Good Things Gone Bad
Recipes call for ingredients. Menus will list items that are used in a dish. Stores have products on their shelves.
Sometimes small, almost imperceptible changes in the names of these things can have a dramatic effect on their overall quality and taste. Other times even seemingly identical ingredients are worlds apart.
This may seem farfetched to some and obvious to others. So today, I’ll give you a couple of examples. And in the weeks and months to come, we can do a bit more of a deep dive into a few of the subject areas if there is further interest.
The two items at the top of my list right now are extra virgin (xv) olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
I do a lot of cooking, and go through a fair amount of oil. There are several types of oil I keep on hand. Lion & Globe peanut oil for Asian dishes, organic expeller-pressed canola oil for when I need something relatively neutral and high heat, and up to three different kinds of extra virgin olive oil. All the olive oils we buy are first cold pressed, but I don’t insist upon paying super high premiums for Italian olives.
While shiny happy faces on the television tell you to cook with the stuff, they don’t go much further.
Really to understand olive oils, you need to be willing to drink them straight. Dipping bread in olive oil is a delicious way to enjoy your bread, but the flavor of the bread is going to change the taste of the oil. If this sounds unappealing to you, don’t worry, because I’ve already done it.
There is a tremendous difference in the actual amount of flavor contained within extra virgin olive oils, and it correlates pretty closely with the price per ounce.
We often keep a large cheap tin of the stuff around the house. And really it has very little flavor at all. This olive oil is primarily used for cooking full flavored dishes that don’t require additional flavoring from the oil itself.
Trader Joe’s is a great source for reasonably priced and flavorful xv olive oil. I’m partial to their Spanish one. And this will be my go to oil for dishes where the flavor of the oil is more prominent. That includes things like dressing a salad, creating a puree or emulsion like hummus or pesto, or even cooked dishes like aglio e olio.
The best olive oils are crazy expensive. But the most expensive ones I buy tend to max out in the $30 a bottle range. Now, there may be some people who use these to dress their salads or make their pesto. Maybe one day I’ll find myself living that lush life. But for now, those exquisitely flavored oils are reserved for enjoying very simply. Mostly, they are drizzled on bread, and sprinkled with a little bit of salt. But they could also be used to finish dishes ranging from grilled vegetables to poached fish.
For those who haven’t sampled a lot of these relatively pricey oils, their flavor and color vary tremendously. The color can range from a deep dark green to a rich lustrous gold, and the flavors can be vegetal, fruity, peppery or buttery.
The takeaway here is that just because you see extra virgin olive oil on a menu doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. But if you see a menu that claims only “olive oil” it should raise a red flag. When a recipe calls for extra virgin olive oil, think about its role in the dish, and consider if it makes sense to spring for some of the better stuff. And when you are at the market and wondering if there is really a difference between the $15 three-liter tin of xv olive oil or the 500 ml bottle at the same price, there absolutely is.
Well, that’s very fine and good, but it’s made by different producers, and carries many different labels, so perhaps you aren’t surprised about all the variation.
This is why we also need to talk about Parmigiano-Reggiano.
If you read the description of the cheese by the consortium, you will think there is only one Parmigiano-Reggiano. But the truth is that there are a lot of different producers in the region all making the same recipe. They are all close enough to bear the Parmigiano-Reggiano stamp.
When Jeffrey Steingarten wrote his piece in Vogue in March of 1997, Parm-Reg was produced
By nearly 700 dairies (using milk from 12,000 farms) in the contiguous Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, and Modena (plus slivers of Mantua and Bologna), and its texture and taste and aroma vary from dairy to dairy and from month to month.
When Parm-Reg is good, it’s amazing. But when it’s not, you just paid a lot of money for something not terribly special. And it’s been harder to get really good versions of this king of cheeses in Albany than one might expect. I picked up the best one I’ve had in a while from The Meat House, newly opened in Guilderland. It was fruity, and full flavored, with nicely developed interior crystals and a lingering finish.
I’m telling you this because you need to know. If a restaurant just lists “Parmigiano” on its menu, that’s a red flag. If you buy a piece of Parm-Reg at a store and you don’t think it’s anything special, I’d advise voting with you wallet and buying it from another store next time. And when a recipe calls for this cheese by name, nothing else will fill the bill.
Now these are only two examples. The list of products that are commoditized on menus, cookbooks and store shelves is long. Be aware, and I’ll be back with more later.