The Oldways Table Blog

Celebrating health,
happiness, heritage,
and delicious,
nutritious food.

March 26, 2015 | Oldways Table

It's no secret that olive oil is an essential element of the Mediterranean Diet.  It's the principal fat, and the ingredient that brings together all the other great and healthy foods that makes the Mediterranean way of eating so pleasurable and healthy.  As Antonia Trichopoulou -- the Greek scientist and medical doctor often called the "mother of the Mediterranean Diet" -- always says, "Olive oil is what makes the vegetables go down."

Despite its growing popularity over the last two decades, thanks to Mediterranean Diet education programs by Oldways and others, as well as the many TV Cooking Shows (EVOO!), there's still lots of confusion about olive oil.  What is extra virgin?  Virgin?  Can you fry with olive oil?  How should I choose olive oil?  What's best -- Italian?  Spanish?  Greek?  Californian?

Nancy Harmon Jenkins, one of the founders of Oldways and the author of the Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, has written a new book that sheds a lot of light on the world of olive oil.  The book, Virgin Territory:  Exploring the World of Olive Oil, covers the history, science, harvesting, production, unique characteristics of different olive oils, and the use of it with recipes from soup to nuts.  The book is described as a fascinating history lesson, a gorgeous Mediterranean cookbook, and -- more than anything -- a love story. 

The book is beautiful, and as always with Nancy's research and writing, the information presented is broad and deep. The stories are captivating and the recipes are deliciously foolproof and sure to please.  What I like best, however, are her explanations about growing, producing, harvesting -- and especially chapters like, "What is Extra Virgin anyway and why should you (or I) care? 

She starts the answer to this question by defining virgin olive oil.  She writes "back in the eighteenth century, and for a long time thereafter, virgin olive oil, which was always considered the finest kind, referred to an oil that had not been pressed at all.  The olives were crushed, using the big stone wheels and then the oil that naturally floated to the top of the paste was carefully skimmed off -- and that was virgin."  Nothing else was done to the olives.

The International Olive Council (formerly the International Olive Oil Council), an industry group chartered by the United Nations, defines the various categories of olive oil that are the legal classification for olive oil producing countries. Nancy explains that virgin olive oil's definition is straight forward:  It is "obtained from the fruit of the olive tree solely by mechanical or other physical means that do not lead to alterations in the oil."  This means there are no chemicals used.  Virgin olive oil is the juice of the olive. 

But there is no virgin olive oil on the market.  What we do have on the market are extra virgin and olive oil.  Extra virgin is produced as defined above, but it must have a certain amount of free acidity (.8 grams per 100 grams of oil).  There are also taste tests -- the oil must not have certain defects and must have perfect flavor and aroma. 

She goes on to explain that olives, just like grapes, have different flavors, depending on the type of olive.  Ripeness, soil, weather, harvesting, milling, also make a difference in the flavor.  Oils that cannot be classified as extra virgin are simply called olive oil or pure olive oil (not meaning that it is better or purer).  Before bottling these second-tier oils are refined to remove defects to the extent possible and a small amount of extra virgin is added, giving the oil more flavor.  This oil is still rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, but does not have the extra polyphenols and antioxidants that extra virgin olive oil does.  Many cooks use this oil for frying, but Nancy doesn't.  She "take[s] her cue from generations of Mediterranean cooks at all levels, from the humblest homestead to the most exalted restaurant kitchen, and only cook[s] with extra virgin olive oil."

There is much to be learned, enjoyed and loved about olive oil.  Nancy suggests organizing a tasting of oils with friends -- choosing a country or a region or even a hemisphere.  And remember, there is really no right or wrong answer in a tasting -- like wine, it's about learning, comparing, and discovering what you love.


March 24, 2015 | Oldways Table

In the winter I live on a variety of warm teas but with spring in the air I crave lighter, fruity beverages that sing the songs of the season.  To be sure I am hydrated I always drink plenty of water, but sometimes water could use a boost.  Naturally infused waters are a perfect solution for these fruity cravings - they hydrate, taste great, and offer added health benefits to boot!

So, what better way to ring in spring then to experiment with flavor combinations and fill my fridge with delicious, fruit (and herb!) infusions.

To begin, here are some tips I learned along the way:

  • Remove the rind from citrus as it produces bitter flavors.
  • Take cues from combinations in the store.  Look at all the seltzer options in the aisles at your local grocery store and test out those flavor combinations at home with fresh fruit and herbs.
  • For herb infusions you want to tear apart the leaves, to release oils.
  • Let flavors infuse about 2 hours at room temperature or 3-4 hours in the refrigerator.
  • Store infused water in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
  • Practice with proportions and be sure to go light-handed with strong herbs like rosemary so they don’t overpower.
  • And remember it is really about personal taste, so experiment and see what tickles your infusion fancy!

Here are a few flavor combinations to get you started:

  • Pineapple and Cinnamon
  • Raspberry and Lime
  • Cucumber and Mint
  • Strawberry, Lemon and Basil
  • Watermelon and Cilantro
  • Orange and Ginger

So tell us, are you into infusing your water?  Any favorite flavor combinations?


March 19, 2015 | Oldways Table

Dairy foods have been eaten for centuries, but in recent years there’s been a debate as to their place in a healthy diet, primarily because of their levels of saturated fat.

For those who are dairy lovers, take heart. It turns out that recent research is showing that dairy, enjoyed in moderation, not only provides high-quality protein, calcium, magnesium and potassium, but may help improve cholesterol levels (yes, you’ve read that correctly), and doesn’t necessarily contribute to weight gain.

The USDA recommends three servings a day of dairy (approximately 3 cups) and in the wonderful world of dairy, there are many foods available to choose from including yogurt, kefir, cheese and milk, so it’s really easy to meet your daily requirements.

Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind when incorporating dairy into your diet:

  • Moderation is key. Three servings a day can include one and one-half ounces of cheese, one cup of yogurt and one cup of milk.
  • Dairy can be enjoyed throughout the day. For example, enjoy yogurt with granola and fruit for breakfast; add sprinkles of cheese, like feta, to your favorite salad at lunch. For dinner, spruce up your baked spud by topping it with ½ ounce of cheese and bake again for 5 minutes or until the cheese has melted.
  • Fats, like those found in yogurt, can help increase the absorption of lycopene found in tomatoes, as well as fat-soluble vitamins, such as A, D, E and K. For an easy and nutritious snack, use plain yogurt with herbs and spices as a dipping sauce. Slice up veggies such as carrots, broccoli, celery, sweet red peppers and grape tomatoes and dip away!
  • When shopping for yogurt, look for “active live cultures” like Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophiles, on the ingredient list to ensure you’re getting the “good” beneficial bacteria that is great for gut health. Whenever possible, buy plain yogurt and add your own sweetness (a drizzle of honey or cut up fruit). Yogurts that are pre-sweetened have added sugar and calories that you may want to skip!
  • Did you know that all forms of milk – skim, whole, low fat -- are equally nutritious? The only difference is the amount of fat, so choose the type that suits your taste and your dietary needs.

To learn more about the health studies mentioned as well as other food pairings and tips, refer to our March toolkit Dairy Foods. We’ve included guides for buying dairy products along with resources that show how milk is produced and cheese is crafted. And, for those who are vegan or medically unable to eat dairy, we’ve included a resource on dairy alternatives, too.


March 17, 2015 | Oldways Table

Last fall, while attending the Food & Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) in Atlanta, the Oldways team enjoyed a dinner at chef Hugh Acheson’s restaurant, Empire South. Under “Snackies for the Table” the menu offered an assortment of tasty nibbles, including pickled vegetables, served in small glass jars.  We went crazy for the pickled carrots and beans, and struck up a conversation with the waiter, who explained that the restaurant works with several local pickle makers. We also came home with a few copies of Pick A Pickle, Hugh Acheson’s swatch book featuring 50 recipes for pickles and other fermented foods.

And we’ve been pickling vegetables ever since. It’s so very easy. Just make a brine, add the veggies, and wait for a few days.

In addition to adding sharp clean flavors to your plate, pickled veggies, from sauerkraut to kimchi, plus a wide range of other fermented foods, are good for you. They can introduce beneficial bacteria to your digestive system and help you absorb more of the nutrients in the other foods you eat.  To read all about it, we recommend The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz.

Here’s our current fermented favorite, a recipe for slaw that’s popular in Latin American countries.  Add it to sandwiches and wraps, serve it as a side with tacos, or just toss it into a green salad to wake everything up. It’s almost too pretty to eat, but not after you take the first bite!

Recipe developed by Francis Lam for The New York Times

1 pound cabbage (red or green or both) finely shredded
2 ½ cups water
½ medium onion, thinly sliced
½ cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
½ to 1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
Black pepper to taste
Ground cumin, to taste

Combine all ingredients in a large, clean glass or stainless steel bowl. Using clean tongs or your hands, gently crush the vegetables in the brine. Place a clean plate on top of the vegetables, and weigh it down to fully submerge them under the brine.  Let sit at room temperature for at least 3 days, or longer to your taste; the flavor will deepen and mellow over time. When it’s to your liking, transfer to clean jars, making sure the brine covers the vegetables, and store in the refrigerator. It will keep for weeks.



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