) were damned, and monounsaturated fats (like olive oil) were considered neutral." The effects of this research are still visible today if you look at the vast vegetable (mostly corn) oil display in any supermarket, along with the stacks of tubs of margarine in the refrigerated section.
As a result, the 1970s and '80s marked huge shifts in fat intake, as health-conscious consumers switched from butter to margarine and used polyunsaturated vegetable oils in cooking. Researchers discovered, however, that cholesterol could be carried on two kinds of particles: high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). They further found that the cholesterol carried by HDL had a protective role in that the lipoproteins carried cholesterol fragments away from the arteries to the liver, whereas LDL cholesterol was the element that increased the risk of arterial plaque and accelerated the process of atherosclerosis.
Suddenly researchers told us that not only does saturated (animal) fat increase the level of "bad" LDL and decrease "good" HDL, but polyunsaturated (vegetable) fats, although they did decrease the "bad" LDL fraction, could also (if used in large quantity) reduce the "good" HDL fraction. Thus, by the end of the 1980s we were told to use polyunsaturated fats in small quantities, to continue to avoid dangerous saturated fats, and to value and use monounsaturated fats such as olive oil.
From the 1990s to the present, research has focused on the harmful effects of oxidized particles of LDL cholesterol, because they are more likely to cause arterial plaque than are other elements. Polyunsaturated fatty acids seem to be more susceptible to oxidation than monounsaturated fats, which is why we are currently so much more conscious of the importance of antioxidants.
Here's where olive oil becomes the hero of this health story: It naturally contains a great variety of antioxidants, and it's high in monounsaturated fatty acids. We know it's a safe and nutritious food it's been in continual use in the human diet since antiquity. We know from the original Seven Country Study that populations that live a Mediterranean lifestyle and habitually use olive oil as their primary source of fat for cooking and dressing foods live longer, healthier lives.
Researchers are now beginning to focus on some of the other elements in olive oil, elements that are similar to anti-cancer compounds found in some fruits and vegetables. Olive oil does appear to have a role not only in combating heart disease, but also in the control of excess weight and diabetes and in protection against some kinds of cancer.
I've got to put in a caveat here, since we Americans tend to go overboard fast on health information: This does not mean that adding olive oil to a bad diet will make you healthy. Certainly cutting fat intake, limiting animal fats to special occasions, and using olive oil in moderation as your primary source of dietary fat, along with a diet rich in fruits, grains, and vegetables and accompanied by a consistent level of physical activity, will indeed enhance health. Pouring olive oil on a steak on a daily basis, and then watching television for many hours after dinner, will not.
Another warning is in order: Unscrupulous producers can sell oil as "extra virgin" as long as it successfully meets acidity standards, passes the rigorous taste panel test, and satisfies chemical analysis standards, without informing consumers that some of the oil is chemically rectified or that it has been blended. Frauds include blending olive oil with nut or seed oils, as well as blending rectified oil with extra virgin olive oil. Naturally, such oils will not have the health benefits of a true extra virgin olive oil. The easiest way to be assured that you are buying a reliable product is to buy extra virgin olive oil from a merchant who knows he is selling a good product from a reliable producer. Many of those merchants can be found in the Resources section of this book.
We have a lot to learn from the elements in a traditional Mediterranean diet; there's also a great deal we can learn from the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle. First and foremost, in my view, is the central place of sharing food with family and friends. While what we eat does not have to be elaborate or terribly time-consuming to prepare, all meals are enhanced by the companionship of people we care about, when the food is consumed with pleasure, accompanied perhaps by a glass of wine, and with the leisure to enjoy it. I think that's the easy part, and I hope the recipes in this book will make it easy for you too. Much harder, at least for me, is integrating physical activity into daily life, along with time spent out of doors. If nothing else, researching and writing this book have increased my awareness about the whole range of factors that influence good health. I hope it does the same for you.
The Mediterranean Diet at a Glance
The Mediterranean diet the cuisines of southern Italy, Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, Greece, and southern France is based on the three primary fruits and grains of these regions and the products derived from them: olives, grapes, wheat. Foods are generally plant-based, seasonal, and locally grown; they include grains, fruits and vegetables, beans and other legumes, nuts, and olive oil. As nutritionist Connie Guttersen characterizes the diet, "minimal processing, seasonal use, and freshness of these plant foods maximize their content of protective nutrients, such as phytochemicals, antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and minerals."
It's instructive to look at the Mediterranean diet pyramid as portrayed by Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust because it is different from the USDA food pyramid, particularly in regard to the consumption of dairy products (there is a lower consumption in the Mediterranean) as well as the consumption of olive oil. It's important to note that it is an accurate representation of the kind of diet eaten not only in Crete in the 1950s, but throughout the Mediterranean to some degree even to this day. Unlike the USDA pyramid, it was not devised under the influence of food industry lobbyists.
HOW TO READ A LABEL
You're not likely to find all of these elements on any single label, but as you begin to scrutinize olive oil containers, you are certain to find some of them. Here are important items to look for:
HARVEST/BOTTLING DATE: the most significant information is the date of harvest because unlike wine, olive oil loses fruitiness and flavor as it ages. The closer to harvest, the more flavorful the oil. Note that although harvest takes place from November through January all around the Mediterranean, these oils take time to settle (the best oils rest for two months), and then to bottle and to ship. (A more useful harvest dating method would be to write the date like an academic year, for example "Winter 03-04".) In any case, under the best of circumstances this year's oil is usually not available in the United States until late winter or early spring. Plan on using up this year's oil within twelve to eighteen months, especially since it can come to you as much as six months after harvest. The rule of thumb is this: You have up to two years after the oil is bottled to use it up (or one year after opening), provided you keep it airtight and store it in a cool, dark place. If the label doesn't tell you the harvest date, it should have a "consume by" or "best before" date, another good indicator of freshness (although not of consumability, because although well-kept oils will mellow, they can be consumable for long periods). If neither of these indicators is present, ask the store if they know when the oil was bottled. If they can't supply a credible answer, be suspicious.
UNFILTERED MEANS JUST THAT: The oil is as it came out of the tank, with some solids that will sink to the bottom of the bottle. Unfiltered oils are frequently very special, but not all special oils are unfiltered; many great oils have been filtered for aesthetic reasons. However, in my experience, unfiltered oils often are more flavorful and are probably an artisanal product, sometimes organic.
ORGANIC: Organic oils are usually labeled as such. Sometimes a label will describe the process, for example "Grown without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers."
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: Look for specific information on where the olives were grown, such as that found, for example, on bottles of Tenuta I Bonsi: "Produced and bottled at the estate I Bonsi by the owner Budini Gattai in Regello, Firenze, Italy." "Bottled in" or "product of," without the other information, is not adequate. "Product of Italy," for example, can mean the olives were grown and the oil extracted in Italy, or it can mean that the oil was grown and processed elsewhere and then bottled in Italy.
ESTATE BOTTLED means that the olives were grown, processed, and bottled on the same property.
MADE IN A COOPERATIVE means that a group of local growers pool their harvests to sell their oil under one brand. This means that the oil is grown and processed in the same region, and one can assume that it has been tasted by the people who grew the olives.
Single Variety or Blend?
While there are indeed oils that are labeled "single variety," even these may contain a small amount of other oils because olive trees require pollinators from different varieties. In general, knowledgeable olive oil tasters prefer blends of varieties for their ability to create complex flavor profiles and to enhance the stability of the oil. It's interesting to read the varietal notes on the labels you'll see the same regional combinations of varieties over and over again. Again, the Tenuta I Bonsi label is instructive: " This oil is obtained from Frantoio, Moraiolo, Leccino and Pendolino variety olives picked from the olive trees on the property and pressed at the estate's olive press."
YOU CAN TELL AN OLIVE OIL FROM ITS PACKAGE
There are a number of clues that consumers can read in the packaging and presentation of any bottle of olive oil. Although they are not fail-safe, they are frequently good indicators of the quality of the oil within because they demonstrate the care that the producer has taken to protect his product. In addition to the information on the label about where (and sometimes how) the olives are grown, where (and sometimes how) they are processed, and where the oil may have been bottled, there are some other important indicators of pride and quality.
COLOR OF THE BOTTLE/FOIL WRAPPING/PROTECTIVE BOX: A dark bottle, a bottle wrapped in foil, or a bottle packaged in a cardboard or wooden box indicates pride in production and concern for maintaining the oil at its best. While these are of course also marketing strategies that can make a product stand out on a shelf, they are more importantly to be seen as protective measures. Biolea Extra Virgin Olive Oil, from Greece, comes in a wooden box, which lets you know immediately that there's something special inside; Elea, also from Greece, is sold in a dark sealed bottle with a pour spout tied to the side. Ardoino Vallaurea olive oil, from Italy, is always sold with an eye-catching gold foil wrapping, which imparts a similar message. In this country, California-grown McEvoy Olio Nuovo is packaged in clear glass, protected by a well-made cardboard box.
BOTTLE VS. TIN: If you see an oil that is available in both a tin and a bottle, such as the Sicilian Don Luigi, I think it is always a better bet to buy the tin because metal protects oil better than glass. Some oil, such as Spain's NuÑez de Prado Baena, is available not only in glass and in big five-liter tins, but also in a decorative bright yellow ceramic bottle. Clay is perhaps the best container for olive oil (terra-cotta amphoras were the traditional storage modes before metal or glass), although topping a ceramic container with a cork is not always the best method for maintaining an airtight seal. (Just as an aside, Podere di Pillore, an Italian oil, is stored in terra-cotta before being bottled. We were amazed to discover that we could taste the difference.)
HOW THE BOTTLE IS SEALED: A screw cap covering an internal plastic pouring spout shows that the producer is concerned about keep the product airtight. Some bottles are packaged with a pour spout that's attached to the bottle by string so that the consumer can fit it to the bottle to use for controlled pours.
I find such spouts very useful, particularly when they have a little plastic cap that keeps even the tiny spout covered (you can buy inexpensive pour spouts at Katz and Co., see the Resources section).
How the date is expressed: I have to admit that when I see evidence of the human hand, I feel more confidence in the product. Thus I'm utterly charmed by handwritten harvest and bottling dates. I also have confidence in stamped dates because, again, they're applied annually.
STORING OLIVE OIL
Every single expert I've consulted says the same thing: Store olive oil in a cool dark place, and keep the bottle cap well screwed on. A cool pantry, a low cupboard, or the coldest, darkest corner of the kitchen is a good spot. Because those who understand the value of keeping olive oil fresh devote thought to good storage, I shouldn't have been surprised several years ago when Marcella Hazan asked me, in designing her kitchen, to create a special cupboard just for olive oil that wouldn't be heated by the under-cabinet halogen lighting.
If you've bought oil in a clear glass bottle, do as a man I met in Friuli advised: Cover the bottle entirely with aluminum foil. Alternatively, you can decant some of the oil into an airtight ceramic or steel decanter, keeping the decanter on the counter and storing the rest of the oil in a cool place. Or you can do what they do all over the Mediterranean: Buy oil in bulk, whether in a five-liter tin or in a large tank that you keep in the cellar, and decant oil as needed into a clean dark wine bottle topped with a pour spout.
Here's where the experts disagreed: when I asked about storing olive oil in the refrigerator and in the freezer. Many experts forcefully disdain refrigerating olive oil because home refrigerators are inconsistent in temperature and oils can suffer from condensation, which makes water mix with the oil. Other experts say this is rarely a problem, but some believe that refrigerating "breaks" the flavor of the oil. In short, the majority of olive oil masters say Don't refrigerate.
Things are different when it comes to the freezer. While one expert I spoke to said that olive oil "breaks" in extreme cold, most agreed that freezing was fine. "Look at Antinori's New Oil, which is sold frozen," they said. But one expert told me something that seemed to definitively discourage freezing, except in very small quantities. He said: "Freezing oil is fine, but when it thaws it oxidizes very rapidly. As little as ten days out of the freezer can spell the difference between good oil and bad."
Text copyright © 2002 by Deborah Krasner
Radiatorre Pasta with Parsley Sauce and Sweet Corn
Serves 4 to 6
4 to 5 ears fresh corn, shucked, or 2 cups frozen corn kernels
1 pound radiatorre or other spiral pasta
2 cups flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 anchovy fillet, drained (cleaned and rinsed if salt-packed)
1 heaping teaspoon salt-packed capers, unrinsed
1 small red onion, cut into wedges
1/3 cup fruity and fragrant olive oil
1/2 cup heavy cream
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 ripe tomatoes, finely diced
1 pound mozzarella, diced
ALTHOUGH THIS IS BEST when made with summer's fresh sweet corn cut off the cob, it's also good with frozen corn. It's an almost-instant kid- and crowd-pleasing main course. You could add pieces of crisp bacon to the mix, for added crunch and flavor.
IF you are using fresh corn on the cob, steam or boil the corn until done. Cool it briefly in cold water; then drain, and slice the kernels off the cob. If using frozen corn, steam it briefly to defrost it, cool briefly in cold water, and drain. Set the cooled cooked corn aside.
BRING 6 to 8 quarts salted water to a boil in a large pot. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, 10 to 12 minutes.
WHILE the pasta is cooking, make the sauce: Combine the parsley, garlic, anchovy, capers, and onion in the bowl of a food processor. Process the mixture to form a smooth puree, adding the olive oil, then the cream, in a stream through the feed tube. Taste the sauce, and add salt and pepper to taste.
RESERVING about 1/2 cup of the pasta water, drain the pasta and put it in a large shallow bowl or platter. Pour the sauce over it and toss, adding some of the reserved pasta water if the sauce needs thinning. Add the corn kernels, diced tomatoes, and cubes of mozzarella, toss again, and serve.
Text copyright © 2002 by Deborah Krasner
Olive Oil-Bathed Spring Vegetables
1 pound fresh asparagus
2 to 3 tablespoons olive-y and peppery olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
One 9-ounce package frozen artichoke hearts, thawed
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 bay leaves
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
THIS RECIPE IS ADAPTED from one in Georgeanne Brennan's book, Savoring France. Georgeanne says that in France, baby artichokes and asparagus come into season at the same time, and so are natural candidates for cooking together. Since it's often difficult to find tender baby artichokes in New England, I make this dish with frozen artichoke hearts and the season's first asparagus. To turn this into a whole meal, serve the vegetables over potatoes, couscous, or rice, along with a salad or a soup, and serve a wedge of cheese and some fresh fruit for dessert.
TRIM the woody ends off the asparagus and wash the stalks. Cut the stalks into 1-inch lengths.
IN a wide shallow sauté pan or frying pan, heat the oil and gently cook the garlic over medium-low heat until it begins to color slightly and smell wonderful. Add the asparagus and artichoke hearts to the pan, and stir in the thyme and bay leaves. Continue to cook and stir for a minute or two until all the vegetables are coated with olive oil. Cover, and cook over low heat for another 10 minutes, or until the asparagus and artichokes are cooked to crisp tenderness. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper.
SERVE, immediately, with a generous grating of cheese over each serving.
Text copyright © 2002 by Deborah Krasner
Spanish Fried Egg and Arugula Salad with Croutons
About 1 cup loosely packed arugula, watercress, or torn spinach leaves, washed and dried
One 1/2-inch-thick slice peasant bread, crusts removed, cut into cubes
3 tablespoons leafy green and grassy olive oil, or enough to create a 1/4-inch-deep pool in your pan
1/2 teaspoon sherry vinegar
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
FRYING AN EGG in a quarter inch of very hot olive oil is magic the edges of the egg get bacony-crisp while the yolk remains liquid. When you put that egg on a bed of greens, the heat from the egg and the oil wilts the greens while the oil dresses them. Then, when you cut the egg, the liquid yolk further enriches the salad and creates a memorable dish. I've written this recipe for one person, since each dish requires its own egg.
I first tried frying the egg in a nonstick omelet pan, and it was fine. Then I tried it in a 7-inch copper skillet, where 2 or 3 tablespoons of oil make a 1/4-inch-deep pool, and it was superb. Copper's ability to conduct heat fast improved the texture of the egg significantly. Since little copper frying pans are often sold in cookware stores as a loss leader, you might consider buying one just for this recipe.
ARRANGE the arugula leaves or other greens on a dinner plate or in a wide shallow soup bowl, and place it near the stove. Have the bread cubes ready near the stove also.
HEAT a 7-inch frying pan over medium heat, and then heat the oil in it until it's fragrant and shimmery. Test to make sure the oil is hot enough by throwing a bread crumb in the pan if it immediately sizzles, the oil is ready. Lower the heat to ensure that you won't be spattered. Break the egg into the pan, and cook it until the edges crisp. Flip the egg to briefly cook the other side, taking care not to overcook the yolk.
Text copyright © 2002 by Deborah Krasner