Celebrating olive oil

Hanukka is a good opportunity to work wonders with olive oil.

Latkes 521 (photo credit: MCT)
Latkes 521
(photo credit: MCT)
When I learned about Hanukka in Hebrew day school, I didn’t realize that the oil in the holiday miracle was olive oil. No one told us either that Hanukka’s latkes were a relatively modern creation, since potatoes originated in the New World, in Peru.
Today more and more families who want to honor Israel’s biblical roots celebrate Hanukka with olive oil. Olives were, after all, one of the Seven Species in the Torah, and olive oil was used in ancient Israel to flavor food. “Since its development,” wrote Maggie Blyth Klein in The Feast of the Olive, “the olive has been a symbol of peace and of life’s bounty, the subject of mythology, a source of light and the very flavor of the Mediterranean.”
How best to use olive oil is a subject of lively controversy. The French chefs I studied with in Paris preferred delicate olive oil and reserved it mainly as a “finishing” oil for drizzling over cooked dishes at the last minute. Cooks in Italy and Greece opt for more pungent olive oil and use it in many ways, including deep frying.
The potato latkes of my Ashkenazi family were never fried in olive oil. Now that olive oil is much more common, cooks use it to fry their latkes, even those whose culinary culture did not traditionally include olive oil, such as Ashkenazim and Jews from India.
Jayne Cohen, author of Jewish Holiday Cooking, uses olive oil to fry many of her latkes, from classic potato latkes to crispy shallot latkes to Mediterranean chickpea latkes. Even her Chinese-inspired scallion latkes, served with a ginger-orange-soy dipping sauce, are fried in olive oil.
Which olive oil to use is a matter of taste. Choose extra virgin olive oil for all uses, advises Fran Gage, author of The New American Olive Oil. “Olive oil labeled ‘pure’ or ‘light’ is refined oil, which is tasteless on its own.” (“Light” means lightly flavored, not low-calorie – the oil has the same number of calories as extra virgin olive oil.)
Some cooks are concerned that olive oil cannot withstand the high heat of frying. However, according to Gage, you can deep-fry in extra virgin olive oil if the frying temperature does not exceed 190ºC (375ºF) and the oil does not smoke. After the oil is cooled and strained, it can be used once more for deep frying.
This goes against what many claimed in the past – that extra virgin olive oil loses its qualities when used for frying. Gage concedes that heating extra virgin olive oil reduces some of the fruitiness, “but it still retains its characteristics.” Obviously, you wouldn’t use an expensive olive oil for deep frying. But if a bottle of olive oil you purchased turns out too bitter or pungent for your taste, Gage suggests you use it to sauté.
Using olive oil to fry latkes is only one way to commemorate the Hanukka miracle. You don’t have to feature dishes that require a pan full of oil; you could enhance your Hanukka celebration with any olive oil-flavored food.
If you have a really good olive oil, it’s best to use it in a dish where the oil’s taste is noticeable, such as a dip or salad. A favorite of mine is a roasted eggplant salad with olive oil, olives and broiled red peppers, a Provençal-inspired version of salat hatzilim.
Even a modest amount of a fruity, somewhat pungent olive oil will provide plenty of flavor. Because the flavor of extra virgin olive oil is finest when the oil is heated gently or not at all, it’s a good idea to reserve your best bottles of olive oil for adding to dishes at the last moment.
“Olive oil is, in part, a condiment,” wrote Klein. To enrich soups, she recommends adding olive oil at the table. California Olive Ranch, producer of several varieties of olive oils, recommends bold peppery oils for dipping bread, and smooth, buttery oils for drizzling over steamed vegetables or to use in baking.
Onions sautéed in olive oil until golden brown make another delicious addition to the Hanukka menu. You could spoon the onions onto grilled bread slices to make a flavorful brochette or use them as a tasty topping for rice pilaf, cooked potatoes or broiled chicken breasts.
Olive oil goes especially well with fish, notes Gage. An easy party dish is a spread made from smoked trout enriched with a delicate olive oil and seasoned with chopped preserved lemon. A flavorful makeahead appetizer is fish escabeche, popular in several Mediterranean countries, made by frying fish in olive oil, then marinating it in vinegar flavored with garlic, hot pepper and onions and carrots sautéed in olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil is favored by Gage even for enriching mashed potatoes. “Potatoes are a template for flavor. Traditionally, they are mashed with butter and sometimes buttermilk. Using an extra virgin olive oil... instead of a dairy-based addition produces a cleaner, unmasked potato taste.” This is a useful tip to remember if you are making parve mashed potatoes.
For a flavorful vegetable dish, Klein prepares a slowbaked squash gratin. To make it, she tosses butternut squash cubes with minced garlic, chopped parsley, flour, salt and pepper; and then drizzles them generously with olive oil and bakes them for two hours in a medium oven until the squash gets a crisp, brown crust.
Gage uses extra virgin olive oil even in desserts. In cakes, such as her pound cake with candied orange peel, she finds that olive oil helps the cakes stay fresh longer and gives them a fine texture. She uses olive oil to enrich biscotti and even makes extra virgin olive oil ice cream.
Fran Gage’s tips on choosing and keeping olive oil:
❖ Examine the bottle for either a harvest date or a useby date, which is usually 18 to 24 months after the harvest...The more recent the harvest, the better.
❖ Good extra virgin olive oil stored properly will keep for at least a year, although it may lose some fruitiness.
❖ Choose oils packed in dark glass or in a box... Heat, light and oxygen are enemies of olive oil, promoting oxidation and rancidity. So store olive oil in a cool, dark place.
Gage recommends not refrigerating open bottles of olive oil. “Refrigeration can be harmful. Each time the bottle is removed from the cold, condensation can form on the inside of the lid and drop into the oil, introducing oxygen,” she says.
Oil should not be stored in a warm kitchen spot, either. “It is tempting to keep oil next to the stove, but prolonged exposure to high temperatures will foster rancidity.”
Makes 6 servings.
This roasted eggplant salad is flavored with extra virgin olive oil, black and green olives, roasted red peppers, garlic, thyme and lemon juice. You can serve it in a bowl with crusty French or Italian bread or good pita, or on a bed of lettuce as a salad with a garnish of ripe tomato wedges. It also makes a tasty topping for potato latkes.
✔ 2 medium eggplants (total about 900 gr. or 2 pounds) ✔ 2 large very fresh garlic cloves, finely minced ✔ 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil ✔ 11⁄2 to 2 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice ✔ 2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme or 3⁄4 tsp. dried ✔ Salt and freshly ground pepper ✔ 1⁄4 to 1⁄3 cup black olives, pitted, quartered or cut in large dice ✔ 1⁄4-1⁄3 cup green olives, pitted, quartered or cut in large dice ✔ 1 or 2 red peppers, broiled and peeled (see Note below), cut in strips ✔ 3 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Pierce eggplant a few times with a fork. Bake eggplants whole on a foil-lined baking sheet at 205ºC (400ºF) for 45 minutes to 1 hour, turning once, or until very tender. Cool eggplant slightly, remove cap, halve eggplant and scoop out its meat with a spoon.
Chop eggplant with a knife, leaving it a bit chunky. Transfer it to a bowl. Add garlic and mix well. Stir in olive oil, lemon juice, thyme, salt, pepper, black and green olives, peppers and parsley. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve in a shallow bowl or on a plate.
Note: Broiled peeled peppers: Broil or grill peppers on a rack about 5 to 10 cm. (2 to 4 inches) from the heat source, turning them with tongs every 4 or 5 minutes, until their skins are blistered and charred in spots but not burnt, a total of about 15 minutes. Put them in a paper or plastic bag and close the bag. Let stand for 10 minutes. Peel peppers using a paring knife. Halve peppers; be careful because they may have hot juice inside. Discard seeds and ribs, and pat dry. Do not rinse. The seeds can be easily scraped off with a knife.
Makes 4 servings.
These latkes, flavored with garlic, rosemary, cumin and olive oil, are from Jewish Holiday Cooking. For fish or for vegetarian meals, author Jayne Cohen recommends serving them with labaneh or sour cream seasoned with crushed dried mint. If you’re serving the latkes with meat, you can drizzle pomegranate molasses over the latkes and garnish them with fresh pomegranate seeds.
✔ 11⁄2 cups cooked chickpeas (one 400-gr. or 15-ounce can), rinsed and drained ✔ 2 tsp. coarsely chopped garlic ✔ 1 Tbsp. fresh rosemary leaves ✔ 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil ✔ 3 large eggs ✔ 11⁄2 tsp. ground cumin, preferably freshly toasted and ground ✔ About 1 tsp. kosher salt ✔ 1⁄2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper ✔ 3 Tbsp. unbleached allpurpose flour ✔ 1⁄2 tsp. baking powder ✔ Olive or canola oil, for frying
Puree the chickpeas, garlic and rosemary in a food processor to a coarse paste. Add the extra virgin olive oil, eggs and 6 Tbsp. water and blend until smooth. Add the cumin, salt to taste, pepper, flour and baking powder and pulse to blend well. Transfer the batter to a large bowl.
Heat 6 Tbsp. oil in a 25- to 30-cm. (10- to 12-inch) heavy skillet (preferably castiron) over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Working in batches, drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls into the hot oil. Regulate the heat carefully as the latkes fry until golden on both sides. To prevent the oil from splattering, use two spatulas (or a spatula and a large spoon) to turn the latkes carefully.
Avoid turning the latkes more than once, or they will absorb too much oil. Before turning, lift the latkes slightly with the spatula to make sure the underside is crisp and brown. Drain on paper towels or untreated brown paper bags. If necessary, add more oil to the pan but always allow the oil to get hot before frying a new batch. Serve immediately.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.