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.

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