A peek into any average home cook's cabinets is likely to reveal a few of the same reliable staples at any moment: salt, pepper, sugar and a tall bottle of extra virgin olive oil, the liquid gold that's at once tangy and versatile, a crucial add-on to salads, marinades and more.
But even as we add it amply to meals of all kinds, many of us aren't aware of the scandals and controversies that occur in olive oil's production. In truth, something like 80% of the EVOO traditionally available on the market is not nearly as pure as the labels suggest. Most of it is far past fresh and has been mixed with other lower quality vegetable oils, little to the consumer's knowledge. Plus, non-organic versions can contain remnants of absorbed chemicals, since pesticides easily infuse the soft, thin skin of the fruits before they're pressed.
But when it's good, it's good. The spicy flavor of a high-end olive oil has all the spunk of a fine wine, plus a host of health benefits. It reduces inflammation, promotes digestion and lowers the risk for heart disease.
The key, then, is to choose a brand that's truly reputable and honest about its behind-the-scenes processes. One of our current favorites is Harvest Peace, an organic, fair-trade, extra virgin olive oil producer with a mission as commendable as its flavor. The company's founder, Jenny Farhat, is a first-generation Palestinian-American whose family roots are set in the olive groves of Palestine's West Bank city of Ramallah, dating back more than 300 years. Many of the region's farmlands have now been demolished by military conflict, so Farhat's hope is to preserve the remaining olive trees — some of the oldest and most flavorful on earth — and pay tribute to treasured cultural history with every bottle she sells.
Harvest Peace partners with both Canaan Fair Trade and the Palestine Fair Trade Association to guarantee fair wages for its agricultural workers, who often live in poverty caused by military aggression and economic isolation, and to ensure that the quality of the oil is top notch. The latter commitment, of course, is easily confirmed by anyone who tastes the olive oil's delicately fruity and medium-bodied flavor — no controversy here.
For an even more upscale option, we've long been enamored with the olive oil membership from New York-based Grove and Vine. For a yearly fee, members receive one limited-edition bottle every season, and each delivery comes complete with a full spectrum of information: tasting notes, suggestions for pairings and recipes, harvesting details, and even a hand-numbered photograph of the particular grove where the olives were grown (which might be Spain, Italy or elsewhere). The oils are sourced and blended by international olive oil expert, educator and speaker Nicholas Coleman, who was the first to teach us the truth about the culinary go-to in his speech at the 2016 Bitten conference.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, for a simple and affordable grocery store selection, California Olive Ranch is our go-to. Though it's not certified organic just yet, every bottle does list its precise harvest date and is certified extra virgin by the California Olive Oil Council, so its track record is trustworthy. (If you can't find it in your local aisle, look for a similar brand that comes in a dark, tinted bottle with a singular country of origin and a harvest date stamp.)
In a nod to spring cleaning, we're tossing out our old stockpiles of the lower-grade stuff and swapping it for a bottle we can get behind. We're sprinkling it on our fresh seasonal veggies and soaking our bread in it copiously, but we're also exploring a few more unexpected, resourceful ways to incorporate olive oil into our current refresh routine. Below, we've compiled four ideas for you to try, too.
1. Makeup brush cleaner.
If you're anything like us, you've probably been using the same makeup brushes for months without ever giving them a good clean. To remove old cosmetic residue from the bristles, soak them in a combination of 1/4 cup of antibacterial soap with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then wash them out with water.
2. Wood polish.
When was the last time you gave your tables and chairs some extra TLC? To polish wood furniture, mix 1 tablespoon of olive oil with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar and 2 cups of filtered water. Apply with a spray bottle and wipe gently with a cloth.
3. Salt scrub.
Winter weather has a tendency to leave our skin parched and cracked. Rub away the roughness with a homemade salt scrub. Combine 1/4 cup of sea salt with 1/2 cup of olive oil, then embellish with your favorite scents — we like incorporating dried rosemary and a few drops of orange essential oil. Store any leftovers in mason jars, or whip up a larger batch to give as gifts.
4. Healthy, hearty dessert.
Though it tends to star in savory recipes, olive oil pairs surprisingly well with sweeter flavors, too, making desserts more dynamic. Try adding a drizzle over vanilla ice cream with a pinch of salt and lemon zest, and the scoop from your favorite store-bought carton suddenly tastes gourmet. If chocolate is more your thing, blend olive oil with melted dark chocolate, cocoa powder, and sea salt for a healthier, homemade version of Nutella. Here's a recipe you can use, and you can add a dash of ginger or a flick of cayenne for extra spice.
p.s. Need some cooking inspiration for your first spring dinner party?