5 Tips for Choosing a Good Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Last week, I stood in the grocery store, staring down a thousand bottles of oil. Literally. Probably. 

I thought I knew what I was after: Extra virgin olive oil. But then these bottles, these hoards of bottles, confronted me with questions. Did I want something Californian, Spanish, Italian, maybe Portuguese? Did I prefer my oil to be more greenish-yellow, or yellowish-green? And did I want it in a tin, or a bottle that was clear, or green, or black? And, and, and.


At the time, my answer to most of these questions was a hesitant, “Uhhhh…?”. And so I left, empty handed, but with the question in my mind: How do you choose a good extra virgin olive oil?

(For those of you wondering, extra virgin is the highest grade of olive oil– the sort you use as a condiment rather than a cooking oil.)

After a weekend of reading, I’ve learned this: There are no guarantees; in the world of extra virgin olive oil, regulation is minimal and fraud is high. Fortunately, not all is lost. Here are a few things you can do to help boost your chances of walking away with something delicious. 


Your best bet when it comes to choosing a good olive oil is to sample it before buying.

Does it smell and taste like something you want to eat (remember, it’s primarily a condiment)? There are hundreds of varieties of olives out there, so don’t expect every oil to taste grassy or peppery or be bottle green in colour. Look for a flavour that’s pleasing to you, and leave it at that.

That being said, there’s a problem: Olive oil tastings are rare in these parts. Here are some other things to look for when sampling isn’t an option. 


Most countries whose names appear on olive oil labels are capable of producing great oil. The problem is that there’s no guarantee your oil really comes from that country.

See, oils that are made in a particular country may be substantially different than those that are a product of, or packed in that same country. In theory, the former category should guarantee that the olives and the oil come from the country on the label; the latter two could simply be bottled in that country, but made from olives or oil that comes from a different country altogether (imposters!). And that matters for two reasons.

First up, regulations and growing conditions differ dramatically between oil-producing countries. Second, the quality of extra virgin olive oil degrades quickly, so the longer it takes for the oil to make it into the bottle, and that bottle to reach your store, the less tasty it’s going to be.

If you can’t find the made in label (I couldn’t), opt for product of over packed in – it seems to be the less dicier of the two. 


To help assure consumers of quality and give honest producers a competitive advantage, some products are stamped with labels certifying their authenticity (with regards to quality, method of production, etc.).

In the olive oil world, look for: the European Union’s red and yellow “protected designation or origin” label, the California Olive Oil Council’s yellow and green seal, or the North American Olive Oil Association’s red and green seal

duo-v2.jpg(In fairness, these types of certification aren’t without criticism.)

Oil4.jpgThe quality of your extra virgin olive oil will degrade not only over time, but also when it’s exposed to heat and light. For that reason, stay away from oils in translucent glass, oils stocked in windows, etc. 


As I said earlier, the quality of extra virgin olive oil degrades quickly – it’s meant to be consumed within a year or two of production.

Look for a bottle stamped with the oil’s production date – this will give you a better indication of its age than a more arbitrary expiration date.


First up, colour: You may have heard that the best extra virgin olive oils are more green than yellow. And while that may have been the case at one point, nowadays cheaper oils are being mixed with dyes to increase their greenness.  


As for price: There’s no guarantee that price is indicative of quality. In the photo above, the yellowish oil on the left and the slightly greener oil in the middle cost roughly the same amount. The similarly green oil on the far right was substantially less expensive. In short: Follow the other tips first, then see if you’re left with an oil that suits your price point. 

In conclusion…

And so, you’re ready to get yourself some quality oil! Using the tips above will help you get closer to finding a real extra virgin olive oil. And there’s value in that – channelling your dollars towards producers who do things by the book will (hopefully) keep the real stuff around for longer. But at the end of the day, follow your taste buds. If your favourite oil doesn’t come in a dark bottle, or doesn’t have a certification label, don’t fret. 

Want to read more about extra virgin olive oil? 

Check out this article for some insight into the shady side of the extra virgin olive oil trade.

Read this post for a few brand recommendations (note that it might be a bit dated), and more information on using and storing olive oil. 

Read this post for a detailed explanation of the differences between plain, virgin and extra virgin olive oil. 

Overcoming Eggplant Anxiety, Plus a Recipe

To me, eggplants are aspirational ingredients. Like artichokes and imported mushrooms, they’re the sort of thing I buy when, standing in the produce section, I’m struck by a vague notion that I could, in theory, cook them well. 

I know it can be done – I’ve had amazing eggplant. It’s just that, I’ve never been the one behind the amazingness, try though I may. 


But when that notion strikes, I’m blinded by possibility. All I see is a grocery store aisle stocked with deliverance from charred, spongey failure, leading to a world of cuisine brought into being by me! 

And so, now and then, I buy an eggplant. 

And then I go to cook the thing and I remember that I don’t know what I’m doing. With failure as my only reference point, my willingness to devote effort or ingredients to my poor eggplant wanes, and I create something truly awful. 

Ingredients-text.jpgThis weekend, when I bought another eggplant, I sensed I was reaching a breaking point. One more plate of dehydrated eggplant rounds and the door on amazing eggplant à la Stephanie would close, forever. In short: I needed an easy win.

Enter, this concoction: a roasted eggplant dip/spread/something mixed with tahini, cumin, lemon and garlic. It is, as you might have been thinking, pretty much baba ganoush, only with the skins left on and the blending stage left out. 

Trio.jpgIt’s hardly revolutionary, but that’s not the point. The point is: It worked. You can cook an eggplant and have it taste good, even if all of your previous efforts have failed. Trust in the recipe: Add an eyebrow-raising amount of oil, cook the eggplants until they’re well past tender, and you will be rewarded. 

Roasted Eggplant Spread
Makes 1-1.5 cups, depending on the size of your eggplant
Adapted from Bon Appetit  

Note: The original recipe recommends leaving the skin on the eggplant when you make the spread. If you prefer a smooth spread, you’ll probably want to use only the soft flesh. To do so, simply scoop the cooked flesh out of the skins with a spoon and proceed with the recipe as directed.

1 large eggplant, cut into quarters lengthwise, stem discarded
1/4 cup of olive oil
1 tbsp tahini (sesame seed paste)
1-3 tsp lemon juice (to taste)
1 tsp minced or grated garlic
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
3/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp roasted sesame seeds
Finely chopped fresh parsley


1. Preheat your oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Place the cut eggplant into a baking dish. Pour 1/4 cup of olive oil over the eggplant, using your fingers or a basting brush to thoroughly coat it with the oil. 

3. Roast the eggplant for 20-25 minutes, or unitl the skins are charred and the flesh is golden and soft through, turning three times so that each side of the eggplant spends some time directly against the hot pan. Once the eggplant has cooked, let it cool in the pan on a wire rack. 

4. Once the eggplant is cool enough to handle, finely dice it (be warned – this step is messy!). 

5. In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, lemon zest, cumin and salt. 

6. Add the diced eggplant to the bowl and stir until it’s coated with the lemony dressing. 

7. Top the eggplant spread with the extra virgin olive oil, toasted sesame seeds and parsley. Eat it on a sandwich, dip into it with a piece of pita or a cracker, or enjoy it straight off of a spoon.


Camping-friendly Coconut Green Curry

It’s been three weeks now since I shared a recipe with you, meaning: 1) I’m out of practice telling stories that circuitously lead to recipes; and 2) You, quite understandably, might not have the patience for that sort of thing anyway. So let’s just get straight to the point and talk about this green curry recipe.

First, I should say: Applying the term ‘recipe’ here is a bit of a stretch; we’re wading into the territory of canned beans, prepared curry paste, and hot food in 10 minutes or less. If you were hoping to really cook today, you might be happier tackling this much more ambitious (and wholly delectable) coconut curry. But if fast and easy are your thing, solider on! 

As the title of the post implies, the reason behind the ultra-convenience here is that the dish is meant to be consumed while camping, when your ability to say, pressure cook beans or prepare a curry paste from scratch is somewhat limited (particularly if, like me, you aim to minimize the amount of time in which you waft tempting food smells in the direction of your neighbourhood bears).  

water.jpgSure, if you’re really after convenience, you could heat up some canned chilli. But after a long day of driving, when you’re facing a chilly night in a tent, eating something good that you cooked yourself – even if it’s this simple – is immensely more satisfying and recharging than a prepackaged alternative (especially if your fellow campers do the dishes). 

plants.jpgFinally, don’t feel like you have to wait until you’re out in the wild (or pseudo-wild, in my case) to give this a shot. Because…well, because you can eat what you want, when you want it, when it comes down to it. But if you need a more compelling reason, it’s faster, cheaper and more interesting than ordering a pizza. Or at least it will be, if I stop writing about it and give you the recipe, already. Here it is. 

Camp-friendly Coconut Green Curry

Serves 2 hungry people as a main, 4 as a smaller meal, and doubles easily

1 tbsp oil (olive, canola, vegetable, and coconut will all work well)
1-3 tbsp prepared green curry paste (I use the awkardly named ‘Cock Brand’ green curry paste, which you can find at Superstore)*
1 540 ml can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 ~400 ml can of full fat coconut milk, shaken
2-3 bell peppers, sliced ~1.5 cm thick
4 cups of packed fresh, chopped spinach**
Salt (or soy sauce) to taste
To serve: Fresh cilantro or thai basil, lime wedges, cooked jasmine rice


1. Heat the oil in a medium-sized pot set over moderate heat. Once the oil is warm, add the curry paste, stirring to break it up and heat it through, about 30 seconds.

2. Carefully add to the pot the chickpeas, coconut milk and peppers. Simmer over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes, or until the peppers are nearly tender.

3. Sitr in the spinach until it’s evenly coated in the coconut milk. Taste the broth and season with salt or soy sauce to your liking.

4. Simmer the curry over medium-low for another minute or so, until the spinach has wilted but is still bright green.

5. Divide the curry evenly over bowls of hot jasmine rice, then top each bowl with fresh herbs and lime wedges. When serving this up for two people, each bowl gets: ~3/4 cup rice, half the curry, 3-4 tablespoons of fresh herbs, and 1/4 of a fresh lime. 

 *Premade curry pastes can differ quite a lot in their spiciness. With that in mind, start by using just 1 tbsp of paste, tasting the broth that’s made when you add the coconut milk, and then stirring in additional paste as you see fit. It’s also worthwhile to read the instructions on the side of your curry paste container to get a sense of what 1 tbsp will get you, in terms of flavour and heat.

**Sturdier greens – bok choy, cabbage, collard greens, beet greens, etc. – will also work well in this curry, and are likely to hold up a little better in your camping cooler. They’ll take a few extra minutes to cook through, so it’s best to add them to the pot at the same time as the coconut milk, chickpeas and peppers. And, as you’d expect, you can use other veggies, in exchange for or in addition to the peppers (thinly-sliced carrots and snow peas both spring to mind). 

British Columbia, in Squares

Friends! I got back to my apartment last night, ate a bagel and went to bed. And so, today: A few photos from my trip. 


Tomorrow: A proper recipe (though it won’t take too much more effort than toasting a bagel). 

From somewhere on the side of the highway in BC

Friends! Oh dear! I didn’t mean to abandon you! I’ve been on the road these past two weeks, traveling around Vancouver Island.

I’ve of course been cooking and eating and taking photos along the way, but due to a packed schedule, a lack of electricity and regular appearances by the rain, my ability to share it all with you has pretty much nil. 

I’ll be back to regular FoodHappy scheduling come Monday, so please don’t stray too far! And in mean time, you can follow along with me on the road at http://instagram.com/stephanie.simpson

Until Monday, friends!

Little Cakes with Summer Fruit

Some of you may be wondering: Why make such tiny cakes, when you could make one big cake? 

It’s a fair question, I admit. Because, as a lifetime of eating cake has taught me, cakes – even simple ones – beg for a bit of ceremony.They are to be unveiled (even if only from a plastic cake carrier), sliced and carefully distributed, piece by piece, the slowness of the affair serving to increase your appreciation of the fact that soon, you will have cake! 

bowl-pair.jpgTiny cakes – cakes that offer instant gratification, that can be eaten with your bare hands – they’re really just glorified muffins. (Not to mislead you here, a muffin and a cake are made using different mixing methods, and so are technically different things.) So why not just stick to big cakes and muffins? 

Because little cakes fill a niche all their own. 

First, they’re seem nicer than muffins. So I suspect that in simply knowing they’re cakes, there’s a good chance we’ll find them a little tastier – or more tender, or fancier, or more indulgent, or more ceremonious (despite the obvious deficiencies) – than their muffiny counterparts.  


Second, they’re more portable than a full-sized cake. And, if you’re the type who would, say, schedule a two-week camping trip immediately following a four-day outdoor music festival, having a stockpile of portable desserts (with that bonus psychologically-induced tastiness that muffins lack) may be essential to your survival. Of course, my original stash of 12 has dwindled to a mere one, having sampled a few and shared a few more, so I’m forced, alas, to make more. 

_MG_2978.jpgExplanations aside, the cakes were lovely – delicately flavoured with vanilla, fruit and lemon, and sturdy enough in texture to live up to the claims of portability. I think they could use a bit of tweaking and so have made a few suggestions in the notes above the recipe. If you want to reproduce the cakes as they are in the photos, simply follow the recipe as it’s written. 

And now, all that being said, I should tell you that I didn’t think about any of this until after I made the cakes. But I’ve convinced myself and, hopefully you too, of the merits of little cakes. And with that, I’m off to bake another batch! 

Little Cakes with Summer Fruit
Adapted from epicurious.com
Makes 12 small cakes

Notes: Next time I make these, I’ll add a full cup of fruit, dicing one 1/2 cup of it and stirring into the batter with the final batch of flour, and pressing the other 1/2 cup into the tops of the cakes as the recipe below directs. This approach should work fine with all of the fruits except for the cherries, which would dye your cakes red, were you to stir them into the batter. 

If you end up using a variety of fruits, like I did, you’ll find yourself with a lot of leftovers. I stewed my extra fruit – loosely following this recipe – and served it alongside the cakes. 

1 cup of all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder 
1/4 tsp table salt
6 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temerature
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla or almond extract
1 tsp grated lemon zest
1/3 cup of milk (or non-dairy alternative)
~1/2 cup of soft fresh fruit*, cut into small pieces
1 tbsp granulated or raw sugar
Butter for greasing the muffin tins 


1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 12-muffin tin with butter. 

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. 

3. In the bowl of an electric mixer (or using a large bowl and a sturdy whisk), beat together the butter and sugar until fluffly, 2-4 minutes.

4. Add the egg, vanilla/almond extract and lemon zest to the butter mixture and beat again until smooth. 

5. Stir 1/3 of the flour mixture into the butter mixture, followed by 1/2 the milk, then another 1/3 flour, then the remaining 1/2 of the milk, then the remaining 1/3 of the flour.  


6. Evenly distribute the batter between the 12 muffin cups. Top each little cake with some of the fresh fruit, gently pressing the fruit into the batter. Sprinkle each cake with 1/4 tsp granulated sugar. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the tops of the cakes are golden and a tested inserted into the centre of a cake comes out moist but clean. Take care not to overbake them, or you’ll risk a crumbly cake!

7. Let the cakes cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire wrack to cool until they’re cool enough to eat. The cakes are best day-of, while they’re still warm, but extras can be stored in an airtight container for an extra day. 

*I used peaches, nectarines, apricots, cherries, blueberries and plums. I cut the cherries into quarters, left the blueberries whole, and cut the remaining fruit into 1/4-inch slices. 

Coming Up Tomorrow: Summer Fruit Snacking Cakes

Tune in tomorrow to find out how to turn your overflowing fruitbowl into a tray of brunch-friendly, vanilla-scented snacking cakes. 

What Should Have Been a Recipe

Some days, despite your best intentions to cook a bloggable meal, the world conspires in such a way that you find yourself eating peanut butter on bread for breakfast and takeout Indian for lunch and dinner. 

In other words: I intended to have a recipe for you guys today, but it just wasn’t in the cards. But I’m on it! Check back in a day or two for something new and definitively not takeout (though I should say now that the Indian was delicious). Until then, happy cooking (and/or takeouting).   

5-minute Mac and Cheese

Fellow mac-and-cheese-loving Millennials: We’ve been duped!

Thanks to a blue-boxed processed pasta dish that shall remain nameless, we’ve come to believe that pasta with cheese sauce is, at its heart, a food of convenience.

And then, sometime in our late teens or early twenties, as we start to flex our culinary muscles, we get it in our heads that we will make macaroni and cheese from scratch, and our perceptions change.  

_MG_2776-3.png20, 30, 40 minutes after we embark on our dinner adventure – long after the familiar 8-10 minutes we’ve come to expect from our childhood (and/or university?) years have passed – we find ourselves grating mountains of cheese while we simultaneously attempt to tame a volcanic roux. (Add an extra 20-30 minutes if some persuasive recipe writer has convinced you to top your creation with buttery bread crumbs and bake it all, alas.) 

It’s not a bad thing, at the core of it. We learn to exercise patience and perseverance. We level up our kitchen skills. We make a cheese sauce! 

But sometimes, you simply can’t spare an hour to cook.  

trio.pngFriends, when you’re short on time, you can still have your pasta, without falling back on the blue box. Because, as a spartan fridge recently taught me, all you have to do to create a delicious cheese sauce is stir soft feta, extra virgin olive oil and pepper into hot pasta. And if you use a variety that cooks shockingly fast – like super-skinny capellini (angel hair) – your dinner will be ready a mere five minutes after the pasta water boils, tops.  

I should acknowledge that unlike the boxed stuff: 1) The ingredients will cost more than $1; 2) You can’t keep it in your pantry for two years; and, 3) It’s not made with macaroni, but macaroni isn’t nearly as tasty (or convenient) anyway. And it’s still devoid of vegetables and proteins (though, as I note in the recipe below, you can remedy this easily without extending your cooking time significantly). 

But it is faster. And thanks to the liberal quantities of salt and fat, it maintains the addictive quality you’ve come to love. Plus, you made it. And it’s not neon, which counts for quite a lot, or so I’m told by those who didn’t grow up with the blue box. 

5-minute Mac and Cheese

Serves 4

Notes: Given the short ingredients list, quality here is key! Be especially choosy about your feta, looking for a cheese that’s soft and not too salty (sample a few varieties at the deli if you can). I use goat feta from Edmonton’s Italian Centre

320 grams of dry capellini (angel hair) pasta
1 1/4 cups of soft feta (I like goat), finely crumbled
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus extra as needed
1 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
~1/2 tsp fine sea salt (start with less if you’re using table salt) 

Optional: If you want to add some veggies to your pasta, consider tossing in ~1.5 cups of frozen peas or finely chopped fresh broccoli to the pot at the same time as the pasta. You could also add some finely diced fresh tomato or a sparing amount of very finely diced kalamata olives (start with 1 tbsp) to the pasta just before serving. 


1. Bring a large pot filled 2/3 with well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Once the water is on the stove, prep your ingredients if you haven’t already!

2. As soon as the water boils, add your pasta to the pot (if that pasta looks too long to fit in the pot, break the pieces in half before you drop them in the water). Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package, checking it regularly for doneness. Capellini typically needs only 2-4 minutes before it’s al dente!

3. As soon as the pasta is cooked to your liking, turn off the stove, then carefully drain the pasta (best to do this in the pot with the lid on, as the pasta will likely spill through a colander), reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta water in a heat-safe cup or bowl. 

4. In the same pot, stir the pasta with the feta, olive oil, pepper and sea salt until the smaller pieces of cheese have melted and the pasta is well-coated with the pseudo-sauce. If the pasta looks sticky or dry, stir in a few splashes of the pasta water to loosen things up. 

5. Serve while it’s hot! 


Coming up: Mac and Cheese Made Easy

Homemade mac and cheese made with five ingredients, in five minutes. Really. 


Be here tomorrow to find out how it’s done!