A journey into 'Virgin Territory' and recipe: Soupy Spanish Rice with Clams and EVOO

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American consumers spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on extra-virgin olive oil alone, and we are generally on the same page about the notion that it’s a healthful fat. Yet we know less about it, and about olive oil in general, than we should. Only one in four of us is aware that the oil does not improve with age, and 85 percent of us think “light olive oil” has fewer calories than other olive oils, according to a recent study. (For the record, the designation refers to refined olive oil with little aroma or flavor.)

The research results are reason enough for Nancy Harmon Jenkins to have written “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February 2015). More significantly, the respected author and historian is passionate about the subject, and clearly fascinated by it. She has spent four decades cooking, learning, sampling, touring, harvesting her own olives and trying to vanquish misperceptions about the oil. (Yes, Virginia, you can fry in extra-virgin olive oil.)

This is her seventh cookbook, with much to offer, including her well-written, mostly Mediterranean-based recipes. There are the expected Great Moments in olive oil history, because Jenkins is recognized as an expert in the field and likes to share information. The chapters on the process of making oil and the science around the ingredient are in layman’s terms.

Her explanation of why we should care about identifying what is truly “extra-virgin” is presented without hyperbole. Such oil is extracted and processed without chemical treatment and refining; it contains no more than 0.8 grams of oleic acid per 100 grams of oil, and it must be free of defective flavors and aromas. It does not necessarily come from a first pressing. Its combination of polyphenols is said to be the most healthful of all olive oils.

Jenkins’ bottom line: Rely on taste more than labels.

To that end, she walks readers through how to taste olive oils and the language with which to describe them, preferably at a venue where you can sample more than one or two at a time. Beyond calling for extra-virgin olive oil in a preface to the recipes — a matter of style that might not get picked up by less-careful readers — Jenkins does not specify particular types of olive oils for certain dishes. But she does list reliable sources and brands, including Costco’s Kirkland Signature Extra-Virgin Olive Oil and Trader Joe’s Kalamata Extra-Virgin Olive Oil from Greece.

One oil for cooking and one for finishing are all that is needed in a discerning home cook’s kitchen. Proper storage is more crucial, she says, meaning keep it out of the refrigerator and away from the heat of a nearby stove or microwave.

RECIPE: SOUPY SPANISH RICE WITH CLAMS with extra-virgin olive oil

In this version of the Catalan dish, the clams are cooked separately in their shells to keep sand or grit from settling into the rice.
The recipe calls for an unsmoked Spanish paprika; if you can’t find it, use Aleppo pepper or piment d’Espelette instead.
Serve with crusty bread.

Make ahead: The saffron needs to steep for at least 1 hour.

Pinch saffron threads INGREDIENTS:
1/2 cup warm water, plus 2 cups boiling water
1-1/2 pounds shell-on littleneck or Manila clams
1 to 1-1/2 cups dry white wine, or more as needed
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 pound peeled, chopped tomatoes
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 sweet red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 sweet green bell pepper, seeded and diced
3 sprigs thyme
1/2 teaspoon mild Spanish paprika (pimenton; see headnote)
3/4 cup short-grain rice, such as Valencia or Arborio
Sea salt
1/2 cup minced flat-leaf parsley

DIRECTIONS:
Combine the saffron and the 1/2 cup of warm water in a small stain-proof bowl; steep for at least 1 hour.

Discard any clams that do not close when gently tapped. Place the remaining clams in a large saucepan. Add enough wine to fill to about 1 inch at the bottom of the pot. Cook over medium heat just until the clams open, transferring them to a bowl as soon as they do. Discard any clams that fail to open.

Strain the cooking liquid through a double or triple layer of cheesecloth into a small saucepan to remove any grit. If the clams are grit-free, leave some of them in their shells (it makes a nice presentation when the dish is ready); otherwise, shuck the clams and keep them warm in the strained cooking liquid over low heat.

Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion, tomatoes, garlic and peppers; cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes start to dissolve and soften. Add the saffron and its soaking water, then stir in the thyme and paprika.

Add the reserved clam cooking liquid; cook for 5 minutes, then add the rice, the 2 cups of boiling water and 1/8 to ¼ teaspoon of the salt. Cook, uncovered, for about 15 minutes; the rice should soften yet still be fairly firm.

Stir in the cooked clams; cook for about 5 minutes, then remove from the heat. Cover and let sit for 5 minutes, allowing the rice to finish cooking. Discard the thyme sprigs, then stir in the parsley. Serve warm.

Nutrition per serving: 410 calories, 20 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 35 milligrams cholesterol, 740 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 5 grams sugar

Servings: 6

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