All of the fun things about the holiday season—getting together with old friends, going to parties, giving gifts, etc.—are also all of the things that can make it a stressful time of year. Dinner parties, hostess gifts, last-minute guests, potluck parties, regular gifts all require some extra creativity and skill. I recently stopped by The Olive Oil Taproom for a holiday-related chat with co-owner Shauna Wells and she gave me an overview of holiday ideas, gifts, even drinks, all of which start with ingredients she carries. Get ready for a whole bunch of awesome.
First, about The Olive Oil Taproom
While on vacation in 2011, Shauna and her husband Don stopped by an olive oil store in North Carolina. They loved the concept of tasting and pairing oils and vinegars before making the decision to buy. That night, they returned to their hotel, but Shauna kept thinking about the store. The next morning, she told her husband she thought she wanted to quit her career as a paralegal and start a new shop in the Richmond area.
She returned home and spent three months researching until she found Veronica Foods, an olive oil vendor that partners with owners across the United States to help them open their own stores. The first location opened in 2012 at the Shoppes at Bellgrade with the second location opening in 2013 on Towne Center West Boulevard in Short Pump just past the mall.
I’m not going to go into detail about the quality and range of the products—stop in and talk to Shauna to learn about that. Just know there are more than 50 oils and vinegars to sample and learn about in each store, along with other cooking products, gift items, and even a new line of olive-oil based skincare products.
On To Holiday Solutions
Like I said, Shauna gave me some delicious options for almost every holiday scenario you need to prepare for.
Impress Holiday Drop-Ins
It seems like people always pop by to drop off gifts, say hi, whatever, during this time of year and it’s nice to have a snack on hand that’s easy to grab and impress. For this, Shauna gave me two options:
If you want to create an instantly upstyled version of bread and dipping oil, grab a bottle of the shop’s number one best seller: Tuscan Herb Extra Virgin Olive Oil. You don’t need to worry about add-ins to dress up the dipping oil because the flavors of basil, rosemary, marjoram, garlic, flat leaf parsley, and sun-dried tomatoes are all already infused in the oil.
To go one step fancier, but still low on effort, keep some goat cheese or brie on hand, serve with sliced apples, pears, grapes or even some dried fruit, and drizzle with Pomegranate or 12 Year Aged Balsamic Vinegar. The vinegar adds extra flavor to a typical appetizer, instantly making it fancier and more flavorful.
Olive Oil Taproom has two options that work well here. The first is a $30 combo box you can fill with your choice of oils or vinegars. Shauna suggests the popular Tuscan Herb Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Pomegranate or 12 Year Aged Balsamic Vinegar if you aren’t exactly sure about the hostess’s flavor preferences: “They are versatile, so the host will be able to use them in some way,” she says, adding that another of her favorite uses for the Pomegranate Vinegar is swirling it into tomato sauce instead of the sugar some Italians add because it adds sweetness and complexity without actual sugar.
If your host likes to cook, she suggests the Blood Orange Olive Oil paired with the Cranberry Pear Balsamic Vinegar because together, these two work well for sautéing chicken breasts or as a dressing or marinade for pork tenderloin.
Another favorite combination is Persian Lime Olive Oil and Blackberry Ginger Vinegar. She says the oil works well for sautéing seafood like shrimp or salmon and the ginger can be combined with local honey (also available in the store) to create a glaze that doesn’t require the time or effort of a reduction.
For a host who is more interested in experimenting with flavors (or if you’re in a hurry) you can also grab a pre-poured and boxed selection of four small olive oils and vinegars for $26. Pair either gift set with some of the recipe cards at the register or some hand-written ideas in a card to make sure your recipient knows how to use your awesome gift.
And, if you know your host loves the shop, you also might want to check out the book selection—there are several cookbooks for under $20 that could be paired with a bottle of oil for another fun gift.
Need cooking inspiration while you’re in the shop? Stop by the register to collect a slew of recipe cards with all kinds of ideas on them. Most recently, Shauna hired Chef Michelle Rateau, a Stratford Culinary Arts graduate to create some holiday-centric recipes and prepare them in the store. This is part of a new program where she’s seeking out newer chefs to help develop recipe ideas and prepare them in the store for customers to sample while they shop. Unfortunately, your sampling chance was last Saturday, but the recipes are all pretty make-at-home friendly. I’m sharing the Stuffed Sweet Peppers recipe, but you’ll have to stop in to get the recipes for Crispy Eggplant Bites and Caprese Salad Bites.
Stuffed Sweet Peppers
16 miniature bell peppers, cut in halves, seeds removed
1 tsp. Olive Oil Taproom Chipotle Infused Olive Oil
2 cloves garlic
8 oz. goat cheese, softened
¼ cup plain Greek yogurt
¼ cup fresh herbs of your choice, finely chopped (chives, parsley, etc.) or 2 Tbsps. Italian seasoning
Salt and pepper, to taste
Pistachios, crushed and toasted to garnish
In a small skillet over medium heat, heat olive oil. Add garlic and sweat for 1-2 minutes, until just fragrant. Remove from heat.
In a bowl, combine goat cheese, yogurt, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. Ingredients can also be added to the bowl of a food processor and pulsed several times until combined.
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the chipotle olive oil and lightly roast/blister the peppers. Remove onto a paper-towel lined plate.
Spoon about 2 teaspoons of cheese mixture into each pepper, drizzle lightly with the chipotle oil, then top with crushed pistachios. Serve immediately or at room temperature.
An Unexpected Dessert
Vinegar also makes an excellent and unexpected addition to desserts. One of my favorite suggestions from my Olive Oil Taproom visit was serving ice cream topped with balsamic vinegar at a dinner party. “Wait until you’re sitting around after dinner, then pull out the ice cream,” she says. “As soon as you grab the vinegar, someone is sure to say ‘You’ve had too many glasses of wine!’ But then you serve it and it works. People will just freak out. Everyone gets into it.”
I decided this was a dish I had to try, so at Shauna’s suggestion, I took the Raspberry Balsamic Vinegar and the Blood Orange Extra Virgin Olive Oil home with me—she said the two were even more delicious than the vinegar alone. I picked up some French vanilla gelato and drizzled both on top—and it was pretty darn tasty! The oil and vinegar imparted light fruit flavors without a lot of actual sugar, so this would be a great treat for guests who will eat dessert but don’t love extreme sweets, although my boyfriend who could eat candy for breakfast, lunch and dinner also found it quite enjoyable. I ended up topping mine with a sprinkle of ginger and cardamom, a little orange zest, and serving it with some ginger cookies on the side. A definite easy dessert winner for my next event!
Don’t Forget Cocktails
The other important thing Shauna reminded me of—vinegars aren’t that far from the shrubs that are popping up on cocktail menus across the country and some of Olive Oil Taproom’s fruit-flavored balsamic vinegars can also be incorporated into cocktails. Shauna’s Thanksgiving suggestion is a splash of the same Raspberry Balsamic Vinegar that she serves over ice cream combined with Beaujolais wine and a splash of club soda for a simple, easy drink without the sugar of simple syrup. “If you’re going to imbibe, why not imbibe a little healthier?” she says.