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Olive oil for your needs

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
    Taste gourmet-quality olive oils at Magnolia in Kahala Mall.

  • Gourmet olive oils, each with a distinctive flavor, fragrance and finish, pair with specific foods.
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There’s a sensuality to olive oil, with its gorgeous hues of green and its luscious feel. Pour some in a pot of finished soup or mix into a pasta dish, and it adds body and flavor.

Better yet, it’s nutritionally sound. High in monounsaturated fatty acids, olive oil promotes beneficial HDL cholesterol and is rich in antioxidant compounds called polyphenols. Use it in a stir-fry and you’re cooking healthy. Catering to both the palate and the body, olive oil wins on all fronts.

Attorney Maggie Park can attest to the allure of olive oil. A trip to Spain a couple of years ago led to her carving out a new career path, at least for a little while. She opened her shop, Magnolia, at Kahala Mall last month, selling a selection of imported, gourmet-quality extra-virgin olive oils. Magnolia also sells European antiques.

"When I had dinner in Spain, they’d bring out a bunch of different olive oils," she recalls. "They had boutiques dedicated to olive oils, just like they do with wine, where they displayed them like jewelry bottles. It was so gorgeous, with the light going through the bottles. It was just the bit of inspiration I needed to bring this concept to Hawaii."

Park had seen similar shops in New York and other U.S. cities, so she knew there was a precedent for success.

Boutiques such as Magnolia offer gourmet oils that, like wine, are appreciated for their distinctive characteristics: aroma, taste and finish. Monovarietals are produced from one variety of olive; mixes are created to achieve specific characteristics.

Magnolia isn’t the first store to offer such a gourmet selection. R. Field Wine Co., located in select Foodland markets, and Whole Foods in Kahala both offer extensive selections from around the world. Park says she researched what other stores here carry and tried to offer new options.

Whole Foods Kahala says its clientele prefers organic oils, and the store also offers smaller bottles so customers will be able to have a variety of oils in their pantries. R. Field puts out oil samples daily.

OLIVE OIL CHARACTERISTICS

» Aroma: fruity, mild, medium or strong
» Taste: spicy, bitter, butter, almond, cut grass, eucalyptus or honey
» Finish: Soft, oily, spicy or bitter

WHERE TO BUY

» R. Field Wine Co.: Carries about 15 different extra-virgin olive oils from Spain, Italy, France, Greece and California. Price: $12 to $45.
» Whole Foods Market: More than 50 varieties from Greece, Spain, Italy, Chile, Tunisia, Turkey, the Palestinian territories and the United States. Price: $9 to $50.
» Magnolia: 20 to 30 varieties, primarily from Spain, with several from Italy and two from California. Price: $20 to $60.

Magnolia is unique in that Park holds informal tastings for customers, something that was inspired by a visit to an olive oil bar she wandered into in San Francisco.

"If someone is paying $40 for a bottle of olive oil, I think they need to taste it first," she insists.

Park reveals her passion for the stuff as she educates visitors about oil characteristics and how to proceed. First, she pours the oil into tiny plastic cups and has tasters pause to appreciate its color. Next, she places the cup into her palm to demonstrate how the oil must be warmed a bit to release its aroma and flavor. Tasters take a whiff and share impressions, then taste. Buttery oils produce a warm smile, while peppery ones elicit looks of surprise and sometimes even coughing.

What’s deemed good and not so good depends on personal preference.

Much like fine wine, gourmet oils are paired with specific foods to balance and enhance flavors.

Chef Keith Endo of Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar relies often on Primus, a dark green, fruity oil from Sicily for glazing breads, marinating meat and as an ingredient in pasta dough.

"Extra-virgin olive oil has a really low smoking point, so high heat defeats the purpose," he says. "It’s good for finishing a dish."

Endo pulls off using the oil as a marinade this way: "I found that with meats, if you tenderize it first then add the oil, the oil permeates the meat. So even if you heat the outside, you still have the flavor of the oil inside."

One trick in his kitchen is to mix olive oil with vegetable oil to dilute strong flavors or to make the oil suitable for frying.

As for pairing oils with specific food, Endo says a buttery oil should be mixed with something acidic — adding tomatoes to such an oil would achieve richness. Spicy oils, on the other hand, require something sweet like quince paste (quince is a relative to the apple and pear) and cheese, or fresh fruit such as oranges, apples or pears accompanied by feta or goat cheese. Or toss with hearty, not spicy, ‘Nalo greens.

Park most often uses her favorite oils to make fresh salad dressings. She infuses the oil with herbs or citrus zest and sometimes even adds in citrus juice.

A favorite recipe is a mix of oil, lemon zest, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, a bit of ginger, salt and fresh herbs such as thyme, basil, rosemary or oregano — whatever she has on hand.

"Fine oil is just like wine; it’s so much fun," she says.

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