Saturday, July 25, 2009

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Olive Oil
A few weeks ago I was asked by Gaea if I'd be interested in reviewing some of their products. I am by no means an olive oil expert but I thought, heck why not, tasting products is always fun. Gaea specializes in extra virgin olive oil but they also make Greek food products like cooking sauces and tapenades. They sent me a free 17oz. bottle of their extra virgin olive oil and a bottle of their Myconos (tuna and kalamata olives) sauce.

By now, I’m sure everyone has heard that olive oil is good for you so I won't bore you with those details. An "extra virgin" olive oil is the highest quality and means that it has not been chemically treated or heated in the process of extracting the oil from olives. This is the kind you want to look for because it has the highest vitamins and antioxidant content and the most health benefits. "Cold pressed", olive oil obtained without the use of heat, is ideal but the term is unregulated and is used mainly as a marketing tool. "First press" is an obsolete misnomer also used for marketing because there is no second press nowadays. If it says something like pomace-olive oil it means that chemical solvents were used to extract the last bit of oil left in the olive paste (pomace) after extracting the oil mechanically. In Europe, the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) regulates quality and authenticity of olive oils. However,the US is not part of the IOOC and the USDA has its own murky guidelines but we do have the nonprofit California Olive Oil Council. Their seal guarantees extra virgin olive oils that are mechanically extracted without chemicals or excess heat, less than 0.5% acidity aka free oleic acids (which is a measure of how much the oil has degraded, higher number = bad).

Unfortunately, none of the olive oils I list below are on the list of COOC certified olive oils. I bet the certified olive oils are expensive and possibly harder to find than bigger name brands. Olive oils can get pretty darn pricey. The price per ounce of extra virgin olive oils range from 20 cents up to well over a dollar an ounce.

After some online research, 3 brands came out on top in many reviews (prices are rough estimates):
Colavita: $9 for 16.9-oz. bottle, 53 cents an ounce
Columela: $16 for 17-oz. bottle 94cents an ounce
Whole Foods 365: $5 for 17.9-oz. bottle 28 cents an ounce
Kirkland Signature by Costco (don’t have the size or price but I imagine this is the cheapest)

I compared the Gaea extra virgin olive oil with the oil I currently have in my pantry, Trader Joe's Kalamata extra virgin, a decent oil in my opinion. First, I tasted the oils on its own and then with a small piece of bread. I wasn't hardcore enough to take a sip of oil by itself. The color of an olive oil doesn't correlate with the taste but just for kicks I compared the two side by side and the Gaea oil was slightly greener. The Kalamata oil smelled peppery, whereas the Gaea oil smelled very grassy. The flavor of the Kalamata oil was upfront, one note, and peppery just like it smelled. On the other hand the Gaea oil was milder, took longer to develop in the mouth, and much grassier, and slightly peppery. Of the two, Steven and I both preferred the Gaea but this tasting is far from thorough so take it with a grain of salt. I haven’t compared it with any of the recommended oils listed above, because frankly I don't have the time or money to spend on getting 4 different olive oils. I may switch to the Kirkland signature brand or Whole Foods 365 in the near future and compare with those.

As a side note, I wonder if companies who want food bloggers to review their products should provide some competing products along with their own.

When I buy an olive oil, I look for one that not only tastes good but is also budget friendly, which is why I bought the Trader Joe's kalamata oil. The 17 oz. bottle of the regular, nonorganic, Gaea runs for $10 (59 cents an ounce) and the D.O.P (Protected Designation of Origin) and organic Gaea oils will cost you around $15 (88 cents an ounce). At this point in my life (mired in student loans), I can’t justify spending that much on olive oil. While it’s great that Gaea is a carbon neutral company, it's too bad their olive oils are not the most budget friendly.

If anyone has tried the Gaea oil and would like to weigh in on that oil or offer their opinions about olive oils in general, please leave a comment. I'd love to hear what you think. What's your favorite extra virgin olive oil?

I added a chopped roasted red bell pepper and minced parsley

As for the cooking sauce, the tuna and kalamata sauce over pasta tasted like a puttanesca sans capers. It's made with real ingredients (tuna, olives, basil) without any funky flavorings, preservatives, or colorings. But the jar is pretty small so you will probably get one meal for 4 out of it.

Grapefruit and Dill Salad

Grapefruit Vinaigrette
1/4 C ruby red grapefruit juice (preferably fresh with no sugar added)
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 C olive oil
salt and pepper

If you can't get a grapefruit for freshly squeezed juice, use something like Simply Grapefruit with no added sugar. Sweetened grapefruit juice is too sweet in a dressing.

Blend or whisk the juice with the mustard and a pinch of salt and pepper. Slowly drizzle the olive oil and blend until emulsified.

This dressing is great in a salad with fresh dill, grapefruit segments, and toasted almonds.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

German Pancake/Dutch Baby with Apricot and Raspberry

German Pancake
Steven and I bought a half flat of the biggest raspberries we'd ever seen from our local berry stand. We're lucky enough to live blocks away from the only Seattle location of the Spooner Farms berry stand. One more reason why I love our neighborhood. Raspberry season is coming to a close in Washington state and they will eventually be replaced by blueberries and blackberries. If you live in the North Seattle area or close to any of the other locations, I recommend you check out Spooner Farms and stock up on these amazing raspberries while you still can.

Spooner Berry Farm RaspberriesBetween the car ride home and breakfast, we polished off one half pint. Any suggestions for what I should do with the remaining 5 half pints?

Steven and I aren’t big breakfast people but when I do make breakfast, I go all out. Bacon and eggs usually make an appearance, sometimes I do waffles, sometimes pancakes, and sometimes I get crazy and put everything together. The German pancake, also called Dutch Baby, is like a crepe crossed with a popover. It's ridiculously easy to make (the batter is made in under 2 minutes in a blender) and is always a crowd pleaser. Watching the pancake puff up before your very eyes is always entertaining. You can add fresh fruit to the batter, add it on top after baking ,or go crazy and do both! Then you have the option of topping it with the more traditional squeeze of fresh lemon juice and powdered sugar or simply drizzle on the maple syrup, for the syrup lovers.

If you're using a cast iron skillet, you'll need to preheat it longer than a cake pan. Put the skillet into the oven before turning it on and let it preheat in the oven for a good 20 minutes. This will give you enough time to make some coffee, get your ingredients together, and set up the blender.

German Pancake

German Pancake with Raspberries and Apricot
3 eggs
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 C all purpose flour
1/2 C milk
3 Tbsp butter
Optional: 1 apricot sliced up and 1/3 C raspberries

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F and put a cast iron skillet (if using) into the oven to heat up.

After about 15 - 20 minutes (or longer if your oven is slow), the skillet should be hot. Add the butter to the skillet and return it to the oven. If you're using a cake pan, add the butter to the cake pan and put it into the oven.

Add 3 eggs and the sugar to blender and blend on low speed for 1 minutes. The eggs should be light colored and bubbly. Then add the flour and milk and blend for 10 seconds, until evenly mixed.

Take the skillet or cake pan out of the oven and make sure the butter has completely melted. Pour the batter into the hot skillet or pan and scatter the fruit on top of the batter if using.

Bake at 425 degrees F for 18 - 22 minutes, or until the sides and middle have puffed up and browned.

Serve with fresh fruit and a lemon slice and powdered sugar or maple syrup.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Duck Noodle Soup

Duck Somen

I walked into the Asian market only needing some tofu but walked out with over $80 of groceries and a whole roast duck. $1.28/lb white peaches, heck yeah! 99c/lb bok choy, yeah I need that too. Whoa, fish sauce is on sale?! Well, I still have some at home but it doesn’t hurt to have a backup right? As for the tofu I needed? Well, I got 2 shapes of deep fried tofu, a pack of pressed, firm, and silken. I had to restrain myself from those damn cute tofu knots.

The roast duck, which was also on sale so how could I not get it, was the highlight of the trip. I brushed the sweet plum sauce on the skin and reheated it in the toaster oven to restore the skin to its original crispness. I asked to keep the head and neck so I could turn it into duck stock. Then, putting that 99c bok choy to good use, I added it to the stock for a simple but perfect lunch - somen, roast duck, bok choy, in a simple duck soup. It's comfort food, Chinese style.

Roast Duck
Simple Roast Duck Stock
1 roast duck head and neck and other bony pieces from the duck
3 dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated and washed
2 thin slices of fresh ginger
3 green onions, roughly chopped
6 C water
salt and white pepper

Cover the mushrooms with some hot water for 5 minutes, then rinse them under running water to wash off any dirt hiding in the mushroom gills.

Rinse the duck pieces with some cold running water.

Put everything in a large saucepan and simmer for 2 – 3 hours and skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Season with salt and pepper.

Duck Noodle Soup
Noodles of choice, I chose somen (I do 2 - 3oz. for a serving)
1 bok choy per person, leaves separated and washed, sliced lengthwise
Roast duck
Duck stock

If the roast duck came with a sweet, honey colored sauce, brush some of that on the skin. If not, thin some plum sauce or honey with a small amount of water and brush that on the skin. Depending on how hot the broiler element gets in your oven or toaster oven, you can either bake at 450 for 5 – 10 minutes or use the broiler for 5 – 10 minutes. Keep an eye on the duck so it doesn’t burn. My toaster oven broiler is relatively weak, so I reheated the duck using the broil function.

Cook your noodle of choice according to package instructions. Rinse under cold water, drain, divide, into bowls and set aside.

Bring the duck soup to a simmer, add the bok choy and cover, cook for about 1 – 2 minutes. You want the bok choy to be crunchy. Make sure it doesn’t turn translucent because that means it’s overcooked.

Pour the soup on the noodles, add the bok choy and duck on top.


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