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Olive oil is a kitchen staple in my house.  So, when planning a day trip to Napa Valley while in the San Francisco area recently, I made it a point to visit Talcott Carneros Estate–Napa’s first large olive grove in the Carneros region.  I wanted to learn more about how this oil I so loved (and used daily) was made.  James Talcott, who with his wife Patricia, started their grove in 2004 with three thousand trees that include Tuscan varietals.  He took the morning to show me around his property, which was in full bloom with olive blossoms when I visited.

olive estate
Looking down one of the rows of olive trees on the Talcott Estate.

 

My visit was quite educational as James explained that it takes one ton of olives to produce 35 gallons of olive oil–it’s no wonder we call it liquid gold!  The olives are ready to be harvested in the fall and are hand picked on the Talcott Estate.  This is a tedious process, but better than some of the traditional ways such as beating the trees with sticks to make the olives drop to the ground.  Such rough treatment can cause damage to the trees and bruising to the fruit.  Once the olives are picked they are sent to the mill for pressing.

buds
Flower buds that will become olives.

 

Types of Olive Oil
The most important lesson James taught me was how not to get “schnookered” when buying olive oil.  Many times the olive oils you can find at your local supermarket have a generic label listing virgin or extra virgin olive oil, but lacks any further description on where or what kind of variety the oil is.  This is important because many times the manufacturers are processing the oil with other oils so that it’s not a pure product.  In addition, depending on where the variety comes from, depends on the level of health-promoting polyphenols (those phytochemicals that play a big part in protecting blood vessels and heart health).  Olive oil that is labeled as “extra virgin” is made from the first pressing of the olives, which removes about 90 percent of the olives’ juice. Chemicals and high heat are not permitted.  “Virgin” oil is closely ranked and the difference is the acidity, which is slightly higher.  The color of olive oil may be pale yellow to bright green and the rule of thumb is deeper the color, the more flavor.

mr talcott
I’m standing with James in front of one of the olive trees at the Talcott Estate

 

Storing and Cooking
I had heard that it was not recommended to cook using olive oil because it could not withstand higher temperatures.  I love the flavor it adds to my dishes, so I figured I was probably making a culinary “faux pas,” but I really didn’t care.  I asked James about this as he entertains frequently and as luck would have it our guide for the day was a sommelier who had extensive restaurant experience as well.  Both told me that this was not true–cooking with olive oil was perfectly fine.  Where it gets tricky is if you are going to do something with very high temps (like deep frying), then you’ll want to switch to a different oil.  In order to preserve the flavor of olive oil, keep it in a cool place and make sure it’s in a sealed container.  Light can also degrade oil, so keep it in your pantry or cupboard.

 

I like to cook with olive oil for almost all my dishes (except baking), but if you need ideas try it drizzled over a salad, in a marinade or substituted for butter with your bread at dinner.  James and Patricia have some healthy and simple recipes like Roasted Ratatouille.  Or try The Olive Bar where you can freshen up deli olives for your next party.

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I hope you’ve found this week’s blog informative and it encourages you to incorporate olive oil into your diet.   I’ll be back next week with some new ways to enjoy the sweet flavor of strawberries.

 

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The Mediterranean diet is very popular and it’s no wonder considering it was ranked as one of the top diets (#3 to be exact) for 2015 by U.S. & World Report earlier this year.  A Mediterranean diet incorporates the basics of healthy eating–that means lots of fruit and veggies and adds healthy fats (think olive oil).  It also uses lots of herbs and spices in place of salt to flavor your meals.  Research shows that the Mediterranean way of eating reduces the risk of heart disease.  A study of more than 1.5 million healthy adults following this diet were associated with reduced risk of death from heart disease, cancer, as well as a reduced incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.  With these stats, it’s not surprising more people are taking a second look at eating the Mediterranean way.

 

Thankfully, it’s not difficult to start incorporating this diet into your own daily routine.  You don’t have to run out and buy special food or “gimmicky” products.  Here are the key components of the Mediterranean diet:

 

  • Eat primarily plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts.
  • Replace butter with healthy fats like olive oil.
  • Use herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor food.
  • Limit red meat to no more than a few times a month.
  • Eat fish and poultry a few times a week.
  • Drink red wine in moderation (optional).  *Note–research shows that red grape juice provides many of the same benefits if you prefer to avoid the alcohol.  Just make sure it’s 100% juice.
  • Incorporate physical activity to your daily routine.

 

I’ve pulled together a few examples of Mediterranean dishes to help give you an idea of what to be looking for in recipes.  These Caprese Style Portobellos are great for an appetizer if you’re using smaller sized caps or can be served as an entrée if you opt for larger sized mushrooms since portobellos are quite filling.  This particular version is prepared in the oven, but I’ll bet you can also do this on the grill (just watch out for burning the fresh mozzarella).

caprese portabello mushrooms
Photo courtesy of Proud Italian Cook

 

Nicoise Salad is a perfect example of Mediterranean style eating.  This main entrée salad is also ideal for the warmer weather months we are entering.  This salad combines fresh greens, tomatoes, green beans and potatoes with heart healthy fats and lean protein like fish, white beans and kalamata olives.  The homemade dressing is prepared with olive oil, lemon juice, herbs and spices.  Once you try this recipe you’ll want to add it to your favorites.

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Photo courtesy of Feasting At Home

 

Perfect as a side dish or a light lunch, Tabouleh is a wonderful fresh option.  Packed with loads of flavors and textures, I’m always surprised at how much a healthy dish can fill me up.  It’s due to the fiber of the bulgur and veggies.  This is a great lunchtime option to get you through a long afternoon (read: no sugar cravings!).

Tabouleh
Photo courtesy of No Recipes

 

Enjoy and if you’re a fan of olive oil, next week I’ll share a recent trip to one of Napa Valley’s largest olive estates.

 

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Tomorrow is one of the most festive holidays–Cinco de Mayo!  In this country, we typically celebrate by going out to a Mexican restaurant and eating our favorite dish (and enjoying margaritas!).  This year, try having your Cinco de Mayo celebration at home with some healthy vegetarian options.  One of the things I love about Mexican food is how easy it is to add fresh veggies to many of the recipes and substitute items like beans, rice and mushrooms for meat.  The blend of spices that are traditionally used in Mexican cooking make this cuisine one that’s always flavorful so that you won’t miss the meat.

 

Let’s start with these Spinach and Mushroom Quesadillas with Avocado and Pepper Jack.  They make a great appetizer when cut into bite-sized portions or an entrée for kids. I also like that this recipe uses whole wheat tortillas.

spinach mushroom avocado quesadilla
Photo courtesy of Five Heart Home

 

A favorite recipe of mine are these Black Bean Spinach Enchiladas.  Let me begin by saying that my son doesn’t particularly care for spinach and he really likes the spinach in this recipe–a big win!  The other great bonus is the enchilada sauce recipe.  I actually use this version on all my other enchiladas, it’s so good (and easy).  I was surprised at how filling these enchiladas were considering they are vegetarian, but I can only eat one, so be prepared to have some leftovers!

black bean spinach enchiladas
Photo courtesy of The Garden Grazer

 

Visit any Chipotle and you’ll notice that Mexican “bowls” have become very popular.  Spaghetti Squash Burrito Bowls are a great idea–packing loads of traditional ingredients like bell pepper, corn, salsa, black beans, green onions and spices into a nutritious spaghetti squash.

spaghetti squash burrito bowl
Photo courtesy of Making Thyme for Health

 

For dessert, skip the high calorie sopapillas or churros and opt for this simple, sweet treat of sliced fruit.  It’s inspired by a popular Mexican street food snack and really easy to prepare.  Slice mango, pineapple, papaya and cantaloupe and place into glasses or bowls.  Next, squeeze a bit of lime juice on the sliced fruit and top with a dusting of chili powder.  The end result is a mix of spicy-sweet flavor.

fruit cups
Photo courtesy of Martha Stewart Living

 

Happy Cinco de Mayo and I’ll return next week with some tips on eating Mediterranean style.

 

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