I’m not sure where I happened on this recipe, many moons ago, but it has been a steady sphere in my “thanks-for-the-invite-can-I-bring-a-little-something” firmament of recipes ever since: elegant, unfussy, best at room temperature and easy. Easy as in I hesitate to even call it a recipe, since it’s really more of an idea, an arrangement of ingredients.
The country practice of preserving fresh cheeses in oil was borne out of a Mediterranean necessity, and I’m profoundly grateful it’s endured all the way through these times of new-fangled refrigeration. There’s a very special something that happens when tangy goat cheese meets woodsy rosemary and grassy, fruity olive oil. (Did I mention the garlic? Oh, yes, as if things couldn’t get any tastier, there’s garlic.)
Play around with whatever fresh herbs you like (thyme is gorgeous, too), a bit of orange zest, peppercorns. If you don’t mind a little extra bite from your garlic, skip the steeping step and throw all the ingredients on the chèvre as is, or substitute a good quality garlic-infused olive oil. (If you do opt to heat everything up as written below, take care not to heat the oil too much, or it will degrade the flavor and decrease the heart-healthy benefits quite a bit.) Letting the goat cheese marinate will produce a more complex harmony of flavors, but I’ve eaten it right after putting it together and it’s gloriously fragrant and creamy right then, too.
You’ll definitely want to break out your super-fanciest extra-virgin olive oil for this dish: that tear of crusty baguette demands it. But what makes an oil “extra-virgin” or “virgin” or “pure”, anyway? To earn the top grade “extra-virgin” label, olive oil must have zero defects according to strict standards established by the International Olive Council. (The USDA recently adopted the same guidelines; while America isn’t a member of the Madrid-based IOC, we consume a goodly portion of the world’s olive oil production.) There are two main standards: chemical (acidity, UV absorption, and the like) and sensory (fruitiness, lack of mustiness or rancidity, etc.) “Pure” olive oil is generally refined, meaning that it’s been chemically treated to offset defects like wonky acidity or oxidation, and a lesser grade than those labeled “virgin”.
The real sticky wicket, though, is that a few weeks ago research conducted at UC Davis uncovered many brands marketed as “extra virgin” in the US aren’t at all. Whole Foods 365, Bertolli, Star, Newman’s Own, Rachael Ray and Safeway brands flunked the Davis test, which used the IOC’s criteria; California Olive Ranch and McEvoy Ranch both passed.
The issue, of course, is that consumers are paying a premium (up to twice as much for inferior “virgin” or “pure” olive oil) for a cheaper, substandard product. Fraud is rampant in the multi-million dollar industry, unfortunately. In the wake of the UC Davis report, I’m curious to see if there’s a US crackdown or stricter regulations in the months ahead. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, go with your nose and find an olive oil you love (I’m currently obsessed with the California Olive Ranch label, one of those true-blue extra virgins, which I found at Whole Foods Market). A gorgeous, fruity oil is one of life’s affordable luxuries, a beautiful expression of sun and fruit and centuries-old practice. Drizzled over goat cheese and scented with garlic and rosemary, and it is positively transporting.
Marinated Goat Cheese with Rosemary-Garlic Olive Oil
- 11 oz log goat cheese
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 Tbsp fresh rosemary, minced
- scant 1/2 C good-quality olive oil
- fresh cracked ground pepper
- baguette for serving
In a small saucepan, heat the oil, garlic, bay leaf and rosemary until garlic is fragrant and just begins to sizzle (try to not let the oil get too hot, or it will degrade the flavor of the oil). Immediately take off heat and swirl the pan to cool down until sizzling stops. Let steep until cooled and discard bay leaf; meanwhile, proceed with the recipe.
Thinly slice the goat cheese into 1/4″ medallions. (Using unflavored dental floss on a very cold log of cheese works really well.) Arrange the goat cheese decoratively on your plate. Spoon most of the rosemary-garlic oil over the cheese. Let marinate (up to overnight) and serve the cheese at room temperature; drizzle remaining oil and grind fresh black pepper over the cheese before serving with sliced baguette.