Il Fiorello Olio Nuovo

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Thanks to the courageous olive farmers, olive oil entrepreneur/retailers, and chatty food writers and cookbook authors, people are starting to understand the difference between a mass-produced bottle of inexpensive olive oil and an in-house produced bottle of luxurious extra-virgin olive oil. Come November, these artisanal in-house olive oil producers are releasing their first press of olive oil, known as olio nuovo.

Il Fiorello Olive Oil Company just sent me a sample of their olio nuovo and we cracked it open last night and tasted it with a fresh loaf of whole grain bread. It was utterly sublime. Tasting fresh-pressed olive oil, the first olive oil of the season, is akin to tasting freshly uncovered truffles. You can literally taste the provenance in each bite.

All over the world where olives are milled, there’s a half-eaten piece of fresh bread (and spoon) resting near the milling equipment as there is nothing like sampling oil straight from the source as soon as the olives are milled. Procuring a bottle of olio nuovo is the next best thing. Unfiltered and cloudy, Il Fiorello’s olio nuovo is milled in their state-of-the-art facility using machinery that self-regulates things like temperature and output. Heat is enemy number one when processing olive oil and if the oil gets too hot during the process, all the good in it like antioxidants are destroyed. So the next time you pour that $5 bottle of olive oil over your salad, well, you might as well use any other oil because practically all of the health benefits are lost. Manufacturers and bottlers that sell olive oil that inexpensive are using a different type of pressing system that elevates temperatures to the point of no return.

With olive oil this fresh and good, it must be enjoyed unadulterated and drizzled on foods where its grassy, herbaceous, and buttery flavors can be enjoyed. Ann Sievers, owner of Il Fiorello, recommends drizzling her olio nuovo over vanilla gelato and finishing with a sprinkle of sea salt. I couldn’t agree more.

There are only a handful of olive growers that also mill on-site in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, and Il Fiorello welcomes visitors to taste and tour their facilities. It’s the only way to procure a bottle of this first-of-the-season treat so book your visit now before it sells out.

To learn more about California olive oil, visit the California Olive Oil Council.

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Williams-Sonoma Cooking School: A New Option in the Cooking Class Realm

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Chef Vlad orienting students before instruction began.

Recently I was invited to attend a cooking class at Williams-Sonoma‘s Union Square location on Post Street in San Francisco. There’s no question that founder Chuck Williams changed the way Americans cook today. His vision of importing French cookware to his original Sonoma shop in 1956 and selling them to home cooks revolutionized how we interpret and enjoy food.

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Individual cooking stations equipped with Meile oven, induction cooktop, and an enviable amount of W-S cookware.

Just a few weeks in to this new concept, the classes really personalizes the cooking experience. They also provide attendees the opportunity to not only sit and enjoy demos from one of the resident or guest chefs, but also allow attendees to work with Williams-Sonoma products at mini kitchen stations equipped with Miele appliances. Currently, classes are held at three of their storefronts: San Francisco’s Union Square, Chicago’s Lincoln Park, and Sydney’s Bondi Junction Station.

Upon arrival, everyone gets a crisp white chef’s coat, apron, and kitchen towel. Once properly dressed, we all gathered around the expansive marble island and listened to Chef Vladimir Niza talk about our menu. Chef Vlad is in charge of the company’s culinary programs including the new curriculum and has extensive experience and education in the culinary and nutrition field. Classically trained with degrees in nutritional science, he’s the perfect balance of charismatic European chef and scientist. Chef Aaron Clarke oversees the Union Square program and is personable and knowledgeable counterpoint to Chef Vlad’s demeanor. Needless to say, I felt in good company.

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Chef Vlad sprinkling fresh truffles on top of our first course, Jerusalem Artichoke Soup.

Chef Vlad prepared our first course, a puree of Jerusalem Artichokes with Truffles and Jerusalem Artichoke Chips, and demonstrated why every one that can afford a Vitamix should own one. Wow, no fine sieve required, with this baby. A silky smooth soup with a 60-second whirl.

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Working at our individual station, preparing our main course.

The main course was demo-ed by Chef Vlad and after watching him prepare it, we paired up and headed to our stations. The dish, Pan-Fried Fillet of Wild Salmon with Spinach and Watercress and a Wasabi Cream, was technical enough to please those with some cooking knowledge, yet not overly challenging for those with only basic skills. Besides both chefs, there were plenty of W-S assistants on hand to check our progress and answer questions. The highlight for me? Working on a commercial-grade induction stovetop. Me want one. Badly.

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My cooking partner, cookbook author and food blogger Amy Sherman, in charge of the salmon.

Really, though, how many times have you visited a high-end cookware shop, picked up a knife or pan, and not followed through with the purchase, in part, because you are unsure how effective the tool will be to you once you get home? These classes really are an opportunity to test cookware, knives, and other kitchen accouterments before purchasing. Appliance showrooms allow prospective buyers to take a $5,000 oven for a test drive, so why not try out that $100 sauté skillet before you buy? Genius. If this flies, it will snuff the showroom talk, no doubt. Yes, you might be able to purchase similar products at a slightly cheaper price elsewhere, but if it ends up sitting in a drawer, then you’re out that money either way.

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Pan-Fried Fillet of Wild Salmon with Spinach and Watercress and Wasabi Cream

If all of the dishes are this carefully selected, then W-S will have no problem filling seats. The recipe was decadent and elegant without being overly fussy or technical. Impeccable ingredients were sourced locally and on par with what you would find at a nicer SF restaurant, which is another factor that really sets this program apart.

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Poached Pears with Raspberry Sorbet and Almond-Cookie Crumble. Talked so much it began to melt. Still delicious!

Chef Vlad prepared dessert while we all went back to our seats to marvel at each other’s plates. We all ate very well that day.

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Chef Aaron, Chef Vlad, and Star (101.3) Mornings DJs Marcus D and Sandy.

Class topics range from basics like Essential Knife Skills to advanced techniques like Butchery & Cooking: Nose to Tail. Classes also vary in length, theme, and season. Check out the calendar here. You can sign up for a two-hour DIY Workshop or enroll in a 5-day intensive.

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Chef Aaron putting the finishing touches on the soup.

Williams-Sonoma was kind enough to forward the soup recipe. Enjoy!

Jerusalem artichoke soup

Jerusalem artichokes are wonderfully nutritious and versatile. This simple soup is the perfect way to enjoy them on a cold day. Serves 6.

Ingredients:

1 lb. Jerusalem Artichokes, peeled and chopped

1 Medium onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 Tbsp. Unsalted butter

1 Tbsp. Peanut oil

1 quart whole milk

salt, pepper

Method:

On a low heat, sweat the onion for 5 minutes in the butter and peanut oil. Add the artichoke, sweat for a further 3 minutes. Cover with milk then simmer gently for 20 minutes. When cooked, the artichokes should be totally soft. Puree in a blender until fine. Add a little more milk if the soup is too thick and season to taste.

Serve with a little chopped parsley and croutons. Or, add a small amount of finely chopped truffles, drizzle with truffle oil, and garnish with a few deep-fried Jerusalem artichoke chips.

Feast of the Olive: A Sonoma Valley Tradition

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Almost two weekends ago I had the pleasure of attending the Feast of the Olive, a dining event featuring the olives and olive oil of Sonoma Valley and the producers and restaurants that make and use this regional oil. Ramekins Culinary Center is beautiful on its own, but was further enhanced with olive branches and rustic-themed centerpieces that ran the length of the three tables that served the 250 attendees. The event is a draw for not only locals that are in the business of food and wine (and olive oil), but also visitors looking for a special night out. Seated amongst all of these new friends, my husband and I couldn’t help but enjoy the evening. The room was literally buzzing with excitement about this year’s abundant harvest. Each producer, including The Olive Press, Figone’s, B.R. Cohn, grows and blends their own distinct varietals amounting to a spectacular array of extra-virgin olive oils from which to choose.

With more and more regions producing excellent olive oil, there is no excuse not to enjoy the fruits of our area. Even as an ex-grocer who used to sell the inferior stuff, I get furious when I see row after row of cheap, adulterated olive oil at eye level for shoppers. Desirable price points, misleading labeling, and longstanding brands make it almost impossible to break through the barrier of bad oil. Do yourself a favor and stash away a few dollars a day, forgo your daily coffee run, pack your lunch…do whatever you have to do to spend ten or fifteen dollars on some good California or regional olive oil. Freshly pressed olive oil is full of health benefits, and your purchase directly impacts your state’s economy. Better yet, purchase it directly from the producer and cut out the big box stores that take a cut. I’ll get off my soap box and let you enjoy some eye candy from the evening’s chefs that produced the amazing dishes that we enjoyed, all with olive oil from the producers mentioned above.

LaSalette's Olive Oil Poached Salt Cod, Potato and Leek Cake and Black Olive Puree

LaSalette’s Olive Oil Poached Salt Cod, Potato and Leek Cake and Black Olive Puree

This fish course was perfect for those that like strong flavors. LaSalette is a perennial favorite for locals and visitors. I love the warm, welcoming dining room, especially on a cold winter evening with the fireplace going. Not many restaurants feature Portuguese cuisine, and they do it so well.

El Dorado Kitchen's Prime New York, Braised Short Ribs and Olive-Crusted Bone Marrow with Olive Oil Mashed Potatoes, Baby Carrots and Black Olive Bordelaise Sauce

El Dorado Kitchen’s Prime New York, Braised Short Ribs and Olive-Crusted Bone Marrow with Olive Oil Mashed Potatoes, Baby Carrots and Black Olive Bordelaise Sauce

Everyone flocks to El Dorado kitchen, whether it is to enjoy a formal meal in their dining room or a casual lunch at their adjoining wine bar. This was the highlight of the evening, especially the marrow.

The Epicurean Connection's Buratta with Fresh Pressed December '12 Tallgrass Olive Oil

The Epicurean Connection’s Buratta with Fresh Pressed December ’12 Tallgrass Olive Oil

I could eat this every day and be a happy girl. Just add some seasonal fruits and veggies like tomatoes, raspberries, asparagus, and baby squash and I’m set.

Carneros Bistro at the Lodge at Sonoma's Olive Oil Cake, Macerated Citrus, Marscapone, Candied Olive

Carneros Bistro at the Lodge at Sonoma’s Olive Oil Cake, Macerated Citrus, Marscapone, Candied Olive

This was a delicious way to end the evening. Yes, more cheese, but why not? Needless to say, we took a long hike the next day!

Sonoma Valley Olive Festival 2013

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A while ago I wrote an article about Sonoma’s second largest harvest (and industry), olive oil, and learned so much about this growing industry in the heart of Northern California Wine Country. During the quiet winter months of January and February, the Sonoma Valley is busy harvesting, milling and bottling their delicious olive oil. The Sonoma Valley Olive Festival is now in its 11th year and is again in the midst of sponsoring an assortment of events. I’m particularly interested in wineries that are designating a portion of their vineyards to olive trees, providing a symbiotic growing habitat for the grapes and olives. Everyone benefits, including pollinators and other important members of a biodynamic ecological environment. One winery in particular is rapidly becoming a leader in this practice. Benziger Winery produces not only organic wines, but amazing olive oil. This year’s olive harvest was historic and I can’t wait to pick up a bottle when I attend this weekend’s Olive Festival-sponsored event, The Feast of the Olive.

At this gala, held every year at the beautiful Ramekins Culinary School and Inn, 19 area chefs will be contributing to a series of menus for guests. Each table is assigned a group of chefs that compose a menu featuring the Valley’s olive oil and olive. Any of these chefs will be welcome at my table, and I’m particularly excited to sample dishes from Hot Box Grill and Glen Ellen Star’s chefs. Both are relatively new dining destinations to the Valley and are on everyone’s radar.

I can’t wait to report back, armed with olive oil recipes and tasting notes.

Spanish Olive Oil

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Last November I had the pleasure of joining other Bay Area media for an unforgettable dinner at Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn. Our dinner was part of a US tour put on by Foods from Spain, part of the Trade Commission of Spain. It was a great reintroduction to the variety of Spanish extra virgin olive oils that are available to home cooks. Our hosts for the evening were Mercedes Lamamie, Associate Marketing Director for the Trade Commission of Spain’s New York office, and Raquel Diaz Cepero, Marketing Manager of Madrid’s non-profit organization, Interprofesional del Aceite de Oliva Espanol, which promotes the merits of Spanish extra virgin olive oil and represents the many players of this high-stakes global commodity. The exciting venue selection was due in part by Dominique Crenn’s recent exploration of the vast olive growing regions of Spain. She and other noteworthy American chefs were invited to tour and learn about Spanish olive oil from the source back in 2011.

Spain produces more than 262 varieties of olives, 24 of which are used for olive oil. Upon arrival, we were asked to taste the four most commonly used: Picual, Hojiblanca, Arbequina, and Cornicabra. Initially, we tasted with bread but soon we were asking for spoons to get a more accurate flavor profile. It turned out to be an important exercise since soon after the magic from Dominique’s kitchen emerged with four courses of amazing Spanish olive oil-infused food.

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Each of the four oils have unique characteristics and uses in the kitchen.

  • Picual is full-bodied with a peppery bite. It is said to be the best for frying. I prefer it as an everyday eating oil, appropriate for all applications.
  • Hojiblanca is a bit more mellow than Picual and is more readily available to American cooks. Unfortunately, it can be pricy so save it for finishing applications such as salads and dipping. It’s great on steamed vegetables.
  • Arbequina is the perfect finishing oil. A good balance of buttery, mellow and vibrant green tartness. Another pricy, but worthy oil to enjoy.
  • Cornicabra is the utilitarian oil of Spain, but barely known here in the states. I have never come across it here, but did enjoy it, though I wouldn’t seek it out with the others more readily available.

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This was our amuse, a white chocolate shell filled with pressed apple cider and topped with a creme de cassis concentrate. No olive oil here, just sheer joy as the entire morsel is popped in the mouth and explodes with the slightest pressure. Kind of like if a water balloon exploded in your mouth. Nothing I’ve ever experienced.

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Our first course, above, was Hamachi, celery-apple, caviar, crustacean and beet broth. Dominique used the Cornicabra oil here in the broth and in the celery-apple sorbet. The fennel pollen on top of the hamachi gave a floral note and added lightness to the three types of caviar used. The Cornicabra was also used as a marinade for the fish as well as a frying medium for the lardo that was hidden beneath the fish.

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Our second course was Tomato, Olive Rock and Chevre and used Arbequina in the tomato broth. The photo doesn’t do the dish justice as the tomatoes were present in a sorbet, in dehydrated form, and in the broth. The chevre were formed as “pearls” and the olive rock was like nougat. Cucumbers and mint lent freshness.

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The third course, Pigeon, sunchoke, shellfish, and huckleberry used Picual oil. Dominique used Sonoma Valley squab and poached it in the Picual and then gave the breast a quick sear before slicing and serving. The rich liver quinelle was balanced by the acidity of the huckleberry sauce, and the sunchoke puree lent an earthy note.

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This is Fallen Olive. Dominique often uses these custom-built shadow boxes for her dessert. Needless to say, applause ensued when these were presented. An edible composition for the books.

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This is the edible portion of the composition. Dominique used Hojiblanca in the lemon sorbet and black olive and hazelnut nougat that resembles “dirt”. The Meyer lemon granita is sprinkled around and the black “rocks” is actually fennel chiffon cake.

Thank you Spain. Thank you Dominique for an amazing meal and evening. No go out and enjoy some Spanish olive oil!

The Last Crop

My article in today’s Home and Garden section is small in word count, but big in its importance. For more than half of my life I have driven the freeway between Sacramento and the Bay Area, and have watched the landscape slowly shift from fertile farmland to track home hell. Documentary filmmaker Chuck Schultz produced The Last Crop to shed light on the growing problem of shrinking farmland in the United States. His film features small-scale organic farmers Annie and Jeff Main who farm on 20 acres in the Capay Valley, which is not far from encroaching strip malls and subdivisions of the I-80 corridor. Their story is not unique, yet so important to the future of farming. At the moment none of their children want to tackle the challenges of farming, and the Mains are acutely aware of their dilemma. Currently, farming is not an economically viable profession. It’s also a lot of work. The film not only educates viewers on the need for farms, but introduces new ideas and models that the Mains developed to keep small-scale farms in business and out of the hands of developers. Several screenings are scheduled throughout Northern California. Check out their facebook page to get the latest information on when and where to view the film.

Bacon Brownies in the Mission

In preparation for my son’s transition to Northwestern University, he’s joined a few Facebook groups for incoming Northwestern freshman. One Bay Area group organized a picnic in Dolores Park and George, wanting to make a good impression, asked me to make something special and representative of his growing food knowledge and expanding food palate. He came up with bacon brownies. I thought we should throw in some chocolate-covered caramels and finish the batch with freshly ground sea salt. I mean, if we are going for different, we might as well really test his new classmates on their adaptability and food-comfort level.

With a double batch of brownies securely wrapped and ready for the trip, he headed out yesterday in anticipation of making some new friends before his move next month. Eight other young adults showed up, mostly with sweets, and awkwardly greeted each other until the comfort of knowing that everyone was in the same boat set in.

Half of the plate of brownies remained when the picnic wrapped up and as he gathered his things and made his way through the park and back to BART, he was stopped by someone inquiring about his brownies. “Hey man, are those edibles?” “No, sorry.” George smirked as he continued his course through the park, laughing at the thought of his mother’s brownies being mistaken for the pot-laced snack. Once on 18th Street, he decided to stop and make a call in front of Bi-Rite. While the plate of brownies rested on a ledge outside, a man passing by in a business suit slowed down and took a good long stare at them. George noticed his lingering look and asked him if he wanted one. “My mom made these for a picnic and there’s plenty left over. They’ve got bacon and caramel and sea salt in them.” The man happily took one, said they were delicious and to thank me, and went on his way. Once George got to the BART entrance, he really didn’t feel like carrying the plate of brownies all the way to North Beach. As he passed a homeless man standing outside, he asked him if he would like them. “What’s in them?” he asked before deciding if he wanted them or not. After a few seconds of contemplation, he accepted them. And with that George passed them on and experienced an only-in-San Francisco afternoon.