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The diary of Olives and its oils
December 7, 2014, 1:26 pm

Arbequina, Kalamata, Black from a can, thanks to their accessibility, variety, and unabashed saltiness, olives make for a number-one pick in both the 'party snack' and 'dish brightener' categories. Atop pizza, stirred into pasta, or even in baked bread, olives never fail us. So let us get to know them a bit better.

Here is a rundown of some of the favorite olive varieties found in supermarkets:

Kalamata: This Greek import is smooth, purplish-black in color, and pleasantly meaty. Their distinct flavor, commonly lends saltiness and punch to a variety of Mediterranean recipes, most commonly Greek salad. They cannot be picked when unripe, and are so delicate to be easily bruised, that they must be hand-picked. After a cure in salt brine -- the most common way to preserve olives – these are often sold already pitted.

Arbequina: Grown mostly in Cataluña, Spain, these tiny, brownish-green olives, generally sold with their pits intact, have one of the highest concentrations of oil. Their name is generally found on many bottles of olive oil. Usually with a shorter shelf life these are meant to be used up fast.

Picholine: These large, firm, big, crisp, tart and salt brined French olives make a perfect snack or a light hors d'oeuvre. Often used to make oil, these are the most widely-available olives in Europe.

Canned Black: Most canned black olives are picked when green and unripe, and then soaked in lye to make them edible and black. Then, they are canned. Sometimes they are treated with chemicals to turn them black, resulting in a minimal-flavored or textured olive. However, they are essentials for some pizzas, sandwiches, and salads.

Oil-Cured: Curing, or soaking, in oil for months removes any lingering bitterness in these olives, needing hardly any brining to be stored. Most common in Moroccan tagines, black Moroccan are cured with spices – cumin, hot chilies, or citrus.

Castelvatrano: One of the most popular varieties, Castelvatrano is mild, buttery and almost sweet in flavor. They are harvested young and cured in salt brine to add to its vibrant green color.

Olives can only grow in certain regions, yet millions of people are involved in olive oil production throughout the world and the culture of olive oil is rich and vital. Of course, from that simple beginning it gets a bit more complicated. Extra-virgin olive oil, largely a pantry staple, often raises questions about their usage, storage, handling and probably where to source the best varieties. So here are a few ‘should-know’ basics.

Usage: The biggest misconception is that you cannot cook with extra-virgin olive oil; that it has too high a smoke point. However, the oil's historical uses in Mediterranean cuisine and the International Olive Council (IOC) show extra-virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 210° C, which is well above the ideal temperature for frying food. The smoke point depends on free acid level and number of impurities. A good, all-purpose, honestly made extra-virgin is perfect.

Generally, apart from using it to rinse your hair, you can use extra-virgin olive oil in most places as substitute for butter. Use to stir-fry, or as a garnish on a baked potato, or dribble over a piece of hot toast that is then topped with a tomato slice or Greek yogurt or a wedge of avocado -- or all three -- for a great breakfast sandwich.

Storage: Start with the label, look for harvest date (the closer to the present date, the better) or use-by date (usually 18 months from the bottling date). Look for certain seals typical of the geographical location; in Spanish and French oils, these are in slightly different acronyms, but they all are controls of the oil-quality.

If well maintained in a cool, dark place, preferably in an unheated pantry, extra-virgin oil keeps for up to two years from harvest. Olive oil begins degrading from the moment it is made and loses its brightness, complexity, and intensity over time. However, old olive oil is not necessarily bad; some Tuscan farms are known to use yesteryear's olive oil for cooking and the present year's oil for garnishing. Just bring out a small amount to keep for cooking and garnishing. Refrigerating condenses the oil forming water droplets that flow into the oil, inducing mold and rancidity.

Handling: The finest olive oil in the world cannot stand up to a blast of heat or sunlight, which often happens on the retail end. Its goodness is judged by its taste and aroma. Find a trustworthy supplier, one who will take back or replace defective oil.

Buying: Most supermarkets have very little product knowledge about extra-virgin olive oil; from sourcing to handling it in their stores. If mail order is possible in your location, there are some very good suppliers such as Gustiamo, Market Hall Foods, Zingerman's, Di Paolo Selects, Corti Brothers or Olio2go, who will be more than willing to ship you their products.

Benefits of olive oil: Lives in and around the Mediterranean – Spain, southern France, Lebanon, Cyprus and Italy, among others – are almost unimaginable without this important ingredient. The history records thousands of years of olive oil production here as a vital trade product. The diet here functions by the use of olive oil with positive health outcomes in these cultures. The importance of extra-virgin olive oil in combating all sorts of diseases, from Alzheimer's to cancer to diabetes is well documented.

Poaching fish in olive oil

To poach any kind of fish, lay the fillets in a shallow, oven-proof casserole large enough to hold the fish in a single layer. Cover the fish with a thin layer of olive oil, season with a flakey sea salt and any other herb or spice you like, then send it into a 275° C oven. For a 2.5cm thick fish fillet, it takes about 30 minutes.

To poach shrimp, scallops or lobster, place a single layer of them in a saucepan, pour enough oil to just cover them, throw in some default aromatics like thyme and lightly smashed garlic cloves. Set the pan over low-heat, let it warm till tiny bubbles emerge on the pan's sides. They will be bouncy and light once they are cooked properly.

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