September 13, 2012

Do you like this?

Rachael Ray is just wrong. I don’t mean her signature leotard shirt tucked into a pair of mom jeans or her insistence on carrying the entire contents of the refrigerator across the kitchen like a circus clown. I mean her continuous campaign of misinformation about one of the most fundamental and foundational ingredients in all of cookingdom—olive oil.  

 Ray built an empire out of using extra virgin olive oil in all of her “recipes,” whether they need it or not. She has championed extra virgin olive oil as the pixie dust of the culinary world that can magically make any dish healthier, taste better and may even give you longer-lasting and more powerful erections.

Every time Ray, or anyone else for that matter, sautés or pan fries with a high quality extra virgin olive oil, a petal falls from a rose in Alton Brown’s bedroom. Extra virgin olive oil’s 320-degree “smoke point” (the temperature at which it begins to burn and decompose) is too low to be used in many cooking applications. When oil reaches its smoke point it begins to give off gaseous fumes, the flavor deteriorates and its nutrients are diminished. Sure, you can use an oil over its smoke point, but you’re destroying the healthy qualities and flavor of the oil that you probably bought it for in the first place.

Because good-quality extra virgin olive oil has such distinct fragrant and fruity flavors with just a hint of pepperiness, it should be saved for salads and dressings, drizzled over slices of crusty bread, or brushed onto fish or meat before serving. The best extra virgin olive oils really shine when their natural balance of flavors aren’t being abused like a spoonful of Crisco.

Like cheese and wine, extra virgin olive oil benefits from terroir, the concept that the flavor of a food comes from the environment it’s produced in. Temperature, humidity, soil, air, water and even the nearby flora and fauna all contribute to the flavors an olive tree will produce.  

Until recently, shopping for olive oil in Chattanooga has been part guessing game, part popularity contest. It usually involved intently staring at the designer bottles with Italian or Greek names, trying to avoid Rachael Ray’s thousand-yard stare from the label of her “Everyday” extra virgin olive oil (I swear her eyes follow me), then picking the coolest looking, moderately priced one and hoping it doesn’t suck.  

But the olive oil gods cast their glistening favor upon our fair city and inspired Chattanooga native Randall Steppenbeck to open Olive Chattanooga, a fine oil and balsamic tasting room. I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in—Chattanooga now has an olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting room.  Upstairs, at the corner of Woodland and Frazier Avenue, you’ll find a very unique opportunity to explore 40 varieties of high quality oils and balsamics, including fused and infused oils from California, Argentina, Chile and Spain.  

Olive is not setup like a retail store; it is a tasting room so you just walk in, grab a little plastic cup and pour yourself a small taste of something that catches your eye. I started with an unflavored extra virgin olive oil then progressed through samples of Persian Lime, Blood Orange and White Truffle. The flavors were pronounced, but not too aggressive and you could taste the quality of the ingredients, especially when compared to any mass-produced, grocery store oil. I spent almost an hour tasting and working out combinations between the balsamics and oils but I finally came up for air, made my purchases and got out of there before I started rubbing myself down with a triple varietal like a hirsute Kardashian.

With a business like Olive Chattanooga right here in town, there is no excuse for not having a high-quality extra virgin olive oil in your pantry.  And you won’t have Rachael Ray’s eyes glaring at you from a bottle of her nasty, blended olive oil. The culinary gods have spared us once again.

Mike McJunkin cooks better than you and secretly has a crush on Rachel Ray. Visit his Facebook page (Sushi and Biscuits) for updates and recipes.


September 13, 2012

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