Sunday, March 7, 2010

Olive oil 4 ways

A few weeks ago, our good friend Gabi invited Rebecca and I to participate in a cooking contest sponsored by the Olive Press. We were given four nice bottles of olive oil, featuring four different varieties of oil, and asked to create a four course meal using one oil in each of the courses.

I love olive oil, and I use it in almost every time I cook as it is, but wanted to find a way to feature the oil in each dish. I wanted dishes that were known for containing olive oil, or that featured the use of olive oil an uncommon way. As I started to brainstorm, my thoughts turned first to simple ideas: serving of crusty bread with olive oil as a dip; fresh pasta with a light olive oil dressing; meats and vegetables sauteed in olive oil. I then thought about the different types of olive oils I'd been given: ranging from delicate to robust, including one blood orange infused variety. I wanted to find dishes that drew on the simple ideas I started with, but with an added layer of complexity to draw out the quality of each oil.

For the first course, in order to feature bread with the oil, I decided to make a Bruschetta, made with a Romesco sauce of roasted red pepper, slivered almonds, garlic, basil, tomatoes, and a healthy dose of the robust Italian Blend olive oil. For the second dish, I wanted to make a pesto using the light Arbequina olive oil, with arugula and walnuts to match the olive oil with a bit more acidic bite and smokey overtone. Finally, for the protein dish, I decided to feature olive oil being used for a less common cooking technique: poaching. I found some nice salmon fillets, and planned to poach them in the Blood Orange olive oil, to give a light citrus flavor to the dish.
When I was out shopping for ingredients at the farmers market, I happened upon a vendor with some fiddlehead ferns, which I'd had a restaurants before but had never cooked with myself. I knew they were kind of like green beans with a bit more texture and grassy flavor, and I thought they would go well with the fish, sauteed in olive oil with a bit of blood orange zest.

So I had my three savory dishes, but still wasn't sure of what to do for dessert. After poking around online, I learned that baking with olive oil can actually be quite common. I'd been craving a lemon-flavored dessert for some time, and found some great ideas for a Meyer Lemon Olive Oil cake. I chose cake recipe with a particularly fluffy approach, using whipped egg whites folded into the batter.

So to review, the menu:

Romesco Bruschetta
Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Arugula-Walnut Pesto
Blood Orange Olive Oil Poached Salmon with Fiddlehead Ferns
Meyer Lemon Olive Oil Cake.

Since the cake would take the longest to bake and cool, I started with that. I'd bought some fresh Meyer lemons, which are a sweeter variety of lemon. The juice from these, along with some zest, would give the cake a lemony flavor without being too tart.

Folding several whipped egg whites into the batter made it airy and light:

Once the cake was in a pan and baking, I turned my attention to the Romesco so I could serve the Bruschetta as an appetizer. Romesco usually features almonds, much in the same way pesto uses pine nuts. So I began by toasting some almond slivers on parchment paper.

Once the almonds were toasted, I pulsed them a few times in the food processor and added roasted red peppers, fresh basil, some tomato paste, and a splash of Meyer lemon juice. As a pulsed the mixture, I slowly poured in the olive oil, creating a thick, red-orange paste. While I let the flavors of the Romesco combine, I toasted some sliced, whole-grain baguette, and then spread on the Romesco, topped with some fresh basil. The warm, crispy bread paired well with the sweet and smooth Romesco.

It was now time to get started on the gnocchi. I'd never actually made gnocchi from scratch before, so this was going to be an adventure. Since I'd gone with an arugula pesto, I wanted to balance some of the sharpness of the arugula with a sweeter gnocchi - so I'd decided to use sweet potatoes. I baked the potatoes for 45 min or so (fortunately, they could go in at the same temperature as the cake!), and let them cool. I spooned out the orange potato, folded in an egg, and began to add flour. I expected the potatoes to get doughy after about a cup of flour, but they ended up soaking in almost 2.5 cups before getting dry enough to form the dough. (Nota bene: mix in some Yukon or Russet potatoes with your sweet potatoes to make your dough more potatoey and less floury. Wish I'd known that.)

Once the raw gnocchi were formed, I got out the food processor again to mix together the pesto. I added a good pile of argula, a couple handfuls of pan-toasted walnuts, some garlic, and then began to pour in the Arbequina olive oil while pulsing the mix. Pesto is so simple to make, and with these alternative ingredients, it makes for an uncommon flavor profile as well.

Combined together, the acidity and smokiness of the pesto did go well with the slightly sweet flavor of the gnocchi. The gnocchi turned out to be a bit more doughy than I would have liked, though, but next time I'll remember to add some white potatoes as well.

It was finally time for the fish. I took out the salmon fillets and seasoned them with salt and pepper. I then prepared a sauce pan with the blood orange olive oil, big enough to hold the fillets submerged in oil. I'd bought some fresh fennel to go with the fiddleheads, so I added some the fennel fronds to the olive oil, along with some blood orange peel.

The oil doesn't need to be very hot for poaching, but should stay steady - at about 180 degrees Farenheit. So while the oil was poaching, I got ready to saute the fiddleheads. I started to blanching them to get out some of the bitterness, and then added blood orange olive oil to my saute pan, along with some shaved fennel. After the ferns had heated a bit, I also added some blood orange juice for extra tang. Finally, alongside, I sauteed some slices of blood orange to serve as a garnish.

I added the fish to the oil, and poached for about 7 minutes. Poaching in oil keeps the fish incredibly moist and the blood orange added a great lightness to the flavor. The fiddleheads tasted really fresh and foresty (if "barnyard" is an acceptable flavor adjective, I'll insist that "foresty" is too).

Finally, it was cake time. The cake had been cooling, but hadn't lost any of its lightness. I'm definitely using egg whites in cakes more often now. The lemon was zesty, and olive oil added just a hint of richness without being overpowering.

The meal turned out to be a ton of fun. What a fantastic excuse to cook!

1 comment:

  1. This sounds unbelievable! I can't wait to be back home this summer so I can eat some of your wonderful meals. You have to teach me some things too.