The Commons
Food and Drink

The well-stocked pantry: Olive oil, vinegar, canola

Originally published in The Commons issue #172 (Wednesday, October 3, 2012).


BRATTLEBORO—Very few houses nowadays have a proper pantry. You know the kind: a little separate room with shelving and drawers where you store staples and some dishware.

The word pantry is derived from the French word for bread, pain, and was originally called a paneterie, the place where bread was stored.

In today’s world, a pantry is a catchall word that simply means the place in our kitchen where we store staples. And the word staples comes from the old French estaple, meaning market.

But what are kitchen staples? They vary from kitchen to kitchen and from cook to cook. These basic items are, for the most part, those non-local commodities like coffee beans that are imported and indispensable to my culinary happiness.

I cannot look into your cupboards and see what you consider those absolutely necessary basics, but I can share with you the contents of my “pantry.”

* * *

First and foremost is a bottle of very good extra-virgin olive oil. All olive oil is not equal; a really good 500-ml bottle will cost you upwards of $18 at a minimum, but it is impossible to produce a good-quality extra-virgin olive oil cheaply.

The olive oil industry is one of the most corrupt in the world. Olive oil might be the most adulterated product produced by the European Union. In America, olive oil production is relatively unregulated, and the FDA does not test the oil itself.

It is estimated that close to 50 percent of olive oil on American grocery store shelves purported to be extra-virgin is, in fact, a mixture of cheaper, lower-quality oil with smaller quantities of extra-virgin olive oil and a bit of artificial color thrown in for effect.

There are a few ways to help you get the real deal.

• Look for a dark glass bottle or tin that is marked with an actual harvest date and a specific producer and place of production.

• If the bottle lists the olive variety, even better.

• Bottles marked with a European DOP (Denomination of Protected Origin) seal or that of a certified national or state association, such as the California Olive Oil Council. Olive oil that is certified organic is usually high quality.

Then there is the question of how to use this fabulous liquid gold.

The desirable qualities of extra-virgin olive oil are pretty much wrecked by high heat, so reserve your best for low-heat cooking and to drizzle on precious garden vegetables, pasta, fish, or chicken just before serving or as an essential ingredient for vinaigrette.

Light, heat, and oxygen are enemies to extra-virgin olive oil, but if it is stored airtight, out of the light, and in a cool, dry place, it will last for up to three months.

For higher-heat cooking, a less expensive olive oil works well, one whose flavor is not so pronounced that heat will destroy it.

* * *

Organic refined canola oil is essential to have on hand and can be stored in the refrigerator. Flavorless and with a high smoke point — the temperature at which the oil starts to smoke — it can be used for all kinds of cooking, especially with techniques that require high heat or with frying.

All oil is perishable and can become rancid, which is when the fat in the oil goes bad. The best description of what rancid oil smells like is a box of nasty, acrid old crayons.

Take good care of your oil, and if it smells weird, throw it out!

* * *

Vinegar is equally vital in the kitchen. Beyond its role in salad dressing, a splash of vinegar can perk up anything from a plate of green beans to a bowl of peaches.

The word vinegar comes from the French word vinaigre, meaning sour wine. It is made by the fermentation of a fruit or grain into an alcohol, which is then turned into acetic acid by means of added bacteria.

Again, the range of quality is huge; the type of fruit or grain and the method and time used in the process determines the quality of the end result. Great vinegar is aged for months in wooden barrels. Commercially produced vinegar can be made in as little as three hours.

It is more difficult to tell the quality of vinegar by reading what’s on the bottle. Again, a label that names the grape or fruit variety usually indicates a superior product. Vinegar should taste not just piquant; it should also have notes of fruit or wine, real flavors underneath the acidity.

When we consider balsamic vinegar, things get even more confusing.

Balsamic vinegar is made from grape must, which is left over from the production of wine. There is an Italian trade-regulated process for producing the traditional Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, a divine substance that has been aged a minimum of 12 years. There is nothing like it, and it is ridiculously expensive.

There are also wonderful balsamics that are made exactly like Tradizionale but aged for less time, and these are usually the vinegars to look for. The best are made in Modena or Reggio-Emilia, include no ingredients other than the vinegar, and cost in the $10-per-bottle range. There is also balsamic condimento, a mixture of tradizionale with other vinegar.

At the bottom of the barrel is commercial balsamic vinegar, which comprises most of what you find in the store.

There is no regulation in America regarding balsamic vinegar. A great deal of it is bad vinegar that has been sweetened, colored, and flavored with brown sugar and caramel. Avoid it. Any kind of vinegar benefits from the same dry, cool, and dark storage suggested for oil.

* * *

The next essential staple for me is salt and pepper. Kosher salt is great for cooking. It has a slightly coarse texture and contains no preservatives. Its flavor is less strident than what we refer to as “table salt,” which has an edge that is a bit sharp for my taste.

Sea salt is nothing more than evaporated seawater, minimally processed. It is filled with all sorts of minerals and comes in many shapes, sizes, textures, and colors.

Then there is finishing salt, which provides texture and distinct flavor to a finished dish. I love these types of salt, and there are many from which to choose.

One example, Maldon English Sea Salt, is hand harvested, has a bright clean flavor, and comes in the form of very white, pyramid-shaped crispy flakes that transform a simple slice of tomato into something remarkable.

Finishing salts should be used sparingly, as just a pinch carries a big punch. Keep salt away from moisture and heat, and it will keep indefinitely.

* * *

A large pepper mill is always at hand next to the stove and on the table. Pepper is the world’s most popular spice, and freshly grinding the corns in a mill produces so much more flavor than pre-ground.

Black peppercorns (the Tellicherry variety) have the most pronounced taste. Peppercorns lose flavor when exposed to the air, so storing them in that cool, dry place next to the olive oil and the vinegar is a great way to preserve their spicy bite.

Parmesan cheese is now produced all over the world, from Argentina to Wisconsin. Genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese was first made in Italy during the Middle Ages. Today, in order to carry the imprint of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the cheese can be produced only in certain regions of northern Italy and must be made in a specific manner.

Genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese has those words etched on the sides of the rind in small stenciled dots, as well as a blue stamp and numbers, letters, and seals that specify the farm or cooperative that made the cheese and when.

A whole wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano is a thing of beauty. And the cheese is unparalleled in flavor and consistency. It is a complex, fruity cheese with a lingering sweet and grassy flavor and a crystalline crunchy texture that causes it to break off in craggy, rustic golden shards.

It is an expensive cheese, but as with fine olive oil, vinegar, and salt, its breadth of character means only a little is needed to fully flavor a dish.

Most Parmigiano-Reggiano can be purchased in small 8-to-12-ounce wedges that are wrapped in heavy plastic. When you get the cheese home, remove the plastic, wrap the cheese in a few layers of parchment or wax paper, and store the cheese in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator.

Light, air, and heat will destroy cheese as much as they will turn olive oil rancid, so to get your money’s worth from your golden wedge, care for it with love and respect.

* * *

My kitchen must have lemons, which provide an acidity and brightness to food that, while related to vinegar’s contribution, is also unique.

Three lemons in a bowl on the counter just make me feel good, and the delightful flavor boost of their peel and juice improves almost anything.

Lemons left on your counter out of the sun will last about a week. If you want them to last longer, seal them in a zipper-lock bag in the refrigerator.

* * *

There are many other staples I can think of: mustard, dried herbs, nuts, canned tomatoes and broth, dried pasta, and salted anchovies, but these six old friends are those I really cannot do without. Here is how to use them to create a delicious and simple meal. Just add some pasta, local tomatoes, salad greens, and a few of this season’s beautiful peaches.

Simple linguine

Simple linguine with nothing more than great extra-virgin olive oil, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and a bit of lemon is one of the best suppers in the world. It is filled with flavor, simple and incredibly satisfying, and very, very easy to prepare.

For 2 servings, cook according to package directions:

¶ 4 ounces of dried linguine

In the meantime, whisk together:

¶ the juice of 1 lemon and its zest

¶ 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

¶ 4 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

When the pasta is cooked, drain it and return it to the pot. Add the lemon-cheese mixture and stir until melted and creamy.

If you wish, add:

¶ fresh basil

¶ salt and pepper to taste

Salad with classic vinaigrette

For 2 servings, choose, wash, and dry thoroughly:

¶ 2 cups local, small greens

In a small jar with a lid, combine:

¶ ½ teaspoon finely minced shallot

¶ ½ tablespoon Dijon mustard

¶ 1 pinch salt

¶ A good grind of fresh pepper

¶ ½ tablespoon fresh lemon juice

¶ ½ tablespoon good-quality vinegar

¶ 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Shake thoroughly and use to dress the greens.

Slice:

¶ 1 beautiful local tomato

Dress it with:

¶ Extra-virgin olive oil

¶ a sprinkling of Maldon salt

Serve alongside the greens.

Peaches and balsamic

For dessert for two, slice into a small bowl:

¶ 2 perfect local peaches

Add:

¶ 2 tablespoons high-quality balsamic

¶ ½ teaspoon sugar

¶ a good grind of fresh pepper

Toss gently and serve in small dishes.

* * *

It is ingredients that count, not where you store them. Who needs a pantry?


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