Saturday, January 24, 2015

Tuscan Tea: Part Due

So... I harped enough on the quality of olive oils. Now, I'd like to focus on their flavor profiles (more fun). In regards to the last post, however, as long as an oil is of good quality (made mostly of olives, I know, right) and of good taste in comparison to price, it's alright in my book. Therefore, as I continue on, know that I am always advocating for the above qualities even if I don't mention brands by name. A few months ago, Williams Sonoma put out a guide for hosting an olive oil tasting. While I'm always one the look out for new and quality olive oils, I decided to read up. Basically, the site posited (basic) olive oils into three categories: mild, medium and robust. Basically, you can find the site here. Soon, I'd like to embark on my own tasting and flavor profiling and will promise to post the results (and brands). In the meantime, which olive oils do you like?

Tuscan Tea

Many posts ago, I referenced a site which featured oils as possible uses in one's beauty regimen. In my own home, I often use coconut oil in my hair as a conditioner or mix it with some sugar to create a soothing exfoliation for the lips or skin. Now, however, most of my posts deal with food and are beginning to round a corner from spices and veggies to oil and/or vinegar. As you may have noticed, I glean many bits of information from the Williams Sonoma website. While I sometimes take issue how the U.S. seems to place healthy eating and elitism in the same realm (and I'm not sure how accessible Williams Sonoma is to the average customer) their blog often provides helpful clues for ways to eat better and more naturally. Today, they featured a helpful formula for homemade salad dressing, found here, and spoke of how it's beneficial to use a high quality oil in this procedure. While studying the methods and philosophies of various "epicurean authorities" such as Ina Garten, etc., I have repeatedly identified an emphasis on quality olive oil. This generally, has left me confused. To me, there are a few categories of olive oils:

Low Quality Olive Oils: Low quality olive oils, which are often the most affordable ones (this oil does not come cheap, hence the title Tuscan Tea) are often found on the bottom shelves of the grocery store. They often do not taste pleasant and there was a large scandal several years ago claiming that many olive oils, save for the "high quality" ones weren't actually produced from olives at all. (If you wish to read more on this subject, read Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Muller.)

Basic Olive Oils: In a word, Filippo Berrio. Many connoisseurs might rightfully scoff at this suggestion, but for me, a girl on a budget and someone who uses olive oil for basic cooking procedures (not so much as a pure dressing, etc.) Filippo Berrio is relatively affordable and tastes good. I also heard it was one of the brands which survived the aforementioned scandal. Filippo Berrio works for me but for the likes of Ina Garten or people who have a bit more discretionary income, other oils may be a bit more subtle but just as dynamic to fit in the "basic" category. From my readings, I believe Ina Garten uses Olio Santo EVOO which will generally set you back $30 a bottle. In my experience, Oilo Santo tastes good and yet is neutral enough that it may be used comfortably in baking and cooking, essentially meeting my qualification for a basic olive oil. Some olive oils might be produced in small batches on private farms in Italy and set you back quite a bit but I would continue to place these in the basic category. As long as the olive oil is produced well with few fillers, tastes relatively neutral and can be comfortably applied to a range of recipes, it is a basic or good olive oil in my book.

Fancy Olive Oils: In one word: a ripoff. At the top of grocery shelves, I have found an array of small olive oil bottles at big prices. These olive oils don't strike me as being small batch or particularly good tasting. Perhaps like a good wine there are small subtleties to their flavoring but when used in cooking are barely noticeable. Additionally, I often find that when a bottle of olive oil is expensive, I'm hesitant to use them in sauteing and baking, reserving them for dressings and drizzling. In short, regardless of one's budget there are good olive oils that can take you from drizzling to sauteing to baking making for less clutter in the kitchen and happier cooks. I would suggest to anyone to stay away from the fancier brands seeing as they're often of limited use and overpriced in relation to taste.

Friday, January 23, 2015


Between herbs and spices and veggies and fruits, two sections of my personal food pyramid, I'd like to talk about oils and vinegars. If I were to draw out my food pyramid, I'd have water at the bottom, a more narrow level divided between herbs and spices above and right above that, a thin layer consisting of oils and vinegars. Why? Oils and vinegars serve as a base in which we can prepare and flavor our fruits and veggies. Most times, when we roast or saute vegetables, they are often tossed in oil. The oil we choose can be quite important to our health. Oils high in monounsaturated fats and low in saturated fats, such as oil or avocado oil will be healthier for your heart and nervous system. When and if we choose to pickle our vegetables (or fruit!) we can use all manner or vinegars to preserve and flavor these little gems.

Recently, Williams Sonoma released a section on it blog entitled The Wellness Pantry as part of its "30 Days & Ways to a Healthy New Year." Throughout January, the guide details thirty ways to improve one's diet, with The Wellness Pantry discussing ways in which one can use oils, vinegars and spices to improve the flavor (and health!) of one's dishes. Soon, I'd like to create my own flavor profiles of healthy oils and vinegars but, for now, look up The Wellness Pantry. One of their suggestions is to add harissa to dishes to kick up spice and flavor. While you can buy harissa at a store, I prefer to make my own. This coincides with my increasing reliance on chilies in my pantry. Find the recipe for harissa here.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

These are a few of my seasoning things...

I never learned much about the basics of cooking. My mom was a pretty good cook but as a working woman with a vegetarian husband and three carnivorous children, we ate out a lot. Through this blog, and through other sites, I have been trying to train myself in the fundamentals of cooking. I'm still not there yet. The most I've learned about kitchen basics is to slice your veggies thin and keep your knife sharp, among other things. Hardly the stuff of Jacques Pepin. I can, however, locate a good recipe (maybe it was all those years of locating a good dish on a menu). Tonight, while scrolling through one of my favorite websites: , I came across a good way to add flavor to soup, or any other dish for that matter. The recipe I located was for a Vichyssoise, a dish which I like to try different variations of. I was not struck by the recipe as I was by the finishing touch, however. At the end of the recipe, it calls for chives and parsley to be blended with oil until smooth. This struck me as a quick dressing one could make for meat, salad, etc. and packed with good herbs that could be swaped for the likes of rosemary, thyme or tarragon.


Since this blog is primarily dedicated to health and, ergo, focuses on water as an important substance of intake, I wanted to feature an article published by the Washington Post on a BPA alternative. This alternative, often found in water bottles, has been shown to have ill effects on the body, no pun intended. BPA's replacement chemical is known as bisphenol-S and is often used in baby-bottles and plastic cups. A few months ago, when discussing the importance of water and featuring different bottles which one could carry for water-round-the-clock, I spoke highly of the Tervis mug for its large size and ability to carry both hot and cool liquids. I researched the matter and found that Tervis mugs contain Eastman Tritan, a substance which claims to be BPA free. While BPA chemicals have been associated with such maladies as cancers and heart-disease, researchers found BPA's alternative, bisphenol-S, can affect neural development, specifically when tested on zebra fish embryos. From this change in neural development due to bisphenol-S exposure, scientists have suggested linkages to Autism and hyperactivity. (WaPo article can be accessed here).

In general, I now use a glass water bottle made by the company bkr, not so much because of scares with industrial plastics but because I noticed my tea mug from Teavana seemed to rust. At that point, I took no chances. The bkr mug is expensive ($30 from Neiman Marcus) but while I'm sure it's not perfect, I feel safer using it (to buy your own bkr mug, click here). Additionally, the mug (or water bottle) I bought gave a percentage of the proceeds to charity. To keep harping on the importance of "natural foods" is of utmost importance in my mind. BPA, the chemical to which the alternative has found to be unsafe, is often used in food cans. To this extent, while canned food is often cheaper, leaning towards fresh foods, even if they are not organic, is a step in the right direction. This year, I have made a real effort to attend my local farmer's market twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays. This way I have enough veggies throughout the week. I also feel good about supporting local farmers (I'm currently reading The Meat Racket which deals, in part, with the loss of the "family farm"). Eating lose fruits and veggies also gives me solace due to the fact that, when bought at the farmer's market, it carries less of a carbon footprint. Less packaging and less miles transported makes for a happy eater... and less BPA.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Nice Spice

As stated in my last post, I am somewhat hesitant to move on from the topic of herbs and spices, mainly because I am learning so much about them. One thing I'm "learning" is that spices, specifically chilies, are becoming a mainstay of my pantry. I grew up with a father who loved "spice" but didn't cook and a mother who cooked but didn't like the heat (and maybe the gastronomic effects) of spicy food. I was lucky enough inherited a love of cooking and a love of spice, or spicy foods. To this extent, an abundance of (mainly) peppers have shown up on my shelves. I'm not sure which came first, the peppers or the recipes but I have increasingly found a slew or dishes which call for all manner of peppers. My favorite, from the New York Times, can be found here. These newcomers to my kitchen are pepper with amazing health benefits which I had never seen the likes of in my mother's Irish kitchen.

While peppers 'pep' up your dish without question, they also posses a host of benefits. According to WebMD, peppers are often high in potassium as well as vitamins A and C. One of the key components of hot peppers, capsaicin, can possibly kick start one's metabolism if one is not used to spicy foods. A few of the peppers new to my pantry can be found below:
 (Note: Many of the listed peppers are dried. To use, cut off the stems, scrape out the seeds and soak in hot water for twenty minutes. Cut and use in a dish as specified.)

Ancho Chili: Ancho chilies are simply dried poblano peppers. Comparatively, they are mild usually falling between 1,000 and 5,000 Scoville Units (out of 5,300,000).

Guajillo Chili: The guajillo chili is a dried variation of mirasol chili. Ranging from 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville Units, it is a bit hotter than the ancho chili but described as having, "berry overtones," according to its wikipedia site.

Tabiche Chili Peppers: These are the peppers I remembering my father asking for extra of at Chinese restaurants. They are long, red and slender and carry anywhere from 85,000 to 115,000 Scoville Units. They're not too hot but can add a kick to anything from dressings to soups.

Monday, January 19, 2015


I have been talking about teas for awhile. Basically, at the bottom of my "food pyramid" is water followed by a subsequent stratification divided between herbs and spices. There are many herbs and spices that can lower our blood sugar, aid in digestion and even cure a headache. However, my challenge is in establishing a coherent blend. Essentially, I don't have an alchemist's touch when it comes to tea. I simply, add some cinnamon sticks to water one day, some mint and sugar the next. In short, my concoctions are pretty simple. I'd love to know what other people are trying. Essentially, I like to break things down to their simplest elements keeping my time as free as possible. To this extent I have come up with an easy plan:

Fall/Winter: Use spices in tea.
This is the time to cuddle up and get warm. Spices can help give us the feeling of a warm blanket as it their sweet aromas permeate a room. A few of my favorites go as follows:

Cinnamon Sticks: Adding a robust and "festive" flavor to your tea in winter, cinnamon also

Cloves: Adding a lot of spice with a little amount, a small pinch of cloves goes a long way. Plus,

Star Anise: Subtle in flavor, star anise can be combined with cinnamon, cloves or honey to add an extra depth of flavor.

Turmeric: Used mostly as a remedy for inflammation, I find turmeric to have a very neutral flavor and best when combined with sweet or spice.

Spring/SummerUse herbs in tea.
During this time of year, the weather gets warmer and things/herbs/humans like to be outside. This is a great time to plant herbs and see them grow. A few of my favorites go as follows:

Mint: Mint is a good way to transition into spring, carrying over the peppery flavor of your spices into the softer flavor of your herbs. Plus, mint grows pretty quickly. Plant it in spring and you'll enjoy the plant throughout summer.

Lavender: While I don't suggest putting lavender directly in your tea, you can make a lavender syrup found here. Combine the lavender syrup with other citrus flavors such as lemon or orange to create your own "blend".

Chamomile: I recently received a seed catalog (Select Seeds maybe?) In it, there were many flower seeds for irises and the like. But a small section in the back had seeds categorized as herbs/medicinal. As I love tea and the healing properties of edible food, I was intrigued. Chamomile has properties that can clam our nerves and stomachs. Of course, it's all related, yes? I plan on planting some chamomile this summer and, I guess, finally try my hand at tea blends. 

If you have any blends you like, please feel free to comment in the comments section. I would love to know. For more information on healing herbs and spices you can visit Prevention's website: here.