Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Simple Mediterranean Salad & A Tale from Tuscany

I have to admit something. It wasn't long ago that I couldn't tell you the difference between a Pinot Grigio and a Pinot Noir, even if my favorite heels depended on it.

Now, I'm no expert by any means, but spending a semester in the wine capital of the world helped my odds a little... or at least taught me a thing or two.

I won't get into what I've learned about wine so far because, frankly, it's not a whole lot. This post is about something slightly less trendy-- olive oil.

What many people don't know is that olive oils can vary just as widely as wines can. The Filippo Berio that you buy in a typical grocery store has a completely different color, flavor and use than a Californian olive oil straight off a vineyard. 

But it's the olive oil that I tasted in Chianti [insert eye roll here] that hails from a different world altogether. 

While I was abroad, I had opportunities that had previously only lived in my dreams or in the movies. When I traveled to Florence, I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to go to a tiny village in Tuscany where... brace yourselves... an Italian duo, who spoke zero english, cooked us an authentic Italian meal paired with wine made right there at the private villa. It's okay, I'd hate me, too.

The first course was a simple bruschetta (toasted bread) drizzled with the most beguiling olive oil that I'd ever tasted. It was slightly spicy, lustrously bright in flavor, yet it was light enough to dispel any anxieties over fat content. I wanted to lick the plate, and if no one were watching, I probably would have.

An olive in its purest form is the culprit in donning out a healthy dose of attitude. I innocently volunteered to taste the small, green bud after it was freshly picked from a nearby tree, and I soon realized my ill fate. 

I had expected to be met with the tender and salty snack that I love so dearly. What I actually got was nothing short of offensive-- a hard, bitter, horrifically spicy nugget of ew!

I made the mistake of thinking that the black ones tasted different, and you can probably guess how that turned out-- I digressed from any lady-like manners I had to spit it out asap...twice. How could such a tiny berry so aggressively my palate? My mouth burned until lunch.

Oh, but lunch? For once, words escape me. 

Except that I had seconds, and thirds, and I think fourths. Hands down, it was the best pasta I'd ever had in my life, with a basil pesto sent from the Italian gods. The experience was unforgettable. 

I'm not about to claim that this recipe for Simple Mediterranean Salad will be the best lunch of your life, but it brought my right back to my time in Tuscany. I bought two bottles of the olive oil and gave two bottles of the Chianti wine as Christmas gifts to my family. I kept one bottle of the olive oil for myself and cherish it as if it were liquid gold.

The best thing I recommend to you, if you've never ventured past the stuff on your grocer's shelves, is to find a specialty food store and ask about the oils they carry. Prices range with quality, but a good olive oil just may change the way you cook.

Simple Mediterranean Salad

[1] tbsp finishing olive oil (a flavorful oil that doesn't need to be cooked)
[1] tbsp fresh lemon juice
[1] tsp lemon zest
[1/2] tsp dried mint; more if you use fresh
[1] small zucchini, cut into 1/4 inch half-moon shapes
[1/2] tbsp pine nuts, toasted
[1/4] cup mixed olives, chopped; use whatever varieties you like best
a couple leaves of fresh basil; chopped
fresh cracked pepper

First, mix the olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, mint, and pepper in a bowl with a metal fork or whisk. Then add the chopped olives, zucchini, basil, and pine nuts. Combine all ingredients and top with a little more fresh basil.

Then close your eyes and imagine yourself on a villa in Tuscany.

View from the villa in Chianti
View from the top of Montefioralle (named the most beautiful village in Italy)

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