Archive | December, 2009

Olive Oil, another thrilling school paper

28 Dec

Found this paper while cleaning out some old files. Not exactly thrilling (as promised by the title) but informative none the less. Enjoy. I promise more posts and recipes in the new year 🙂

Extra virgin olive oil is perhaps one of the most well known ingredients in cooking. As paint is the artist’s medium, extra virgin olive oil allows the chef the creation of well-balanced, beautiful dishes.  Extra virgin olive oil is used by chefs in everything from   flavor bases in vinaigrettes to finishers in soups. With flavor profiles ranging from mild and fruity to deep and peppery, the versatility of extra virgin olive oil is amazing. Discussed here will be the history, evolution, processing, and chacateristics of this culinary giant.

Extra virgin is the king of the olive oils. In fact, the Greeks revered olive oil so much it was used as sacrifices to the Goddess Athena. Ancient cultures used it in medicine, religion, and purification. Although the exact origins of olive oil are not completely known yet, it is believed that it originated in the Mediterranean, most likely near modern day Turkey. The olive trees were transported throughout Europe where it remains largely exported from Italy, France and other countries.

The variety of olives used for extra virgin olive oil, is as varied as the grapes used for wine. All olives start out green and slowly turn to either a deep purple or black color. Because of this progression, the question of which color is used for olive oil is both. Most of the olives used are 2/3 the way to purple. This ensures that the olives are not too ripe for processing. Just as with grapes, the region in which the olives are grown affects the flavor of the final product. Some of the many regions in which olives are harvested include Italy, Spain, France, California, Morocco and Greece. All have unique flavors, colors and each country finds theirs to be the very best.

Before extra virgin olive oil can be applied for use in the kitchen, it has to be extracted from the olives. Typically, olives must be brined before they are pressed in order to get the fruit soft enough to be pressed. Originally this process was done by hand. The olives were crushed and placed in a salt-water bath. Over time the olives and oil would float to the top and the water would sink to the bottom. The first evolution of oil extraction is with a mechanical press. Traditionally the presses were made of two stones. The top stone fits into the lower stone and as the olives got pressed, the oil ran into a groove that was carved into the lower stone. There was a spout that allowed the oil to run out of the press and into a collection container. Today, with a few artisan exceptions, the presses are large industrial machines that press olives in the huge quantities. While the classification of first press originally meant that the oil that had been pressed was of a better quality, the machines of today press so many olives at once, this classification no longer has any bearing since there is only one press. The classification of extra virgin versus regular olive oil is now one of ph levels.

When no heat is applied during the pressing, the process is considered cold pressed. This results in a better quality product. All extra virgin olive oils are cold pressed.  Because of this,, other characteristics that help to define the quality between the good and the best are; filtration, whether or not it is organic, and acidity. Not filtering an olive oil causes the olive flavors to remain very prominent and gives the oil a slightly cloudy look. It also, actually decreases the shelve life in some cases.. The organic attribute simply implies that the olives that were used in the oil were grown in with the organic farming techniques. The acidity of extra virgin olive oil is another distinct characteristic. In order to classify as extra virgin, the oil must have an acidity level between  .8% and 3% so that the taste and quality are of the highest degree. It’s actually said that any oil higher than 3% is called “lamp oil” because the when it is compared with extra virgin olive oil, it is not worth cooking with. These characteristics also make extra virgin the most expensive of all the olive oils.

When choosing an extra virgin olive oil, there are some characteristics the need to be considered. A good quality extra virgin olive oil should not smell strongly of anything. It should smell lightly of fresh olives. When you taste it, there should not be an overwhelming feeling of fattiness coating your mouth, and there should also be a slight acidity that helps to break up any kind of coating that does remain on the palette. There should be a slight peppery taste as the flavor finishes, but nothing too strong. Personal taste is also a factor in choosing a good extra virgin olive oil, but by using the characteristics as described above, the decision should be much easier.

Extra virgin olive oil is one of nature’s greatest gifts to the kitchen. While the world will always debate where the best olive oil comes from, the idea that extra virgin olive oil is the king of oils will never be challenged. With a history of reverence and presence that is undeniable, it can be assured that extra virgin olive oil will continue to be a culinary staple for a long time.

Always thinking of the next meal-


Works Cited

Olive Oil 17 August 2008. Wikipidia. 19 August 2008. <>

The History of Olive Oil 6 April 2008. The Olive Oil Source. 19 August 2008. <>

Olive Oil Demystified 24 July 2008. DaVero Ingredienti, 1 September 2008.


Montague, Prosper, comps. and eds. Larousse Gastronmique. New York; Clarkson Potter 2001.

Herbst, Sharon Tyler, and Ron Herbst. Food Lover’s Companion. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. 2007.

Christmas Dinner

26 Dec

Christmas dinnerSo Christmas has come and gone. Another day that comes with umpteen hours of planning and re-planning. Writing a menu and then re-writing a menu to accommodate all of the tastes of the guests in attendance. You want to be bold and impressive, but not be slaving in the kitchen for days. At least with Thanksgiving the menu is set by tradition. But Christmas is a different story.

This year I was entertaining my in-laws. There were 8 adults and 2 kiddies. Although they are willing to try everything I make for them, they are still warming up to my culinary experiments. I wanted to set a menu that was full flavored and inspired by Italy, but not predictable. It seemed to simple to me to have lasagna or chicken piccata. So here’s what I went with:

Christmas Dinner 2009

Mom’s Famous Italian Chopped Salad

Salute Roast of Pork, glazed with blood orange marmelade, roasted over fennel and sweet potaotes
Four cheese Italian potatoes au gratin
Haricot Vert sautéed with garlic
Roasted acorn squash with hazelnuts and balsamic reduction

And for dessert-

Christmas cookies and croquembouchecroquembouche

The salad was supposed to go out before the main course, however, a few people were late because of weather and traffic and so everything went out at once. Although, a slight change in plan, it still went over big, with the leftovers going home with my mother-in-law. Here’s the recipe for my mom’s famous Italian chopped salad.

1 head of romaine lettuce, chopped into small pieces

1 pint of cherry tomatoes

1 cup dried cranberries

1 cup candied walnuts

3/4 cup or 4 oz of blue cheese (I use Danish blue, but she likes the crumbles)

1/2 cup homemade balsamic vinaigrette

Just toss all the ingredients together and serve. Reserve a few walnuts and a few crumbles of cheese to garnish with.Acorn SquashThe recipe for the dressing is simple. 1 tablespoon dijon mustard, 2 teaspoon honey, 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar, 1/4 cup good quality olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. PurĂ©e on a blender or whisk until incorporated. Toss into salad gently. This salad is good anytime. It’s light and zippy (yes, zippy) and can be easily made into a main dish by adding grilled chicken or salmon.

To make the roast, I purchased a salute roast from the butcher and brined it the night before serving in salt, brown sugar, orange juice, and fennel fronds. When I was ready to roast the piggy, I set it up on a bed of sweet potatoes, fennel, and blood oranges. I roasted it at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 40 minutes and then let it rest for 30 minutes. The meat was a perfect medium well (which was a little more than I like, but the brine helped to keep the meat juicy and flavorful.) Every 30 minutes I brushed the roast with homemade blood orange marmalade which I made a few days earlier.

Everything turned out perfectly. We had a few leftovers, but well that made a great dinner tonight as orange glazed pork tacos with fennel and black beans.

Always thinking of the next meal (which won’t be for awhile)


8 minute dinner, seriously

20 Dec

Tonight called for a fast easy dinner with minimal clean up. I’ve been baking for the holidays all day and I’m just tired of being in the kitchen (if you can believe that!)

My honey was hungry and always wanting to try something new, I thought, hey how about a quick pasta recipe. One of Ryan’s favorite dinners is pasta carbonara. Although delicious, it’s pretty heavy and I’ve been eating, I mean baking, cookies all day.

So here’s what I came up with. Penne alla Ryan. It’s penne pasta with a quick combo of cubed hame, peas, shallots, and a blue cheese cream sauce. As with a lot of my posting, there is not really a recipe here. It’s more or less a combination of ingredients that suits your liking. Here’s what’s in there:

penne pasta (I used a little less than half a box)
ham, left over from last night’s dinner
1/2 of a medium shallot, sliced
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil (to start cooking the shallots)
about a 1/2 cup of peas, plus 2 tablespoons for garnishing (I used the steamfresh bag from Birdseye)
chicken stock (about a cup)
heavy cream (2 tablespoons)
danish blue cheese (about 2 oz)
salt and pepper to taste
and the secret ingredient… truffle salt.

Now if you don’t fret, but if you do, it adds a lovely richness to the dish. The final product was not too saucy or too thick, as carbonara can sometimes be. I know you can’t really call this carbonara since there are no eggs in the recipe, but it did have that rich, salty, umami satisfaction that you get from eating carbonara. It was an interesting paradox that was both rich and light, salty but sweet from the peas, and creamy but not fatty.

Oh and literally, it too 8 minutes to make. I’m not kidding or exaggerating. I know I move quickly in the kitchen, but everything for the sauce was just thrown into a sautĂ© pan and warmed through while the pasta cooked. Actually, the sauce was finished before the pasta was! If you don’t have pre-cooked ham, use chicken or steak or whatever you have on hand. This one will definitely go into the rotation.

Always think about the next meal, (and when we’ll have this one again)


Holiday Cookies

14 Dec

So here’s the update to my earlier cookie dilemma. I feel like I’ve been baking around the clock for the past week. Between cookie tray orders and prepping for the impending holiday rush, I literally feel like I’m living in a bakery. So what types of cookies made it to my list? Well here’s the list of what I’ve made so far…

Peppermint bark: first batch turned out just ok, but the second batch is great (mostly due to the fact that I used the correct chocolate the second time around)

Iced Sugar Cookies: Snowflake shaped of course

Gingerbread: not happy with the way these turned out at all, they will not be made again

Peppermint marshmallows: delicious, although next time I’ll cut them smaller

Lemon Raspberry thumbprints: very cute and tasty, although small and not very dramatic on the tray

Peppermint Brownies: yes, I cheated and used a box mix, but hey I had a hole on the tray and I needed to fill it

Chocolate Chip: my signiture, turned out great

Checkerboard Icebox cookies: a lot more involved than anticipated, but they look great

Chocolate Shortbread with green chili sugar: very interesting, I called them naughty and nice cookies

Still to come… maybe

Palmiers: one of my favorites

Pressed butter cookies: Every year I make these and every year I break my cookie press… I’m debating if I want to sacrifice my sanity, but I guess it is tradition

Rum Balls: I saw these on TV and they look really delightful, however, not one for the kiddies

Chewy Molasses Spice Cookies: Since the gingerbreads were such a colossus failure I’d love to have spicy winner

So the cookie adventure continues. I’m debating cooking more tonight, although I’ve been at it all day. It might be a good night to relax and make some decisions

Always thinking of the next meal


Pennsylvania Wines

11 Dec

I found this old paper from school. Kind of interesting, well as interesting as PA wines can be.

When wine comes up in conversation, it is rare that the wines of Pennsylvania are the first to drum up excitement. In fact, the wines of Pennsylvania rarely even make to the conversation at all. Perhaps it is that Pennsylvania is better known for Hershey’s chocolate or for the Amish country. Maybe it’s the famous history of Philadelphia and Pittsburg that fill the books and shroud the modest history of the countryside. But, Pennsylvania holds more to offer than simple Quaker roots and Yuengling beer. With a rich history of rebellion and heroes, Pennsylvania boasts a revolutionary spirit that is rivaled by few others. This spirit has not been forgotten in Pennsylvania wine making.

The history of Pennsylvania wines is spotty at best. There are few sources that are reliable, and those that are seem to mimic each other in fact and disappointment. What is consistent is the similarity Pennsylvania winemaking shares with the rest of the country. Like her sister states, Pennsylvania’s first vines were planted by immigrants who were eager to make wine like they remembered from home. The earliest vineyard in documentation was planted by William Penn in 1683. He planted the vines in Philadelphia in an area know today as Fairmount Park. It is not known what type of grapes were planted, however it is known that they were European vines. Similar to the other vineyards of the time, William Penn’s vineyard struggled. The European vines did not flourish in the new American soil. The growing of the vines was not the only problem. Unbeknownst to them, the immigrants brought more than just vines with them. They also brought phylloxera. The damage that phylloxera had caused in Europe was echoed in American. The European vines that had managed to survive the change in terroir were not as lucky when it came to surviving phylloxera.

As time passed, technologies in winemaking grew stronger and people became smarter. The wines improved and Pennsylvania was well on her way to wonderful varietals. Again the merit of the wine industry was tested when in 1915 prohibition started. Vineyards were shut down and grape growers were strictly monitored. In 1933 prohibition was repealed and the country’s winemaking could begin again. Things were not as easy for winemakers in Pennsylvania. Even though prohibition had been repealed, the conservatives in the state created local laws that gave Pennsylvania more rules concerning the making and selling of alcohol than any other state. Because of these regulations, winemaking was slow to restart in Pennsylvania.

The second coming for Pennsylvania wine started in the mid-1970s. Native American vines were being graphed with European vines to create stronger varietals that would strive in the Appalachian Mountain terroir. The hilly slopes, rich, fertile soil and moderate season changes formed a recipe for success. Today, Pennsylvania boasts over 70 varietals grown in over 110 vineyards. Interestingly enough, the number one grape grown in this region is the Chambourcin. This grape is a French-American hybrid that is disease resistant. The flavors are similar to Cabernet Sauvingnon.

The future for Pennsylvania wines is bright. With wine becoming trendier, the demand for better quality wines is on the rise. The laws governing the wine making process and sales of wine is the state are loosening. There is even a movement to get wines from Pennsylvania on the same quality and recognition level as New York by 2012. While this is a big goal, it has always been the nature of Pennsylvania and her people to learn and improve. Soon, the wine makers of the state will hold their heads up proudly as the world sees them for more than just Ben Franklin and Andrew Carnegie.

Always thinking of the next meal


Peppermint Marshmallows

9 Dec

I was feeling creative and adventurous this afternoon and with a kitchen that was calling my name, I pulled out a recipe for marshmallows. Marshmallows are another one of those mysterious culinary things that you never think about making. But, they are deceptively easy. In their very basic form, marshmallows are whipped melted sugar combined with gelatin. And they are as easy to make as that.

Start with letting powdered gelatin bloom in cold water. Then let a combination of corn syrup, water and sugar come to a boil over medium heat. Then, in a electric mixer, whip the hot syrup into the gelatin. Add in any flavoring or food color that you want. Then allow to set.

You’ll be rewarded with dense and delicious confectionary dreams. These marshmallows are nothing like air-puffed kind you get at the grocery store. These are artisan quality, gift worthy, gems. Float them in hot chocolate or dip in melted chocolate for an even more decadent treat.

Here’s the recipe I followed… Peppermint Marshmallows

Always thinking of the next meal


Mix it up, moussaka

8 Dec

As with most trips to the grocery store, I look for things to inspire me. This week I was looking for something that I don’t usually buy. Now, eggplant isn’t always on my list, but it does find it’s way there when I’m making eggplant parmesan or caponata, but that’s it. When I saw these purple beauties I knew they had to come home with me.

I wanted to challenge myself to make something different with the eggplant. I remembered when I was in school making moussaka. Moussaka is a traditional Greek dish that is best described as a mix between a pasta-less lasagna and a shepard’s pie. The technique is layering flavors and ingredients.

The base is the eggplant, lightly sautéed. On top of that is a rich, flavorful ragú (usually lamb) that is then topped with potatoes and a creamy cheese sauce. I wanted to use things that I had on hand so I used ground turkey for my ragú instead of lamb. On another note, ground turkey is easier to find and cheaper than ground lamb. Anyway, you can use ground beef or chicken as well. When using ground poultry, there is a certain amount of richness that gets left out of the equation. I used duck fat to brown the turkey meat to get some of that back in. I also added onions, garlic, San Marzano tomatoes, red wine, and oregano into the ragú. I let it cook for an hour, adding in tomato juice and red wine to keep the moisture level up. As the liquid reduces, the flavor intensifies.

The Cheese sauce is a simple bĂ©chamel sauce that is flavored with nutmeg and parmesan cheese. You want this sauce to be a little thicker that napĂ©. This consistency change will create a sauce that will brown better in the oven. The potatoes can be simply sliced, like I did, or you can make mashed potatoes and spread them on top of the ragĂş as in a shepard’s pie. Bake the moussaka at 375 for 15-20 minutes or until the top is brown and the edges are bubbling.

Serve this hot. You can make this dish family style or individually like I did. This is a very hardy dish that is perfect for a cold winter night. There is a fair amount of time involved in making all the layers and then assembling, but it is definitely worth the effort.

Always thinking of the next meal