The High Cotton

infusing life with Southern food, hospitality, and fun

Category: Food

happy birthday to me

I turned 38 yesterday. The latter half of 37 was kind of the worst, which you can read about here, but I have high hopes for 38.

Things got off to a great start in the birthday cake department. In the past, I’ve typically requested my mom’s biscuit bread pudding for my birthday. But I’ve also had my share of red velvet cake, and the epitome of Southern dessert, coconut cake. This year, Tom made me an extra-delicious coconut cake with cream cheese frosting. Cream cheese frosting is the best kind, and I don’t want to hear any argument about it.

Although I gave up dessert for Lent this year, I’ve already caved and had two enormous pieces. Let’s face it, if I’m going to hell, it won’t be for eating two pieces of cake during Lent. There are plenty of other reasons. Ha!

Coconut Cake

Homemade dinner for a night when that seems impossible

As I’ve said before, our go-to quick dinner is juevos rancheros.  But this week has been busier at work than usual, and we’d already gone to the juevos well by Monday!  When we got home long after 8:00 pm last night, we just wanted to bag it.  Our rule is that if we can’t get a homemade dinner on the table by 9:00 pm, we eat out.  Cooler heads prevailed, however, and we ended up making a healthy, light dinner that tasted great, and was on the table by our deadline.  This is a recipe I got from my mom ten years ago.  She got it from an ancient issue of Good Housekeeping, and the original recipe is miraculously still available online.  I’ve made it a million times and can honestly tell you that it takes literally five minutes.  Five minutes, y’all.  Over time, I’ve modified the recipe to mix up ingredients and amp up flavor.  The current iteration is below.  Stock your pantry with a few easy (and inexpensive) items, and you too can have a homemade dinner when it seems impossible!

Five-Minute Tuna Salad

1. Zest and juice one medium/large lemon into a big mixing bowl.  Open a can of black beans, rinse them under cold water, drain, and add to the lemon juice and zest.

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2. Open a can of cannellini beans, rinse them under cold water, drain, and add to the bowl.

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3. Open two cans of tuna packed in olive oil and flake them into the bowl, adding the oil to the bowl along with the fish.

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: tuna packed in olive oil, rather than water, is awesome.  Buy it.  We went extra fancy this time and used “pole caught” wild tuna in olive oil.  True confession: I bought it because the label was pretty.

4. Drain a 12 oz jar of roasted red peppers, dice the peppers, and add them to the bowl.  Do the same thing for about 1/4 cup of banana peppers or pepperoncinis, and add those to the bowl.  Add about a tablespoon of fresh parsley to the bowl.  Mix everything together.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Depending on how much olive oil was in your tuna, you may need to add an additional glug or two of oil to the final salad.  Up to you.

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We used fresh parsley from our garden, but I’ve used a smaller amount of dried parsley (1-2 teaspoons) with fine results.  If you use dried, this recipe might take 10-15 minutes because you’ll want to let the finished salad sit while the dried herbs reconstitute.    

5. Put a bunch of arugula in a pasta or salad bowl.

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6. Pile on a few scoops of the tuna salad, and garnish with crostini (optional).

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Checking Summer Boxes: Cantler’s

This weekend, we checked a “must do” off our summer activity list: eating crabs at Cantler’s.  Growing up in coastal South Carolina, I ate a lot of blue crab.  When we moved to Maryland, I was delighted to find that blue crab was popular here, too.  There was one key difference, though.  Marylanders pick their own crab.  Whoa.  I’d never done that before, and was pretty grossed out by it at first.  It also takes forever, so the investment/reward relationship seemed a bit off.  Eventually, though, I came around and embraced it as the social event that it is.

Yesterday’s Cantler’s outing was brought about by fate.  I was slightly…ahem…over-served on Saturday night.  We had a blast, but Sunday morning wasn’t my favorite.  I woke up craving something fried, and there’s nothing better than the fried clam strips at Cantler’s.  Almost as soon as I’d popped open the site on my iPad, our friends called and asked if we were available to go to Cantler’s for lunch.  Um, YES.  We ordered a bunch of stuff, including a dozen large crabs that everyone shared.  I also got my fried clam strips.

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Not exactly health food, but it did cure my hangover!

There are a bunch of crab houses/crab decks near Annapolis, but Cantler’s is my favorite.  It has a waterfront view (obviously), and a casual atmosphere that can’t be beat.  They also sell beer, but only by the can.  How fun is that?  We had another weekend of gorgeous weather, so we were expecting to wait forever for a table.  It turned out we were seated right on the deck within about 20 minutes.  It was the perfect Sunday afternoon.

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Texarkana Peach Pie

Two things right up front: (1) this pie is a pain to make, and (2) it is probably the only peach pie I will make from now on.  I have a real job, so constructing a fruit pie that has four separate components is not usually on my agenda.  I made an exception in this case because I had a day off, I love pie, and I love peaches.  Pie is my favorite dessert item, hands down.  I especially love custard pies.  My second favorite dessert is peach cobbler.  This pie is the perfect combination of both, so I had to make it.

I heard about this pie from some friends from Texarkana, TEXAS (I’ve learned people from Texarkana are particular about this distinction).  The original pie is served at a place called Bryce’s Cafeteria.  If you visit Bryce’s site right now, you will see that the pie is heavily featured (“It’s peach pie season!”).  People apparently wait all year for this pie, and then promptly lose their minds over it. Disclosure #1: I’ve never been to Bryce’s, and have never tasted their peach cream pie.  The version I made is a copycat recipe I found here.  Disclosure #2: despite being from a peach-crazy state (South Carolina), I had never heard of a peach pie made like this.  Peaches belong in cobblers.  When peach pie is served, it is almost always a standard, double-crust fruit pie.  By making this pie, I was putting myself on the knife’s edge of peach dessert-dom.

Okay, here we go.

Step one – make a homemade pie crust.  And the wheels were already off.  I don’t make homemade pie crust.  Ever.  It is difficult, boring, and pointless.  Refrigerated crusts are delicious.  They take very little time and effort.  Use them.  The end.  I used a Trader Joe’s brand rolled pie crust.  I thawed it according to the package directions, rolled it out a little more to make it the right size, put it in a pie plate, and crimped it using my fingers.  The whole thing took 10 minutes (not counting thawing time).  It tasted great.

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Step two – blind bake the pie crust.  I bought pie weights years ago.  I’ve used them approximately three times, including this time.  I’m glad to have a recipe that will let me utilize them more often.  Here again, I just followed the directions on the pie crust box.

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Step three – make the custard layer.  The hardest part about this step was taking the time to strain the finished product through a sieve.  It is really important, though, so don’t skimp on that to save time.  And, honestly, if time is a concern for you, you shouldn’t have even gotten this far.  Once the custard has thickened and been strained, put it in the baked pie crust.  At this point, the pie has to be refrigerated for several hours with plastic wrap (or “cling film” as my dad calls it) placed directly on the custard surface.  Wait time like this trips me up all the time.  I am terrible about not reading a recipe all the way through, and then finding out thirty minutes before I have to serve something that it has to chill overnight.  Gah!  Fortunately, this was one of those times I actually read the instructions.  Whew.  A note about the custard: it is not very sweet.  In a way, that is good, because the peaches are sweet.  But on the other hand, I wish it had been a little sweeter with a little more vanilla.  I think I will up those two ingredients slightly the next time I make this.

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Step four – blanch the peaches.  Blanching peaches is critical for effective peeling.  I like peach peel fuzz, myself, but it doesn’t belong in a pie.  Also, a lot of people are grossed out by it.  To each her own.  Anyway, I blanched the peaches for a couple of minutes in boiling water, then moved them immediately to an ice bath.  Once they cool down, the peel just slides right off.

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Step five – slice and macerate the peaches.  This is pretty self-explanatory, but another step where waiting is involved.

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Step six – cook the peaches.  Corn starch makes a nice, thick syrup from the macerated juices.  Delish!  I would prepare peaches this way for a number of applications.  For example, this would make an excellent topping for vanilla ice cream.  It would also make a good milk shake or smoothie addition.

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Step seven – pile the cooked peaches on top of the custard layer.  We’re getting to the home stretch!  Once the cooled peaches are in place, the pie needs to chill again.  More waiting.

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Step eight – make and apply the whipped cream.  Y’all know how I feel about homemade pie crust.  Well, I feel the exact opposite about homemade whipped cream.  It is so easy to make, and exponentially better than store-bought.  I think this is a good time to point out that whipped cream and Cool Whip are two different things.  Cool Whip is awesome.  Even Cool Whip Free is crazy good.  You could totally use Cool Whip in this recipe if you wanted a shortcut.  But in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say.

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And…we’re done!  The pie was very good, and totally worth the work.  The labor involved makes this more of a special occasion dessert for me, but I strongly encourage y’all to try it this summer.  Join me on the peach pie frontier!

Mid-week dinner party

We had a lot going on last week, but still managed to pull off a small (only 4 people), but fun mid-week dinner party.  Because it’s been so hot lately, I came up with a menu that didn’t even require us to turn on the oven!  Except for dessert.  More on that later.

We kicked things off with champagne, of course.  I served that with some olive oil potato chips and Ina Garten’s smoked salmon dip.

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The sunflowers were an afterthought.  I just grabbed them at Trader Joe’s, but so glad I did!  The dinner was on Wednesday, and they’re still going strong in the foyer today.

After we snacked and chatted for a few minutes, we moved into the dining room for dinner.

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I only buy white dishes, so even though pretty much everything on this table was purchased separately, it still goes together.

I used kale and collard greens from our garden, along with some store-bought artichokes, for the centerpiece.

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For a first course, we served burrata (my new favorite thing) with a white wine tomato sauce and Tom’s homemade crostini.  I made the tomato sauce in advance and served it at room temperature.  I forgot to take a picture of that, but it was so easy and good.  You’ll have to trust me.

For the main course, I composed a really simple salad nicoise.  I blanched the haricot verts and made the potato salad in advance.  Then I used canned tuna in olive oil.  Y’all, I will not be buying tuna in water ever again.  The kind in olive oil tastes so much better, especially in a dish like this where it stands on its own.  I just piled some mixed greens around the edge of a big platter, then piled it high with the tuna, haricot verts, potato salad, olives, boiled eggs, and halved cherry tomatoes.  I made a simple mustard vinaigrette to go on top, and served the salad with a really good rustic bread from a local bakery.  This is a no fuss dish that looks pretty and seasonal.  I was very happy with how it came out.

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For dessert, I made a peach pie that was totally new to me.  I thought I knew everything there was to know about peach pie, but I was wrong.  This one has a custard base, cooked peaches, and whipped cream.  I used this recipe, which is based on a legendary peach pie from Bryce’s Cafeteria in Texarkana.  Our neighbors, who are from Texarkana, absolutely rave about this pie.  I’ve never seen or tasted it, but for some reason, decided to try and recreate it.  Ha!  I’m not going to lie to you.  The pie was kind of labor-intensive.  It turned out well, but I think the next time I make it, I will make the custard a tad sweeter.   A detailed post about the pie is coming up, so stay tuned.

Weekend Food and Beverage

We had a relaxing weekend, which was welcome after all the travelling we did recently.  We spent a lot of time, as usual, eating and drinking things.  Here’s a short round-up.

On Friday night, we had dinner al fresco at Red Red Wine Bar, which is a perennial favorite.  We were having such a good time that I didn’t take any pictures.  I had their New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp.  They were slightly different than the bbq shrimp I’ve had in the past, but delicious.  The best part was probably the sauce, which I soaked up with a bunch of baguette.  No surprise there.

On Saturday, we ate lunch at a little beer garden a couple blocks from our house.  We’ve eaten there a bunch of times, but this was the first time we’d ordered the sweet potato fries.  They were so interesting!  The fries had cinnamon sugar sprinkled on them with a little syrupy drizzle.  There was sugar overload potential, but they were actually just fine, particularly once we dipped them in a little bit of dijon mustard.  Yum.

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This restaurant gets creative with their plain fries, too.  They add rosemary, truffle oil, and shaved parmesan.

We ate dinner at home on Saturday night.  I made pasta with butter roasted tomato sauce.

On Sunday, it was so hot that we were craving something cold.  We ended up having salads for lunch, and then taking the water taxi to the Chart House for drinks before dinner.  Tom had what we affectionately call The Barnacle (after our friend’s boat).  Everyone else calls this a Mount Gay and tonic.  The lime is really critical here.  If you can also add a water view (like we did), all the better.

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We took the water taxi back home, where I made a mushroom and leek gallette for a light dinner.  It was a first-time recipe that I kind of made up, and it turned out really well.  I just sauteed a pound of sliced mushrooms in butter, with salt and pepper, until they were golden brown.  I added a clove of minced garlic, cooked for another minute or so, and then de-glazed the pan with some wine.  We had a rose open, so I just used that.  Any kind of wine will do because you only need a couple of tablespoons.  Meanwhile, Tom sauteed two leeks and a quarter cup of shallots (plus salt and pepper) in a separate pan until they were soft.  We combined those two things, and set the mixture aside.  I put a prepared pie crust (the rolled kind) on a cookie sheet lined with parchment.  Tom sprinkled the crust with grated gruyere cheese.  Next, I filled the crust with the vegetables (leaving a 2″ border), sprinkled the veggies with more gruyere and parmesan, and then folded the crust up around the veggies.  I brushed the crust with olive oil, and sprinkled salt and pepper over it.  Then I baked the whole thing at 425 for about 25 minutes until the crust was done.  Once it cooled a little bit, we just cut it into wedges and served it with a small green salad.  Delish.

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Breakfast for dinner

Whoever came up with “breakfast for dinner” deserves a hearty round of applause.  The breakfast dinner we made earlier in the week was actually on the menu, so pre-planned, but breakfast food is a great impromptu dinner option.  There is nothing easier to make after a long work day than eggs.  Our go-to breakfast dinner is juevos rancheros.  Tom is what you might call “aggressively committed to salsa.”  I think juevos rancheros might be one of his favorite foods on earth.  We always have the ingredients for that on hand (salsa, eggs, grated cheese, sour cream, hot sauce).

To make quick and easy juevos, just bring a jar of salsa to a simmer in a medium-sized pan, crack in four eggs, and put a lid on it.  Simmer away until the eggs are the level of doneness you prefer.  Scoop eggs and salsa into a pasta bowl, and top with cheese and sour cream.  We always add hot sauce, and when feeling extra crazy, pickled jalapenos.

For the first time in awhile, we mixed up breakfast dinner this week.  Instead of the usual juevos, we had poached eggs on toast with avocado and sriracha.  Y’all.  It was AWESOME.  I mean, juevos will always be first in our hearts, but this dish will definitely be entering the rotation from now on.

Another thing I like about this recipe is it gives me a chance to use these cool egg poaching cups I got on a trip to Charleston, SC last summer.

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I actually have six of these little guys.  The other two are shades of orange.  They are so cute!  They are also made of silicone, and therefore easy to clean.  

Aside from being adorable and non-stick, the egg cups also allow for convenient salt and pepper application.  Try doing that using a traditional egg-in-water poaching method.  Not gonna happen.

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Bring a pot of water to a simmer, then drop the loaded egg cups in.  They float around in the water, which is what they are supposed to do.  Put a lid on the pot, and just check the eggs every few minutes until they are done enough for your taste.  Meanwhile, make toast.  Or, in my case, get your significant other to do it.  For some reason, we don’t have a traditional pop-up toaster.  We have a toaster oven, but hardly ever use it.  Instead, we fry our bread in butter.  Yep.

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Once your toast and eggs are done, it’s time to assemble.  I sliced an avocado and put the slices directly on the buttered toast.  I topped each slice with one egg, and then drizzled each one with sriracha.  The whole thing took about 15 minutes, max.

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Vacation! (and a new workout plan)

Work has been B-A-N-A-N-A-S lately, so we were so glad to finally go on vacation last week.  We went to Carmel, CA (technically Carmel-by-the-Sea, which is apparently an actual thing).  There was a lot of this:

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So. much. fog.

There was also a fair amount of this:

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Wine.  No further comment necessary.

The weather was pleasant, but much cooler than we were expecting.  We knew it would be in the 60s most of the time, which was fine, but we didn’t adequately plan for the chill caused by fog.  I told Tom I was prepared for California 60s, not Scotland 60s.  In the end, we packed enough sweaters to get by, and had a fabulous time.

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Tom’s Filson duffel.  These things are THE BEST.  Get one.  Right now.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Once we were back on a regular schedule again, I realized I needed to think about my workout strategy.  Since the half marathon I ran about six weeks ago, I haven’t been into running long distances.  Honestly, I haven’t been into working out at all.  I’m sure I will go back to distance running, but in the meantime, I need to mix it up.  I’ve also been on a long-standing weight loss plateau that needs to stop.  After considering many options, I’ve decided to up the intensity, but not necessarily the length, of my workouts for about three months and see how it goes.  Here’s my current plan, which is subject to modification as schedules (and sleeping in) dictate:

Monday – rest

Tuesday – run to gym (~1 mile) at a hard pace, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) leg workout, run home from gym at an easier pace

Wednesday – rest

Thursday – run to gym at hard pace, HIIT back and bicep workout, run home from gym at easy pace

Friday – run to gym at hard pace, HIIT chest-shoulder-tri workout, run home from gym at easy pace

Saturday – pilates or barre class

Sunday – some kind of “long” run or track workout

Tom designed the HIIT workouts I do, but you can find a bunch of them on the web.  The benefit of HIIT, they say, is that it is really efficient, meaning you burn more calories and fat in a shorter period of time.  You accomplish this by alternating between periods of intense activity and periods of lesser activity or rest.  I have been doing HIIT off and on for about a year, and I can attest to its transformational powers.  I certainly lost fat by running, but I’m convinced that most of the changes in how I actually looked were due to HIIT.  Each HIIT workout in my personal program takes about 30 minutes.  You can totally modify HIIT to suit what works best for you, which is another great thing about it.  The important thing is doing the intervals, not necessarily what the intervals are.  I worked in rest days on the day after my longer run, and the day after my leg workout.  That’s when I find I need the most recovery time, but again, rest days can be moved around.

Breakfast Problems

I have always struggled with the daily question of what to have for breakfast.  I like breakfast food, but not really at breakfast time.  I like dinner food at breakfast time, but apparently that is not “normal.”  Harumph.  Before I stopped eating meat, I would eat a turkey sandwich for breakfast pretty much every day (if I was eating at home, where there is no judgment for eating a non-breakfast breakfast).  When turkey sandwiches left my life for good, I was kind of adrift.  For awhile, I switched over to veggie burgers.  Those were good, but started to feel like too much once it got hotter outside.  In search of something lighter and cooler, I tried yogurt.  Yogurt is…okay.  It tastes good, but doesn’t keep me full AT ALL.  I’m a hangry mess by the time lunch rolls around.  The next obvious option was cottage cheese.  Ding ding!  We have a winner.  Here’s what I’ve been eating for breakfast lately:

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Low fat or fat free cottage cheese with a small avocado, salt, and pepper.  

I like low fat or fat free because of the texture, not for health reasons.

I’ve always really loved cottage cheese, but only in a savory preparation.  Whenever I see a commercial for cottage cheese and fruit or some other sweet thing, I want to gag.  SO GROSS.  But this is a subject upon which reasonable people can disagree.  If you like sweet cottage cheese, have at it.  My mother, the epitome of Southern-ness, stirs a little dollop of Duke’s mayo into her cottage cheese.  Genius.  She also eats it with cantaloupe sometimes.  Not genius.

P.S. – I have been really lame with running lately.  I think I’m going to have to get another race on the schedule just to motivate me to get up and exercise in the morning.  Sigh.

Panzanella and the Truth About Olive Oil

We made panzenella last night, which was great both for my taper/carb loading and because it is one of Tom’s favorite dinners ever.  I’ve followed this recipe from Ina Garten (more or less) for years.  I typically make a couple of adjustments, but otherwise stick to the recipe.  Dinner last night, like most nights, was a team effort.  Here’s what we did:

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First, I gathered up all the veggies and got busy chopping.  I used three good-sized heirloom tomatoes, a red bell pepper, a yellow bell pepper, a small red onion, and a hothouse cucumber.  I also added a whole bunch of chopped fresh basil.  I was hoping to use basil from our garden, but it took a little bit of a hit early on and is just now recovering.

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Once all the vegetables were cut up into bite-sized pieces, I added a bunch of drained capers.  I use twice as many as Ina’s recipe calls for because we just love them.  After that, I took a picture of everything in a big bowl with a giant shadow over it.  Nice.

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While I was chopping, Tom made the croutons.  He cut up a whole baguette into 1″ cubes, and then tossed the cubes with olive oil, salt, and pepper.  He broiled them until they were golden and crunchy.  The baguette was a few days old, which means it soaked up the delicious olive oil like a champ.

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The dressing was next up.  This is where I depart from Ina’s recipe in the vinegar department.  She calls for champagne vinegar.  I usually have that on hand, so could have used it, but we really prefer balsamic for this.  I just swap the champagne vinegar for balsamic in equal amounts.  I also add a pinch or two of sugar, particularly at this time of year when the tomatoes are fine, but not great.  It just adds a little more depth of flavor.

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 Here’s everything combined in the big bowl.

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We served the panzanella in pasta bowls with a little olive oil and balsamic glaze to finish.  YUM.  

The olive oil we used on the finished dish is definitely not an olive oil I use for regular cooking.  For one thing, it’s expensive.  For another thing, heat would ruin its great flavor.  First Fresh is available in specialty stores, like the one I shop at, and is just incredible.  Unlike a lot of oils sold in the U.S. as olive oil, First Fresh is the real deal.  It’s packed with antioxidants and has a superior olive flavor.  For regular cooking (like for making the croutons, above), we use California Olive Ranch.  It’s also not the cheapest thing around, but at least we know we’re getting what we’ve paid for.

If you want to learn more about impostor olive oils, you should check out the episode The Splendid Table did on the subject awhile back.  The author of Extra Virginity was a guest and explained a lot about the often fraudulent “olive” oil industry.  It was eye-opening and definitely impacted what I buy.