The following post was written by my mom, WWW. Thanks, mom!
WWW's homemade pesto (recipe below)
I just finished Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller, given to me for Christmas by my son David. This book is a must read for anyone who uses olive oil. Mr. Mueller has not only woven an interesting tale of olive oil through the ages, but he has exposed the long-standing scandalous practices of the olive oil industry. He is kind of the Michael Pollen of olive oil.
To summarize the book, most of the olive oil industry is untrustworthy and corrupt and has been since the time of the ancient Greeks. Most of the oils on the market boasting the extra virgin label are either diluted with another type of oil—canola, linseed, grape seed, sunflower seed, peanut, vegetable oil, soy, etc.—or are made from a low grade olive oil not legally sold as food called lampante (“lamp oil”) which has been refined, deodorized, colored and flavored. And even those oils that are “pure” are often rancid or degraded, leaving very few products that are both fresh and pure and deserving of the extra virgin label.
It’s hard to believe that no laws exist to make this practice illegal. According to Mueller’s interviews, the FDA closes its eyes to the fraud because it doesn’t believe that adulterated oil is a health threat. But as Mueller points out, 800 people died and thousands more were injured in Spain in the 1980’s from olive oil cut with contaminated rapeseed oil. Without regulation, we have no way of knowing if our olive oil is safe. And, if we are eating olive oil because of its proven health benefits but are being duped by a counterfeit product, it stands to reason that such adulteration should be against the law.
One of the most serious problems addressed in the book is that legitimate and honest olive oil producers can’t compete with the cheap fake oil being falsely sold as extra virgin. Also, most people don’t know what the good stuff tastes like since they are so used to eating counterfeit oil. Mueller fears that pure olive oil will disappear altogether if consumers forget what real olive oil tastes like. Therefore, he wants to educate us about olive oil so that we don’t lose forever this miraculous food.
I’ll never forget reading Reviving Ophelia when Rebecca was a teenager and feeling disappointed that the author presented all of the problems of raising adolescent girls but gave no solutions. And although I know the book was an important tome, I find it much more helpful when exposés give us some tools to navigate through murky waters. Luckily in the case of Extra Virginity, Mueller provides solutions and important information to guide us in finding true extra virgin olive oil.
Although I recommend you read Extra Virginity, here are a few of the book’s many points:
1. If the oil is cheap, it’s probably not legitimate (under $10 a liter is not a good sign). UC Davis tested random samples of supermarket oils and found some alarming results. Most of the “extra virgin” olive oils they tested failed extra virgin olive oil standards for reasons that include one or more of the following: (a) oxidation by exposure to elevated temperatures, light, and/or aging; (b) adulteration with cheaper reﬁned olive oil; and (c) poor quality oil made from damaged and overripe olives, processing ﬂaws, and/or improper oil storage. These results suggest that we should stay away from name brand olive oils sold in supermarkets.
2. Try to buy olive oil at a store where you can taste it. (We Olive, Oil and Vinegar, Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Olive Press are some examples.) I buy some of my oil from a local company, Temecula Olive Oil Company, but I realize most people don’t live in an olive growing locale. Often farmer’s markets sell good quality oils that you can taste but there are also some good oils available in smaller markets. One of these is California Olive Ranch and you can find others on Mueller’s website.
3. When you have to buy oil without being able to taste it first, choose a store that performs stringent quality control in its production and selection of oils, such as the Olive Press, Zingerman’s , Beyond the Olive, or Corti Brothers. Often local specialty stores have good quality truly virgin oils.
4. Pure and fresh extra virgin olive oil tastes nutty, fruity or grassy and has a fresh air feeling to it, followed by a peppery bite in the throat, an indicator of the presence of healthful antioxidants. If you feel that “bite” or even cough after tasting a sample of oil, it’s probably extra virgin.
5. Don’t judge an oil by its color. Many adulterated oils have had colorants added to make them green and some of the best oils are yellow.
6. Olive oil keeps better when stored in large stainless steel containers so if you can buy it at a store where it is decanted at the time of purchase, all the better. Think of olive oil as fruit juice. As soon as it is squeezed, it starts deteriorating.
7. Only buy bottled oil marked with the day it was harvested. Preferably it should be bought within a year of harvest.
8. Only buy oil in dark bottles. Light causes the oils to deteriorate. And don’t buy more oil than you can use up quickly.
9. Although not always a guarantee of quality, the following labels on the bottle mean the oils have been properly made:
• Organically grown
• Olive oils certified by national and state olive oil associations (Australian Olive Association, California Olive Oil Council, Association 3E, North American Olive Oil Association, International Olive Council)
10. Look for oils that have scored well recently in olive oil contests such as:
• Sol d’Oro (italy)
• Mario Solinas
• Ercole Olivario
• Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition
• Yolo County Fair Olive Oil Competition
• The National Extra Virgin Olive Oil Show
You can go to Mueller’s website, www.extravirginity.com for up-to-date information, a list of reputable oils, and where to purchase them. Mueller provides a wide range of web resources about oil, many more than I can list in this space. You can also find good information at Olive Oil Times www.oliveoiltimes.com and a list of certified oil producers at the California Olive Oil Council website www.cooc.com .
The moral of the story is, if we want to ensure that we are cooking with pure extra virgin olive oil, we need to be diligent about researching and familiarizing ourselves with reputable brands.
And this news just in…last Thursday Mueller and other experts in the oil industry testified before the California State Senate, openly discussing olive oil fraud before a group of senators who were in “rapt attention.” The video of the proceedings is long but well worth watching if you are intrigued. Go to the hour mark if you want to watch Mike Bradley of Veronica Foods bring down the industry with examples that will blow your mind.
The best way to use olive oil is in recipes where the oil isn’t cooked and in my opinion, there's nothing more delicious than a chunk of bread dipped in generous amounts of pure extra virgin oil—so much better than butter and no guilt attached since the oil is so good for you. A great oil enhances the flavors of a salad, vegetables, or a pasta sauce, and different oils bring out different flavors so you can have fun experimenting. (Olive oil is very much like wine except more fragile as it is fresh, not fermented.) If you can find one in your area, a great way to learn more about oil is to go to an olive oil tasting bar or a store that specializes in olive oil. They often let you taste the oils tell you which oils are best as an accompaniment for which foods.
A great olive oil rich food is pesto and you don’t have to wait till summer’s abundant basil harvest to make it. (I find hothouse grown basil tasteless and not good for pesto.) Although basil is traditional, any soft-leafed herb will work. You can experiment with your own combinations. Arugula, cilantro, mint, or flat leafed parsley make great pestos, or you can use a combination of these. Instead of traditional pine nuts or walnuts, you could use any nuts of your liking or substitute seeds for the nuts. And if you are vegan, substitute nutritional yeast for the Parmesan cheese.
Yesterday I happened to have plethora of arugula and cilantro on hand so I came up with this pesto recipe. And I decided to use toasted pumpkin seeds to give it a winter flair. You can toss the pesto on pasta or quinoa or use it as a sandwich spread. Or add dollops of it to a sauce or soup to add extra flavor.
Wendy’s Winter Pesto
1/3 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
2 cloves garlic
¼ teaspoon salt
1 packed cup cilantro leaves
1 packed cup arugula
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
(optional: a little cayenne pepper or pepper flakes if you want it spicy)
1/3 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
1. Toast pepitas in a pan over medium high heat, stirring constantly, until they pop and start to turn brown. Take off heat and set aside.