About 6 months ago I read The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace
, a great book on the criminal nature of the “haute” wine world. Extravirginity by Tom Mueller
was one of those “Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought…” recommendations.
First, some background: About a year ago, I would have said that I knew how to pick a good olive oil in my local grocery store:
-Extra-Virgin? Of course.
-Dark glass bottle? Confirmed.
-Expiration Date at least 1 year away? Right on.
-Greek or Italian? Perfect.
I am lucky, however, to live part of the year in Crete, Greece where we buy our extra-virgin oil from our Cretan friend, Manolis, who grows his own olives for his own oil. We watch the olives harvested on Monday and have our 17 kilo cans by Wednesday morning. We know that this is the good stuff from the “kick” it gives to the back of the throat. Our friends call this oil “pharmaco,” meaning medicine, in a very positive way.
So I thought I was an educated olive oil consumer. Not the case.
, Tom Mueller does a good job explaining what everyone who appreciates and uses olive oil should know, including how and why it is true that olive oil is great for cooking and for your health. Mueller also provides a recap of its history and explains how olive oil is produced (planting, harvesting, extraction and grading). He also describes the different technologies used around the world and how they can influence quality and flavor, just as varying vineyard practices can influence the quality and taste of wine.
The biggest eye-opener for me was finding that the global olive oil market is a large agribusiness with widespread global corruption as packagers and distributors profit in an essentially unregulated market. Mueller also provides details that debunk what marketers want you to believe: that the color of the oil and the point of origin are indicators of quality. I also learned that I cannot and should not rely on labels (they are most likely in-part fiction), and that studies that have shown (spoiler alert!) that there is a chance some of the extra virgin olive oil you buy in the supermarket isn’t extra virgin at all, and may not even be 100% olive oil.
is not the easiest read and is probably 75 pages too long. At times the book rambles, mixing history, crime and personal accounts, and some threads start in one part of the book, are interrupted, and continue later on. There is some repetition in the stories about the criminal presence in the industry.
So I wish Mueller had reached the fantastic end of his
book sooner: In his appendices he provides indispensable resources to help us navigate the oh-so slippery waters of the olive oil world so that we can find high quality oils from trustworthy suppliers.
In sum, although this may not be the easiest- book to get through at times, it is an excellent source of information about an important food.
I won’t stop buying my oil from Manolis when I am in Crete, but I am better armed to be skeptical when buying olive oil anywhere else in the world. I am also determined to find a way to ship my 17 kilo cans back to North America.
The Bounty of Oranges in Crete
…make Orange Cake!
Living part-time in the Mediterranean we’re blessed to have an abundance of locally-grown and fresh produce available year-round. Oranges, for example: at any time of the year in Crete you can buy ripe oranges at the grocery store, at the laiki agora (farmer’s market), at rickety stands on the side of the highway, and from farmers’ pickup trucks parked in the center of town.
But my H and I do not even have to buy oranges. Our landlord owns a large grove and every once in a while drops by with a bag full of 30-40 of them. Occasionally, My H and I will head out to the grove on our own for a nice walk and to collect some oranges ourselves.
With this wealth of Vitamin C-packed goodness, the challenge becomes how to use the oranges before they grow fuzzy green coats.
So with last week’s oranges I put on my Mediterranean hat and I:
- Channeled memories of kindergarten and made orange and clove pomanders to place all over our house (I don’t remember the cloves hurting my fingertips so much when pushing them into the orange skin!)
- Cooked up a huge pot of marmalade (and put some in a pretty jar for our landlord’s wife, Evi)
- Diced 2 pounds of orange segments to have in the fridge to throw in Greek yoghurt and cereal, for snacking…and
- Dried a few oranges’ worth of peels for future“green” air freshener and ant killer experiments.
Today, at My H’s request, I used even more oranges to make one of his favorite Greek specialties, Portokalopita, which roughly translates to orange (portokali) + pie (pita). (This and other orange-based recipes will also be in our new book on the Mediterranean Diet due out later this year.)
Now, this is not quite a pie as we know it, but more of a custard-y cake, drenched with a tangy yet sweet orange syrup. No flour needed, as the structure comes from simple phyllo dough. This orange cake is actually very easy to make, and – even better - you can involve the kids!
- You will find phyllo dough (also filo or fillo) in the freezer section of your grocery store near the frozen pie shells and puff pastry. Keep it in the freezer and the day before you make the Portokalopita put in the refrigerator to thaw. Take it out of the fridge about 30 minutes before you start.
- Don’t use a substitute for the Greek-style yoghurt, although you can use full-fat, low-fat or non-fat.
- If you like even more glaze on top of your cake, spread a bit of marmalade (ideally home-made) on top after it has cooled completely.
And if life has given you lemons? Replace the oranges in this recipe with lemons for a different flavor.
- 1 package (450-500 grams or 1 pound) phyllo dough
- 1-1/4 cups olive oil, divided
- 2 cups sugar, divided
- 3 tablespoons ground cinnamon
- 4 large eggs
- 1-1/2 pounds oranges (about 4 large)
- 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 cup Greek-style yoghurt
- ½ cup raisins (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350F. Put 3/4 cup of the olive oil, 1/4 cup of the sugar and all of the cinnamon into separate small bowls. With a pastry brush, lightly grease the bottom and sides of a medium baking pan (about 12 inches round or square x 2 inches high) with a bit of the olive oil. Unroll the phyllo dough onto a flat surface. Zest the oranges and then juice them.
Greek Orange Juicer
Make the Cake Base:
Again using the pastry brush, lightly brush the top sheet of phyllo with olive oil and then sprinkle with some of the sugar and cinnamon. Starting at the short end use your fingers to fold the single sheet in accordion style into 1-inch pleats. Place the folded sheet on its edge in the prepared baking pan, opening the pleats just a bit to cover the bottom surface. Repeat with additional sheets of phyllo until the baking pan is covered (about 6-8 sheets in total); reserving the rest of the phyllo sheets for the filling.
Pleated Phyllo Base
- Place the baking pan in the preheated oven and cook just until lightly brown, but not more than 10 minutes; you're just firming up the base here. Remove from the oven and set aside.
Make the Cake:
- Now for the kids! Have them use their little fingers to shred the reserved phyllo sheets into very small, confetti-like pieces.
- In a large bowl, beat together the eggs and ¾ cup of the sugar until light yellow. Add the orange zest, baking powder and yoghurt and mix well. Stir in the raisins (if using) and the shredded phyllo and mix well.
- Pour the batter evenly over the phyllo base, using a rubber spatula to make sure the batter goes into all of the nooks and crannies and down the sides of the base.
- Place the cake in the oven and bake until lightly browned on the top and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 35-40 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool.
Make the Glaze:
- While the cake is baking, put the remaining 1 cup of sugar in a small saucepan. Measure the orange juice and, if needed, add enough water to make 2 cups of liquid and add that to the saucepan with the sugar.
- Place the pan over high heat and bring to a boil. Continue boiling, stirring occasionally, until the liquid reduces to a syrupy glaze, about 30 minutes.
- Keep hot, and when the cake has cooled enough for you to handle the pan, pour the syrup very slowly and evenly over the top (most of it will sink in to the cake). Note that it is important that the cake be cool and the syrup hot. Let the cake cool completely before serving.
Portokalopita - Orange Cake
Have a favorite way - or ways - to use up your bounty of fruits or veggies? Share with Us!
My husband (The H) and I have been back in Crete, Greece now for one week, and, as happens with every return to our home-away-from-home, we are still “oohing” and “aahing” when we head out for groceries.
The H just returned from a 10-minute sojourn to the local corner market to pick up a few things and came back with: 2 pounds of local, ripe field tomatoes that even in early March actually taste like tomatoes; 1 pound of firm, local red onions; and a 100 gram bar of the best Greek dark chocolate you can buy. The damage? Three Euro, which is no more than $4.00.
On Saturday we will make our weekly trip to the laiki agora (local farmer’s market) to stock-up on produce and cheese, all of it local and grown or made by the people selling it. And most of these products are organic, not by intent but just because
that is how they farm here. We’ve never spent more than 15 Euro for a week’s supply that we could never dream of finding in one place – if at all! – back in North America.
We buy our eggs from the guy down the street who has a little plot of land lush with chickens, goats and one petulant turkey. Our olive oil? In our kitchen we have a 17 kilo can of the stuff that was pressed in January from olives harvested just days before from one of our friend’s groves.
If I need some thyme, oregano or maratho (anise-flavored dill-like fronds of a fennel plant), I step outside our back door and pick them from the wild fields that are our yard.
Of course, this abundance is the ultimate inspiration for creating and testing recipes for our new book on the Mediterranean Diet. Today’s
concoction was a very simple stir-fry. We had this for lunch, but you could whip it up in your own kitchen as a great side dish for dinner tonight!
Red Pepper and Onion Stir-fry
Serves 1 as
a main dish, or 2 as a
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large red bell peppers, sliced into thin strips
2 small red onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (more if you likely a spicy dish)
5 large black olives, such as kalamata
¼ cup crumbled Greek feta cheese
1. Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over high heat. Add the onions and peppers and cook, stirring, until the vegetables just begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Lower heat to medium and stir in the thyme,
salt and pepper.
2. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in vinegar and red pepper flakes, and then season to taste with additional salt and pepper if desired.
3. Scoop everything onto a plate and sprinkle evenly with the feta and olives. Serve immediately or at room temperature.
Of course, we do have our “locavore” food sources at home in North America. What are yours, and how do they inspire your cooking?
My Husband ("My H") does not like kale. I do not think it would be much of a stretch to say that a lot of people don't like kale. But I do. And kale is a nutritional powerhouse, with loads of Vitamins A, B6 and C with calcium, fiber, iron and potassium and only 36 calories per serving (1 cup cooked).
So, while researching ingredients for my forthcoming book, The Mediterranean Diet: The Tasty Companion (scheduled to be published this Summer), I came across a great recipe for a kale salad in Meals that Heal Inflammation by Julie Daniluk. Although not a traditional "Med" dish, the recipe was full of Mediterranean ingredients, so the kale is punched up with flavor. I revised the recipe a bit to make it a hot side dish and...my husband loved it!
A microplane is a great tool for grating the lemon peel and the garlic. You will also need a pot with a steamer basket (or colander) and a lid.
Makes 4 servings
Mo's "Med" Kale
• 1 large bunch Kale, rinsed well and stems removed
• finely grated peel and juice of 1/2 fresh lemon
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 1 tablespoon minced fresh basil (or 1 teaspoon dried)
• 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
• 1/4 cup kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
• 1 tablespoon minced red onion
• 1 clove garlic, grated (ideally using microplane, but you can also use the small holes on a box grater)
1. Bring 5 cups of water to a boil over high heat in the pot with steamer basket. Place kale in steamer basket, cover and steam until wilted and quite soft, about 10 minutes.
2. While kale is steaming, make dressing by mixing remaining ingredients well in a large serving bowl.
3. Remove kale from steamer and place in serving bowl with dressing. Mix ingredients together well and taste. Adjust seasoning as desired. Serve immediately.
If you want something a bit spicy, you could add 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes to the dressing.
Let me know what you think!