Memories of chicken sautéed in Persian lime olive oil and a reduction sauce made with coconut white balsamic vinegar stayed with Bethany Perkins.
They were among the many flavors of oil and vinegar that her cousin's wife used in making a memorable meal for her when she visited Park City, Utah, in January 2010.
After seeing the shop where her cousin's wife bought the key ingredients, she vowed to open a similar store back home in Raleigh.
Last November, Midtown Olive Press debuted as a small shop in a back corner of the Lassiter at North Hills Mall. The warm, fragrant bouquet of oils infuses your senses before you even open the shop's door. Eggplant and celery walls welcome you, and no one seems to be in a rush. You feel as if you have been transported to the sun-soaked Mediterranean.
Midtown Olive Press carries 18 olive oils, six specialty oils, eight white balsamic vinegars, 15 traditional vinegars and two wine champagne vinegars. All are stored in fustis—stainless steel containers fitted with spigots.
Beneath each fusti sits a stack of small disposable cups, and a platter of bread chunks sits nearby so customers can savor the oils and vinegars. Perkins and her staff are attentive, welcoming first-time visitors and helping return-shoppers find new combinations.
The oils come from around the world, including Sicily, Australia, Italy and California. All the balsamic vinegars are from the Modena region of Italy, known for its quality vinegars; the Champagne vinegars are from France. "Like wine, they vary in intensity, notes and finish," Perkins says.
The oils and vinegars come in three sizes, measured by milliliters. The smallest bottle holds 200 ml, a little less than a cup, and the largest holds 750 ml, a little more than three cups. The olive oils start at about $10 for small bottles and about $27 for a large. The vinegars come in the same size, and range in price from $9 to $26.
So far, the best-sellers are the Tuscan Herb, described as "the taste of the Italian countryside with this delicious blend of herbs, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic-infused olive oil."
The whole-fruit fusions—Eureka Lemon, Blood Orange and Persian Lime—are also popular. Oil makers press whole fruits with the olives to make these varieties, which enhance the flavor of salads and other dishes like sorbets and seafood.
Perkins offers a recipe for grilled shrimp or scallops using the Blood Orange Olive Oil. Another recipe calls for Eureka Lemon Olive Oil to make a fresh kiwi and whole-fruit lemon extra virgin olive oil sorbet (see below).
On a Saturday afternoon, shoppers flow in steadily to peruse the wares. Perkins describes her customers as foodies looking for healthy, high-quality ingredients, or timid cooks who want to make a great dish but don't want to be overwhelmed by complicated recipes.
"They want the flavor without so much work," Perkins says.
Kris Jackson, a Raleigh resident and regular customer, fits that category. "I am a busy mom, and I don't have a lot of time to cook. Her oils and vinegars turn a salad into a really delicious meal."
Jackson and her three young sons love the Persian Lime Olive Oil and Honey Ginger Balsamic Vinegar. "It's a nice sweet flavor ... I am not a very creative cook, but she provides all these really wonderful recipes."
For Jackson, this change has turned meal time into fun, which can be challenging with young children who are tough to please. "I have them eating salad now," she says of her sons, ages 3, 6 and 7.
Plus, Perkins has recipes for dipping sauce. "They will eat vegetables with that dipping sauce, especially the pesto one," she says.
Raleigh resident Melanie Wilson has made Midtown Olive her designated gift store. If she needs a birthday present, housewarming token or hostess gift, she heads to Midtown. "It's the new wine," she says, adding that it "lasts longer and you can share it with more people."
In addition, the shop carries gourmet items such as seasoned salts, olives, sauces, crackers, chocolates and truffles. Linda Ashworth of Raleigh says she has paired olive oil with the dark chocolate made with Blood Orange Olive Oil. She also suggests pouring the Black Truffle Oil on popcorn. "It's amazing," she says.
Blood Orange Grilled Shrimp or Scallops
2 tbs. minced scallions
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup blood orange olive oil
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tbs. chili paste (optional)
1 pound of shelled shrimp or scallops
Combine scallions, garlic, olive oil and black pepper in a bowl. Add chili paste if you want an extra kick. Put shrimp or scallops in mixture. Marinate for 30 minutes. Thread onto skewers. Grill over medium heat for 8 minutes. Turn several times during cooking and baste with remaining marinade. Serves 4.
Fresh Kiwi and Whole Fruit Lemon Extra Virgin Olive Oil Sorbet
6 cups of fresh peeled, chopped ripe kiwis, semisoft and very sweet
1/4 cup whole fruit lemon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup agave nectar, honey or granulated sugar
Store the peeled chopped kiwis in the freezer 30 minutes before pureeing them. Put the chilled kiwi fruit into a blender along with the sweetener of choice. Blend to a puree. While the blender is running, pour the olive oil in until emulsified. Pour the entire mixture into the chilled bowl of an ice cream maker. Chill and enjoy. Makes 12 half-cup servings.