Published on May 7th, 2012 | by Greg0
The Ingredient Finder, Part One: Olive Oils And Vinegar
One of the hardest parts of elevating your cooking to the next level is finding the right ingredients. Even in New York City, it can be hard to find that spice mix you loved, or the right bottle of olive oil- there are many options, but that can be a headache of it's own. And if you live elsewhere, outside of a major urban area, then it can be impossible to track down great items. That's the precise set of issues that were the impetus behind a great website that we now turn to for specialty sources.
It's called The Ingredient Finder, which aims specifically at home cooks who are frustrated by the lack of a good resource for hard-to-find ingredients. We've been trying out a wide array of products that they carry, and today will focus on a few: those made from olives, and the obvious companion, a vinegar.
We've done a fair bit of olive oil tasting and comparison pieces, though with a strong focus on California. But we were thrilled to expand our horizons to two new territories for us: Morocco and Palestine, as well as one from the famed region of Crete. We'll start first with the Palestinian pair, from Al'Ard. Both were from Nablus on the West Bank, grown by a co-operative via all natural means, and both are considered Fair Trade. They are also similar in pricing and even taste, though the bottles and sizing are different. The Al'Ard Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Organic EVOO are both solid- a bit less fruity than many, less buttery but with a lovely
color and soft feel that quickly becomes spicy. They were zestier than
expected, which translated to some differing reactions. As a dressing, they have a character that might put them at odds with some purposes, and the same is true for cooking. But for dipping, the Al'Ard oils are delightful, clearly distinctive, and the organic seemed a little earthier- more challenging, but more rewarding. $8 for 250 mL of the organic, $16 for 750 mL of the regular.
The Taste of Crete oil (update: now available on the site!), had a similar peppery note that isn't so common amongst many American oils. It was a bit thicker, and stronger, and could handle use with citrus, pairing with fish, and stay strong against vinegars. The low acidity and brightness/ripeness were nice, but a slightly muddy character and a bit of residual sour led to this one being liked best with other things rather than on its own.
The two best-liked amongst this set were light, sweet, and versatile. They also offered the best packaging of the bunch (which does matter), and offer a good story as well. The Marrakech Moroccan Olive Oil (Les Terroirs de Marrakech Ancienne Oliveraie) claims to be considered "the champagne of olive oils", and comes from a small, centuries-old olive grove that was once the domain of Baron Rothschild before Moroccan independence. Made from olive varietals that we're not familiar with, like Picholine marocaine, Menara and Haouzia, it was a complex and satisfying oil that was immediately appealing. We drizzled it over breads, used it on salads, and also tried it in a few recipes that called for superior flavor during cooking (light stir-fries, some baking) and were totally satisfied. It balances the spiciness and richness without being overpowering, and is relatively mild but delicious. The"Desert Miracle", made from Arbequina and Dahbia olives, was the fruitiest of the bunch and as such was well-liked amongst most folks. One taster said it was too sweet, but others kept coming back, and a couple wanted to try it as olive oil ice cream or gelato (yes!). A bit nutty as well, this is a good pick for those looking for a special olive oil ($19), but we'd suggest spending the extra couple of bucks for the more nicely-packaged and slightly-better Marrakech ($25).
The Calvi Aceto di Vino Sangiovese Red Wine Vinegar also appears to be unavailable on the site at press time, but was a lovely color and flavor to pair with the oils for use as a dressing. Not as rich, thick, or sweet as an expensive aged balsamic, it's fairly high acidity (7%) and tartness/sourness made it a bit harder to use alone or as a dessert option. We've tried others that we like more for daily use, but it was obviously a quality product- and for those looking for a white vinegar, they also offer a version made from Trebbiano grapes.
Finally, on a slightly different note, Al'Ard also offers an amazing Nabulsi olive oil liquid soap. We were a bit skeptical at first- body soap is one thing, but hand soap? Nonetheless, everyone who tried it commented that they expected something a little more perfumed, but all loved the fairly neutral smell. The bottle looks great in a kitchen or bathroom- a bit exotic- and feels healthy and luxurious. Once you get used to using it, it's hard to like other perfumed soaps- the richness and mild, moisturizing character mean that we now feel a bit weird with brightly-colored or strongly-scented hand soaps. Would make a great gift (Mother's Day is approaching after all), as would most everything listed above! At only $8 a bottle, it's also a pretty great deal.