Tag Archives: cooking tips

How to pick olive oil – read the labels!

olive oil fran berger

Want a great olive oil? Here are 6 tips for reading labels and looking for signs.

I went to dinner at one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Beverly Hills with a group of friends. My history buff friend was there. I told you that he’s never without some interesting anecdote or interesting factoid. He calls it an occupational hazard of being a university professor.

Well, this time we were commenting on the olive oil that the chef used; a stand-out flavor that made my Braciole di Manzo (beef rolls with prosciutto and tomato sauce) scream out amo l’italiano! (I love Italian!) In a break in the conversation, our history buff told us that the reason we use olive branches as a sign of peace is that it takes several years to grow an olive tree mature enough to produce olives. During war, ancient armies went straight to the olive tree groves and burned them down.

It takes years to produce a good crop and decades to form a legacy of taste. That’s why good chefs do not fiddle with cheap olive oil. It just doesn’t happen.

I love olive oil. It’s great to cook with – sautés, sauces, salads, even just for dipping great bread – not just for Italian food, but for almost any dish you can imagine where you want to add that wonderful and timeless flavor. And like many of my friends who are chefs, I am a little picky when it comes to selecting my bottle of olive oil.

There are big differences in brands, and it’s actually easy to tell which ones are better – if you know what to look for! And just like wine, you just need to know how to read the label:

  1. ‘Extra Virgin’ is the highest quality given to olive oil – it means it’s unrefined, free of chemicals and other ‘defects’ like rancidity and never treated with heat. There’s still quality variations within ‘extra virgin’ but it’s the best way for an overall guarantee of purity.
  2. My recommendation, if true flavor is what you want, then stay away from any bottles of olive oil that say “light.” Oil is always 100% fat – it can NEVER be “light.” What the label really means is that the oil has been distilled and treated in such a way that strips away the true odor and color of olive oil. If all you need for your recipe is a common cooking oil, then buy an inexpensive neutral oil like peanut or grapeseed.
  3. If the bottle is inexpensive and still labeled ‘Product of Italy’ then there’s a pretty good chance that the olives weren’t grown or pressed in Italy. The label may mean that’s where the product was placed in the bottle – which is a whole other thing, right? They can still claim it’s a ‘product of Italy’ if it was only bottled there.  So, the oil could come from just about anywhere. Look carefully on the back of the label for “IT” (Italy) or “GR” (Greece) or “SP” (Spain) as the source of the olives.  If you can, buy one that comes from one farm or collective but at the very least from one country.
  4. Not all great olive oil comes from Italy. Some of it comes from California. One hint: if the oil comes from somewhere that also produces good wine, then there’s a good possibility they have great olive oil too!
  5. Let’s end an old fable right now: just because the olive oil is darker and greener doesn’t mean it’s a higher quality oil. Some very high quality olive oil is light yellow. So, color doesn’t really matter. Like wine, good olive oil has a great aroma and taste. It all depends on what you like personally.
  6. One thing that is not a fable: good olive oil never come in a clear plastic or clear glass bottle. Ever. The ‘good stuff’ usually comes in an opaque or dark glass, or metal. The reason is that good olive oil goes bad fairly quickly. Exposure to light and heat speeds up that process.

One last point, good olive oil doesn’t HAVE to be used with Italian food. Find a flavor you like for the dish you want to prepare – could be continental, Americano, or even Asian – and love it!

 

How to dice an onion – the easy way.

Fran Berger dicing onions

This trick will make dicing onions quick and so very simple.

Onions get all the grief. They stink up our kitchens and they sting our eyes and make us cry. Yet, onions are in so many recipes, all kinds of dishes: soups, sauces, salads, fried, broiled, and baked bringing their own special flavor to your recipe. It’s hard to cook without this veggie!

I even know someone who eats onions raw! With salt! Seriously. He told me the other day that when he was a small kid, his mother told him that onions were brain food. He’s been eating them raw ever since. He IS smart, but I don’t think onions are the reason!

There are so many different varieties of onion, each with their own unique color, aroma, and flavor. I’m going to focus on the full round varieties. The most common type of these is the “yellow” onion. This is the full-flavor variety that you’ll find many recipe authors call out in all kinds of preparations. You’ll find “white” onions in Mexican dishes. They give off a sweeter flavor when sautéed with proteins like chicken, beef, and pork. Red onions are generally milder in flavor and are awesome raw, so you find them in lots of salads and some soups.

With these three most common varieties, you’ll often be asked to dice. I’ve tried all kinds of ways to dice “full round” onions. Have you ever sliced an onion then restacked the cuts to slice again? You know how clumsy that is, right? Well, there’s only one way that really beats all of them. I’ve been using this method for years – it’s one of the best lessons I learned from a chef friend. It’s the method I’m going to show you now. Check out my video so that you also see how it’s done in seven easy steps:

  1. Cut ½” from the stem end – this is the top of the onion where the stalk grows.
  2. Turn the onion around and cut into the root about half way. Don’t cut the root off completely. You’ll see why in a minute.
  3. Lay the onion on the stem end and cut the onion in half, vertically through the top to the root end. Then peel the onion. Remove the outer most ‘paper’ layer and one more ‘onion’ layer.
  4. Lay one half of the onion on the flat side and make vertical cuts. Keep your fingers curled under to protect them and be careful to NOT cut all the way through the root end.
  5. With your hand flat on top of the onion (keeping your fingers far from the knife) make two (or more) horizontal cuts. Again, be careful to not cut through the root end because we need the root to hold the onion layers together for us.
  6. Slice across your previous cuts, all the way through, till you reach the root end. Now you have a diced onion!
  7. The closer together your horizontal cuts and vertical cuts are the smaller your dice will be. This method can also be used if you need larger pieces for skewers – just make your cuts about ½” apart and the onion pieces will separate into perfect larger pieces.

One last little tip: use your knife to chop your diced onion on the board if you want a finer dice.

Enjoy!

How to zest citrus for your recipe

fran-berger_zesting

My Three Tips to get the best of your ‘zest’.

A friend of mine and I were looking over a drink recipe. When we got to the part about adding “zest” to the drink, she wondered, “what kind of zesting do they want?” That’s actually an excellent question because the author of the recipe didn’t say.

Take a look at what the dictionary says for the word “zest,” and you’ll probably find words like “interest” or “excitement.” That about sums it up when it comes to home cooking and mixing drinks – you want interest and excitement?  Add citrus or acid and you add a whole new layer of flavor to what you are creating.

You’ll run into “citrus zest” as an ingredient for both cooking and drink mixing from time to time. It’s the easiest way to capture an interesting aroma and add excitement for the taste buds. It’s not a trick – it’s a long-standing culinary technique. But even if you’re familiar with it, there are different ways to zest, depending on your goals.

The basics of “zesting” are straightforward. But I have collected some handy tips that I’ve picked up over the years that could make your zesting just a bit easier.

Zesting adds some of that fresh citrus flavor (orange, lemon, lime, even grapefruit) to whatever you are preparing. The best flavor and aroma comes from the outermost color layer of the rind (not the pith or bitter white layer). There are three different ways to zest citrus fruits that I show in my video. Each one is easy, but they work best when you have a specific goal in mind:

  • Microplane is the finest sized grate and it’ll give you lot of flavor. I typically see fine zest as an essential flavoring ingredient for batters, deserts, and sauces. Remember – a little goes a long way!
  • Five-hole zesters will give you a much more significant and rougher zest that’ll produce lots of aroma, but a little less flavoring than a microplane. You probably won’t see this type of zesting as a cooking ingredient, but you may see it in drinks or as a colorful curly aromatic garnish in a finished dish like a salad or for fish and poultry.
  • Veggie peelers are really useful zesting tools. You can use them to create wide strips of zest that can be sliced into narrower strips that look and smell great in drinks. You can also dice the slices as an aromatic garnish. I’ve seen a few cooked dishes that call for sliced zest – mainly in middle eastern and Asian dishes. Or, you can leave the wide strip just as it is as a great ‘twist’ for your martini!

One more comment about zesting ‘types.’ When you run into a recipe that calls for zesting, the author will probably tell you which one is needed. If the recipe doesn’t specify the zesting type (which happens on occasion), my recommendation is to use the microplane only when the zest is needed as a cooking ingredient. Use the five-hole zester and veggie peeler when zesting as a garnish.

On to my Three Zest Tips that will make the best of whatever zesting you need:

FIRST, Wash the fruit rind (peel) thoroughly. You’re using the rind in the final preparation of whatever you’re drinking or eating. Sometimes there is a thin wax coating on the fruit so I use soap and water and give it a good scrub without damaging the skin.

SECOND, pick the zesting you want (see list above). Remember that the finer the zesting, the more powerful the flavoring you’ll get.

THIRD, use only the colorful outer layer of the fruit – that’s where you’ll find most of the aroma and flavoring. Try to avoid the bitter pith of the fruit, the white part that makes up most of the rind.

For the Zest of your life. Have fun!

We love our Guacamole FRESH

keep your guacamole green

Use this method to keep your guacamole fresh looking – even after you prepare it the night before!

You have guests coming at noon tomorrow, and you want to make a guacamole dip. But NOBODY wants to eat brown guacamole, right? So, you do what any expert home entertainer would do – you prep the guacamole just before guests arrive – right?

Wrong.

There is a way to make your guacamole the night before! Let’s face it. We love fresh and green guacamole that much. But it really is an incredible hassle trying to get your home ready for guests and be literally preparing food as they walk through the door.

Believe me when I say, chefs have been testing all sorts of different ideas for years. Over the years as a restaurant owner, I tested all sorts of tricks. There are a few that are “iffy” – they work, but only for a few hours.

The problem is an enzyme called “polyphenol oxidase” that occurs naturally in avocado. The first thing it wants to do is turn our favorite avocado dip into a bowl of unappetizing brownish muck as soon as it is exposed to air.  So, what do you do?

simple way to keep guacamole green

VIDEO: a simple trick to keep guacamole green – even overnight!

Well, you can try adding citrus juice to the dip. It works, but only for a few hours. And what if you don’t want the lemon/lime taste? Adding the avocado pit in the dip does absolutely nothing once the pit has been separated from the fruit. You can add a fresh onion to the dip, and that seems to control the browning, but you’re back to the same taste problem as with the citrus juice.

The solution I learned is so easy that you’re going to laugh. This one goes back when I owned my restaurants – so you know this is a good one, right?

Place the guacamole in the bowl – could be the mixing bowl or the one you use for serving. Polyphenol oxidase is chemically “reactive” – and apparently metal makes it react faster. That’s why I always use glass, ceramic, or plastic where possible.

Smooth the top so that the surface of the guacamole is nice and flat. Then, very very gently (I recommend using a small measuring cup), pour enough water over the guacamole to cover the entire surface. Add enough water to give it a depth of about ½ inch. Then lay plastic wrap over the top of the water, press it gently across the surface of the water and around the edges to push out as much air as possible. Then place the bowl into the refrigerator.

Check out my video to watch me remove the plastic, and gently pour out the water. All you should do is “fluff up” the guacamole for serving. Amazingly, the dip does not absorb the water, and it’ll taste as great as when you made it.

Enjoy your fresh and green guacamole!

We love our Avocados GREEN

You love green avocados

An easy to remember trick to keep your cut avocados from turning that unappetizing brown.

If you have been following me for a while, you know that I collect little stories about this and that. I think that’s one of the skills that a home entertaining expert should have: being able to dole out a quick story for any moment or situation. It’s better than trying to crack the ice at a party with talk about the weather. Right?

Here are a few tidbits about avocados.

If you haven’t heard, the avocado is actually a fruit. Botanically, they belong to the same plant group as do laurels. So, basically, we eat what amounts to an enormous berry that has a single large seed.

Originally, avocados were thought to have come from Mexico. A while back, a friend of mine who is an anthropologist (yeah, I have one of those too), told me that there was some new evidence that suggests that avocados started off as several distinct varieties that came from Peru, the Guatemalan highlands, and along the Central American isthmus. They’ve even found the remains of an avocado plant that they think is 15,000 years old!  It’s crazy that avocados have been around for that long.

Now for the practical part.

I love avocados. They’ve always been one of the staples in my home – ready to slice and eat at a moment’s notice. They’re a great “go-to” easy snack for friends who drop by and perfect for salads, sliced with veggies, or as guacamole (more on that later).  Don’t forget the ever popular avocado toast that you find in almost every restaurant and that is so incredibly easy to duplicate at home!

The downside for avocados – they have an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase that causes our tasty fruit to start browning almost immediately after cutting. This is really inconvenient when you want to save half in the fridge for tomorrow’s snack. I mean, who wants to spread brown avocado on toast? Seriously.

Everyone has their own little trick to keep their avocados from turning brown. Twenty years in the restaurant business – I’ve heard them all, seen them all and tried them all!

One of the most popular tricks is my least favorite: drip lime or lemon juice on the cut parts, which is the same trick we use on cut apples. It works but, in my honest opinion, not very well. They still turn brown after about 4 hours and then the avocado has an extra flavor that you might not want.

Then there’s the one about keeping the pit attached. I don’t know why, but it seems to work for about 4 hours or so, and then the oxidization starts. The big downside is that the pit has to be attached to the uncut half. You can’t add the pit back to an avocado that’s been sliced.

The fact is, many of us will eat an avocado that’s been stored in the fridge and has browned a bit, but not for company consumption.  So, a near miss just doesn’t cut it for me. If it’s going to work, it has to work really well.

The best method – tested in my own kitchen – place the cut half of an onion into an airtight container with your cut avocado. The onion releases sulfur dioxide which is a natural preservative – which puts a full stop on the browning. The great plus for this method is that it’ll keep cut avocados nice and fresh (cubed, sliced, peeled) for about 24 hours! And now you have a little onion to add to that toast.

See my video on this method. And enjoy your avocado!