The Skinny on Olive Oils

Continuing from yesterday’s New York Times “coup de grace” on the Mediterranean Diet, I thought I’d shuffle through my notebooks to see what bits I’ve jotted down on Olive Oil.

* Yes, I am that much of a nerd that I write down neat tidbits from reading stacks of food rags, books, wine magazines, and best yet, from talking with the incredible Chefs, Food Writers, and Scientists we are lucky to meet here cooking and farming at Annadel.  If you must know, my ‘master’ notebook has a vibrant fuscia chrysanthemum on it’s cover.  It’s quite pretty.  And I might have a matching pen…  But I digress. *ahem* OLIVE OIL

We now grow more than 200 olive trees here at Annadel and started making our own oil a few years ago.  Before baby, Dean and I stretched and scratched ourselves dreadfully sore picking olives from our few fruiting trees.  Confession: I may have coordinated my lip gloss with my t-shirt in some attempt at romanticism…!  We were quite proud of ourselves to carry in that single 5 gallon bucket to the Community Olive Press that next afternoon — only to be shown up (quite rightly) by a flat bed truck BEEP BEEP BEEPing up with many half ton flats of olives.  We felt pretty silly but then we got that little bottle back of pressed olive oil for our hours and hours of effort.  And the Oil! Oh the Oil… Sonnets and poems and swooning birds should be created about this fresh, high quality olive oil.  Dean knew what to expect but I didn’t.  What a glorious surprise! And I was hooked.

Since then, I don’t bat an eye about spending $15-$25 on high grade olive oils.  This is not my cooking olive oil mind you, but rather the oils for dressing, garnish, and drizzling.  Its the stuff you want to “pop” with flavor and compliment the veggies, fruits, pastas, and cheeses you are about to serve and savor.  It must sing for you!

Cooking Illustrated held a blind tasting of Olive Oil some time back and found that Spanish Olive Oils were their absolute hands-down favorites.  Second was Greek and Third was Italian.  All winning oils were blends — none of them were varietal specific.  However, do not worry about sounding wonky at the grocers next.  Most Olive Oils, even the finest sold in America are “Field Blends” meaning that different types of olives are picked, sorted and pressed together.  But rest assured that when it comes to Olive Oils? High Prices buy much more than pretty labels.

The Best Three Olive Oils (according to Cook’s Illustrated) were:

  • Columela Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Spain)
  • Nunez de Prado Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Spain)
  • Terra Medi Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Greece)

When we run out of our own stuff, my absolute favorite store-bought-label is McEvoy Ranch Olive Oil from down the highway here in Petaluma but it didn’t even place…even though Bon Appetit magazine listed it as the finest sold in the nation.  But Cook’s Illustrated found this blend of Tuscan olives too pungent.  Who cares? I love it.  And have been known to fill Christmas stockings with it…

Other Olive Oils that are divine you may have never heard of: Beltane Ranch Olive Oil and BR Cohn Olive Oils from here within Sonoma Valley.  We plan to release our first oil here at Annadel Estate Winerytoo shortly!  You will die with glee.

Not the most glorious image but here is the 2012 Harvest of Annadel olive oils "resting" for several months after being pressed

The “Best Quality” olive oils come from olives picked at their peak of ripeness, when they are still quasi-firm and silky.  Olive oil is really just olive juice.  And only the quickest, gentlest way to extract maximum flavor (without heat or chemicals!!) is by pressing the fruits to release their juices.

So here’s the skinny on how to use olive oils:

Use “Virgin” Olive Oils (in larger bottles usually) for cooking.  These oils, like the California Brand or Da Vinci, have milder flavors and higher acids.  They don’t have the elegant, more costly flavors of the “Extra Virgin” olive oils.

Use “Extra Virgin” Olive Oils for dipping, drizzling, and dressings.  This is the highest grade of olive oils even though these oils are produced in the same way as “Virgin” oils.  But their lovely flavors and lower acids will be compromised by the heat in cooking.  Heat muddles or alters flavors.

To go even dorkier here, if the bottle says Early Harvest, the oil inside will be more bitter and pungent, more “green”.  If the label explains that said olives were picked Later in the harvest, expect more mild, buttery and smooth oils within.

Let’s Hear It For The Mediterranean Diet!!

The New York Times just published a great Front Page article today in Health.  I have to tell you about it.  You know I love how we eat here at Annadel and overall in Sonoma Wine Country.  Selfishly, I am a HUGE advocate of REAL foods, REAL fats, and REAL wine — a.k.a. the Mediterranean Diet — because it decreases my ass fat without dieting.  I also feel better, have less wrinkles, and I think it tastes good.  But here is scientific proof that the Mediterranean Diet is a home-run-winner for all of us!!

*Yay! Cue my Happy Dance!*  

A startling new study by the University of Barcelona, in partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health, definitively concluded that embracing the Mediterranean Diet can prevent close to 30% of heart attacks, strokes, and deaths.  Even in patients with chronic issues, with prescription medications, or (God forbid) smoke (yuck!), showed startling and almost immediate positive health effects once they switched to a Mediterranean Diet rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits and vegetables, and drink wine daily with meals.

In fact, researchers stopped the study after five years because results were so clear it was considered unethical to continue.

Interestingly, scientists discovered in this gigantic study that patients who embraced a low-fat diet most often failed because it’s difficult to maintain… It IS boring.  But a Mediterranean Diet is easy to maintain and enjoyable.

A summer dinner at friends' Anne & Dennis' house

The Mediterranean Diet includes the following:

  • Consuming Extra Virgin Olive Oil Daily (approx 4 tablespoons) every day– I may need to boost my intake here!
  • 1 handful of walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts daily
  • 3 servings of fruit and 2 servings of vegetables each day
  • Fish 3 x per week
  • Legumes weekly — such as peas, beans and lentils
  • White Meat instead of red
  • And SEVEN glasses of wine a week with meals…at least!

Patients were told to AVOID sodas, commercially made cakes, pastries, cookies and limit consumption of dairy products and processed meats.

Read the Whole Article here:

Artichokes: Proof that God loves us.

Artichokes comprise perhaps the single most complete, sensuously pleasing meal.  Leaves softened by steam torn from the flower bulb and dipped into homemade, garlicky aioli before the tender fleshy base of each leaf is skinned clean by teeth.

Initially painted with some vague aphrodisiac quality, the artichoke caught on because of its hearty vegetable stalk, a long shelf life (2-3 weeks once picked), and excellent nutrition.   Cultivation of Artichokes, aka “the ground thorny” or blossom of the thistle, is widely documented.  From the pharaoh’s Egypt to 9th century Arabic gardens, it was ancient Greece that harnessed wild artichokes best before sharing them with Rome where they later spread to France then England where Henry VII was a fan in 1530.  Globe artichokes came to America first to Louisiana by way of the French and then to California via the Spanish.  Today, artichokes are grown almost exclusively along the Mediterranean and in America, 100% come from California.

Appetizer or single course, artichokes have a long, romantic history specifically in the Mediterranean.  It’s no wonder.  As a principle winter crop, artichokes boast one of the highest antioxidant levels of any vegetable, anywhere, and is pretty much perfect for aiding digestion, lowering cholesterol, and a whole host of benefiting overall body functions.   And best of all? They taste so damn good.

While artichokes can be marinated in oils, stuffed, jarred, canned, or cooked,  I like them best steamed.  Dean likes them best as a side to a New York rib eye.  Either way, artichokes are a weekly staple here at our Annadel farmhouse.  Being from California, we are lucky in tons of ways — year round artichokes is one of them.  And right now, after a recent frost? They’ve gone down from $2 to $0.99 at Sonoma Market.  Paired well with a light bodied red wine or a crisp, mineral driven white? It’s heaven on earth.  Proof that God does love us and wants us to be happy…often!


At the market, select one “carciofo” per person with an extra one or two to spare.  I can easily eat two for dinner.

Julia Child says artichokes must be “springy” and make a kind of squeak when lightly pushed together.  Some foodies expound that only the closed bulbs are best while others vehemently disagree and opt for the more open bulbs.  But I think the “squeak” is a key tell.  It’s fresh when it protests handling.

Once home, take out your pot with fitted steamer basket and lid.  Fill with water until about 1″ below the line of the basket.  Wash artichokes and dry.

Cut the stem off.  If its pure (without blemish inside), I remove the tough outer skin of the stem with a pairing knife and pop the top 1″ of the stem into the basket. If there’s darkness or bruising, compost it.

Next, turn the artichoke flower/bulb on its head and working from the center of the newly shorn base, carefully slice it in half.  I do two cleaves, one on each side.   Working carefully, slide the knife up and under the fuzzy fur stuff on the inside of the artichoke, just above the prized heart.  You do not want to eat the fuzz and in Italian households, removing the fuzz prior to cooking is proper. Your artichoke halves should look like this:

Cleaned artichokes ready for steaming

Next, arrange them in the steamer basket.  It’s okay if they are a bit crowded, the steam will work its magic under the lid and loosen the flesh.

Place the lid tightly on the pan and place over high heat.  Bring the water to an audible boil and steam the artichokes for 15-25 minutes.  Check on them after 15 minutes with a fork.  Once the fork pierces the heart smoothly, they are finished.  Be careful not to run out of water or over-cook them.

Once finished, remove the blazing hot artichokes from the basket with the fork and place in a cute serving dish or shallow bowl on the table.  I have another empty bowl for skinned leaves too.


Once the artichokes go onto the stove, prepare the aioli.  Or even before.  You want the garlic to heartily steep in the olive oil.  Everyone has a favorite aioli.  This is ours…

In a cute dipping bowl, mix 2-3 cloves chopped garlic and a tablespoon or two of decent olive oil.  I toss in a small pinch of kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper at this point too.  Leave it alone for 10 minutes! Go fold laundry or something.

Come back when the artichokes are about done or cooling on the table.  Eyeball the number of eaters that night and whisk in spoonfuls of mayo accordingly.  Note: I prefer the Olive Oil based mayo from Best Foods.  (It just tastes better.  For everything.) And add in a tablespoon full of dark balsamic vinegar.

I had to add more balsamic vinegar here for more flavor...

Mix well.  This is made according to taste…! So experiment!

And serve! Lately, we pair the artichokes with stalks of fresh asparagus for a surprisingly filling, savory dinner.  Enjoy!

My favorite dinner lately

One last note? Should you prepare the artichokes, the space under your nails will be a bit black later on so have your emery board ready at bedtime…

A Fabulous Entree Into Vegetarianism

This is a delicious call to all of us fine foodies and wine lovers to eat more vegetables.  Granted, I supe my veggies up with healthy amounts of butter and olive oil — then serve them with a lovely, rather large glass of wine but to each his own.

Spinach and Cheese "Pie" with spicy, mint cucumber salad

This is a recipe for a Spinach and Cheese “Filo Pie” and accompanying cucumber salad that I very lightly adapted from the amazing Jamie Oliver’s incredible book, Meals in Minutes.  Really, its his recipe but I like goat cheese.  A lot…

The “Meals in Minutes” title might convey some kind of schlocky, second tier cooking frenzy but nothing could be further from the truth.  Entire meal menus and easy to follow instructions help even the most exhausted of us foodies bravely face the dinner hour no matter how hectic our days.  I don’t even make the entire suggested menu — I just pick an entree and a side, skipping desserts totally.  Because too many sweets makes one fat.  But veggies do not.

A Must Have

 Spinach & Cheese “Filo Pie” (starting on page 70)

  • 2/3 cup pine nuts
  • 5 eggs
  • approx 14 oz Cheese (I mix Feta, shredded cheddar and goat cheese chunks)
  • dried oregano
  • 1 lemon
  • butter
  • 16 oz (1lb) bag of pre-washed spinach
  • 12 sheets phyllo pastry, thawed if frozen
  • cayenne pepper
  • 1 whole nutmeg for grating

Thaw phyllo dough!! I forget this step and end up with shards of phyllo dough instead of the lovely sheets of perfectly toasted phyllo crust.  It doesn’t affect the taste any but it looks odd.

Heat oven to 400’F.  Put a medium, ovenproof frying pan on medium heat for 1-2 minutes to warm.  Then add pine nuts, toasting them carefully. Remove nuts to a separate bowl.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk eggs, cheese, pinch of pepper, 2 pinches oregano (or 3), zest of one lemon, pine nuts, and one glug of olive oil.

In the medium pan, melt two tablespoons butter with another glug of olive oil and add half of the spinach.  Wilt over medium heat and then add the second half. Remove from heat.  *You want some crunch still in your greens so do not over cook. They will cook more in the oven.

Lay out a sheet of parchment paper so its a large rectangle.  Rub olive oil on it and crinkle it up with your hands, then lay flat again.  Arrange 4 sheets of the thawed phyllo dough over it and rub more olive oil over their tops. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and a pinch of cayenne.  Repeat this process until you have three layers.

Note: If you’re like me and forget to thaw the dough in time, it will shatter into chunks.  No matter: Use it the same way with copious amounts of the shards making up each layer.

Add wilted spinach to the egg mixture and mix.  Grate in 1/2 of the nutmeg. Stir again.

Wipe the inside of the frying pan with a paper towel to remove any bits left from the spinach.  Carefully slide the parchment paper into the frying pan so the phyllo dough is roughly centered.  Pour in egg mixture and spread it out.  Fold the phyllo sheets over the top and let them fall.  I trim the excess parchment paper here so it’s not unattractive.

Put the pan on medium heat to cook the bottom of the egg mixture for a few minutes and then slide it into the oven on the TOP shelf.  18-22 minutes or until golden and crisp.

We place a pretty trivet on the table to serve directly from the warm pan…

Minty Cucumber Salad

  • 1 hot house English cucumber (I like 2)
  • 10-15 pitted kalamata olives
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 3-4 scallions
  • 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 fresh red chili (sweet or spicy, its up to you)
  • 1 handful fresh mint leaves
  • good olive oil

Score the sides of your cucumber with a fork.  Halve and quarter it and then cut the quarters into 1/4″ chunks.  Place this into a pretty serving bowl.

Coarsely chop your olives and put them into a small bowl (something you’d make your dressings in.)  Pour the vinegar over them and use the fork to mush them down a touch.  Jamie says the vinegar pulls out their saltiness. Trim and finely slice the scallions, adding these to the olives. Then add approx. 1/4 good olive oil and the juice of 1/2 a lemon to the olive mixture and stir well.  Set aside.

Seed and coarsely chop half a red chili and add to the cucumber.  Wash and coarse chop the mint leaves (ONLY the leaves) and add to the cucumber as well.

The “Pie” should be ready! Take it from the oven and place on your table for serving.  The “Pie” needs to stand for 3-5 minutes to cool before serving.  Toss the salad and bring to the table as well.

This takes less than an hour total and Dinner — as well as tomorrow’s lunch — is delicious and healthy.