Get an Oil Change

My tongue knows olive oil as an ingredient, not a beverage. But I was determined to learn the intricate flavors inherent in the finest oils, so it was bottoms-up.

But what about the price--between $20 and $40 for a truly fine bottle? Pikovsky, a neat, polite man with lively eyes, smiles at the question, which he clearly hears a lot. "Life's a gamble," he says. "You might as well gamble with what you're cooking. Otherwise you may as well go to McDonald's, and that's no gamble at all."

Broviak & Company is a pleasant place to do your culinary gambling: Open since last November at the intersection of I-394 and the Hopkins Crossroad (behind Zaroff's), it's the Twin Cities' newest one-stop gourmet shop for epicureans. To comply with our bizarre liquor laws, the store is arranged in a sort of lopsided doughnut shape, so that the liquor section's entrance and cash register are separate from the food store. In the outer ring you'll find more than 1,000 varieties of wine, an outstanding temperature-controlled port cellar, a wide array of premium liquors, a large cigar humidor, and more than 100 microbrews and imported beers. In the middle there's a nice sampling of chocolates, pastas, teas, sauces, caviars, and the best cheese case west of Surdyk's: Recently it featured real Iowa Maytag Blue, a pyramid-shaped French artisanal goat cheese prettily named "Crocodile Tears," and imported British Double Gloucester.

And, of course, Broviak carries a good selection of Pikovsky's olive oils, naturally cured olives, and balsamic vinegars. And while premium olive oils and vinegars aren't exactly flying off the shelves, says manager Nancy Dahlof, the market is growing. "People come into the store and they know that they're interested in a fine olive oil or a nice balsamic vinegar. They may not know exactly what they want, but they know about them and have heard that we have them. If we see that someone's interested, we try to answer any questions they might have. We try not to be pushy, just receptive and open; we want to provide the best products so that people can have exceptional food." Part of Broviak's goal is to acquaint customers with new foods through regular Friday and Saturday tastings, adds co-owner Warren Steiner; you can sign up at the store for a calendar.

Dina Kantor

Revising your palate through oil immersion might seem counterintuitive or even sort of gross, but sometimes it's important to question the foundations of our food. Or as Scott Pikovsky puts it: "sometimes you just get so caught up in your underwear, you can't see the possibilities."

Questions for Scott Pikovsky can be addressed to him at Great Ciao, Inc., 5471 Zumbra Circle, Excelsior, MN 55331.

TABLEHOPPING

SPOONS UP: Want to host your own olive-oil tasting? When the pros do it,they decant sips of each oil into wine glasses and cleanse their palates between sips with a slice of crisp apple (it's thought that bread's flavor and texture interfere with the taste of the oil). Frankly, you'll probably do just as well with a bunch of plastic spoons (metal ones can impart a foreign taste) and a few loaves of plain bread--after all, that's what you're likely to eat the oil with, no? Get your pals to supply half a dozen bottles of oil and indulge in a spoonful of each, offering up as many adjectives as you can. Almondy? Sure. Acidic? Very technical. Like a tango with a storm cloud? Why not? Consider serving a variety of finger foods to dip into the oils after your first, rigorously formal round of tasting--cheeses, roasted or raw vegetables, cold poached fish, even orange segments are good choices. Finish your event with a simple olive oil-dependent dish like the following, from the Canada-based Italian Estate Extra-Virgin Olive Oil site: (http://www.gourmetoliveoil.com/producers.htm)

Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil (serves 4)

* 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

* 5 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

* 2 pounds fresh vine-ripened plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped; or 3 cups high-quality canned imported Italian whole plum tomatoes (preferably of the San Marzano variety) with their juice, coarsely chopped

* Salt

* 12 basil leaves, torn into small pieces

Over medium heat, cook olive oil and garlic in a saucepan until garlic sizzles. Add tomatoes, and as liquid reduces, add salt. Cook for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. When sauce reaches the consistency you want, add basil. Cook 1 minute. When water boils, add 11/2 tablespoons salt, drop in pasta, and stir until cooked al dente. Drain pasta and toss with sauce.

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