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!

Rosemary Shortbread

It’s that time of year again when I impulsively start buying extra flour, sugar, and butter, so don’t ask my why I ended up making a batch of pumpkin-flavored rice crispy treats. Finding a recipe off the web can be risky, and as I learned a few days ago, adding moisture like pumpkin puree to a perfectly good indulgence like rice crispy treats just doesn’t work (do you hear that ApartmentTherapy!). And since I was going to mail them to my son away at college, I’ve been eating them instead. Soggy, yes, but not that much different than when the plain cereal is doused with milk for breakfast.

So now I am going to use those baking ingredients that are taking up valuable counter space with a batch of Rosemary Shortbread. (His idea, not mine.) I got the recipe off of Epicurious.com and feel much better about using recipes where the comments are from people who actually make the recipe, confirming its accuracy, and not just responders saying they “look good”. Lesson learned. These are spot on perfect. Enjoy!

Rosemary Shortbread Cookies

1 1/2 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1 1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened at room temperature

2 Tbsp. honey

1/2 cup confectioners sugar

1. Mix together first four ingredients; set aside.

2. Place butter in a standing mixer bowl or large bowl and whip until light and fluffy. Add honey and sugar and continue to whip until well incorporated. Add flour mixture and blend just until dough forms.

3. Remove half of dough from bowl and place on a 12″ sheet of wax paper; flatten and lengthen to form a rectangular log 1″ thick. Fold wax paper over until dough is wrapped. Repeat with other half batch of dough and refrigerate until firm, up to overnight.

4. Remove dough from refrigerator, unwrap, and slice in equal pieces and bake on an ungreased cookie sheet in a 350° oven for 15 minutes or until lightly browned on the bottom. Store in an airtight container for up to a week. Makes 32 cookies.

Artisan Fragrance Salon

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Last Sunday I had the pleasure of visiting the 1st Annual Artisan Fragrance Salon, sponsored by TasteTV. It took place in a SoMa gallery and the heady fragrance nearly knocked us out the moment we arrived. But nothing like the unavoidable department store haze that attacks you from all sides. Many of these niche or indie fragrance companies don’t rely on alcohol as a fragrance carrier. Therefore, no sprays to penetrate the air. These are high-quality close-to-the-skin fragrances that are oil-based. Most don’t test on animals or rely on animal musks. I went to sample Sonoma Scent Studio’s fragrances for an upcoming SF Chronicle story I’m working on. I was delighted with their vintage fragrances and clean-looking packaging and am really excited about the story. I was also intrigued by several other lines, including Portland’s 40 Notes Perfume and LA’s Sarah Horowitz Parfums. These are luxury niche fragrances that are on par with some of the most iconic fragrance houses around. You can find them on their individual sites, or can shop on Indie Scents. The outing was a revelation for me since I never knew such a niche existed. Really though, why not? Boutique wine, artisanal food, and locally made manufacturers are commonplace now, and that’s so great. I encourage anyone that is interested in supporting small businesses and fragrance to seek out these smart business women. Not all are run by women, but the women I met at the show were definitely smart.

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.

Cranberry-Olive Oil Muffins

It’s easy to assume that once the calendar says “January 1” we purge our shelves and cupboards of unhealthy foods that find their way into our homes and kitchens during the holidays. But not all of us are so eager to turn over a new leaf and initiate a new year goal that is as likely to stick as re-purposed postage stamps. The first couple weeks of January should be set aside for holiday-frosted Christmas cookies bought on clearance, leftover holiday candy that was forgotten when stockings were stuffed, and newly gifted cook books that now tempt us with the promise of perfect pies and sweets.

There were several cook books that tempted me this year, and I happily supplied a few titles as gifts. Thank goodness for the library because the titles that didn’t end up on my shelves are available at my local library. It was probably not a mistake that I chose to “borrow” Heidi Swanson’s new book, Super Natural Every Day, because most of it is filled with healthy recipes. The book is beautiful and full of inspiring ideas, but I will never find Tempeh in my refrigerator. Never. But several of her recipes have inspired me to create spin offs, or my versions with flours I have on hand, oils I prefer to use, or substitutions I know my family appreciates. (See Tempeh.)

This recipe for Cranberry-Olive Oil Muffins is inspired from the above cookbook. I tweaked it a bit and am very happy with the results. (And it doesn’t contain Tempeh.) Enjoy!

Cranberry-Olive Oil Muffins

1/2 cup rolled oats

1 cup unsweetened bran cereal

1/4 cup flax seed

1 1/4 cups white whole wheat flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

2 eggs

1 6 oz. container of non-fat Greek-style plain yogurt

1/2 cup non-fat milk

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

zest and juice of one small orange

3/4 cup dried cranberries

1. In a food processor, whirl oats, bran cereal, and flax seed until finely ground. Remove from processor and place in a mixing bowl; add flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon and mix to combine.

2. In another mixing bowl, add eggs and whip; add yogurt, milk, honey, oil, extract, and zest and juice of orange and mix well. Add dry ingredients and cranberries and mix until batter forms. Place batter into a greased 12-count muffin tin, distributing evenly. Bake in a preheated 350° oven for 20 minutes, or when lightly browned on top and cooked through.