Olive oil – the soul of the Mediterranean diet

“Chroniclers... have not hesitated to describe an idyllic Mediterranean world living on a diet of fresh, homegrown vegetables... homemade cheese and of course home-produced olive oil"

Roasted red peppers with anchovies, tomatoes, goat cheese, olives and capers (photo credit: PENNY DE LOS SANTOS)
Roasted red peppers with anchovies, tomatoes, goat cheese, olives and capers
(photo credit: PENNY DE LOS SANTOS)
Olive oil is a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, and in her book Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil, Nancy Harmon Jenkins challenges myths about both.
Jenkins is convinced that “the high-premium oil to which we are happily growing accustomed today is a relatively recent phenomenon, except for a few fortunate people who produced their own oil.”
“Chroniclers... have not hesitated to describe an idyllic Mediterranean world living on a diet of fresh, homegrown vegetables... homemade cheese and of course home-produced olive oil.... And clearly everyone was healthier, happier and longer-lived as a result.... But was it ever really like that?”
In much of the Mediterranean region, for many people “life was a constant struggle against poverty and hunger,” wrote Jenkins. In the late 19th century in southern Italy, for example, “field workers often subsisted on a ration of bread, salt and water, with a few drops of doubtless rancid olive oil added to this ‘soup.’”
Even in Tuscany, where olives and olive oil were a mainstay of the rural economy for generations, diets were meager. “Ribollita, the iconic dish of Tuscan cuisine... is in its essence leftovers – leftover minestrone, leftover bean soup, leftover bread – put together in the most frugal manner,” wrote Jenkins.
“It was finished with [olive] oil but with just... the merest edge of a spoonful.”
Today “there is plenty of excellent extra-virgin olive oil available.... Olive cultivation has expanded dramatically” even to such unlikely places as China, India and Pakistan. “Why? Because of the health message, because of olive oil’s emergence as a must-have item in sophisticated kitchens.”
Many, including Jenkins, believe olive oil to be “one of nature’s most perfect foods.” Jenkins debunks the common belief that you can’t cook with extra-virgin olive oil. Like many Mediterranean cooks, she uses extra-virgin olive oil to sauté meat or fish, or start a soup, stew or pasta sauce “with that Mediterranean standby, chopped onion-garlic-carrot-celery-parsley.”
“The simplest pasta recipe in the world, one that Italian cooks always turn to when ‘there’s nothing to eat in the house,’” is spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and hot pepper, wrote Jenkins. You cook about 500 grams (1.1 pounds) of spaghetti or any long skinny pasta in boiling salted water “and dress it with ½ cup olive oil in which you have heated 4 or more chopped garlic cloves and a small, dried, hot red chili pepper broken into 3 or 4 pieces – or ¼ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes... the garlic should be softened but not browned, and the chili should be simmered but never blackened.”
Hot popcorn benefits from olive oil, and so do baked potatoes. Put a hot baked potato on a plate “and crack it open,” wrote Jenkins. “Immediately douse it with a liberal helping of your finest extra-virgin... plus a sprinkle of flaky sea salt and a couple of turns of the pepper mill. I can guarantee this will woo you away from butter and sour cream forever.”
Although many recommend keeping two olive oils in the kitchen, one for cooking and one for finishing dishes, “keep in mind,” wrote Jenkins, “that for untold generations, cooks and chefs alike in Mediterranean countries have had one oil and one oil only – whatever was produced locally. This year’s oil was used for garnishing, last year’s for cooking, and that was that. So don’t get too wound up in the task of making sure you have exactly the right oil for your tomato salad and that it’s unlike the one you use for frying eggs.... You are the final judge, and it’s your own palate that will decide.”
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
Jenkins recommends serving these easy stuffed peppers as an antipasto or an accompaniment for grilled fish, meat or sausages; “or chop the finished peppers with all the other ingredients and use it to top a dish of pasta.”
Makes 4 servings
■ 2 big, sweet red peppers (or 1 red and 1 yellow) or 4 medium peppers
■ Extra-virgin olive oil
■ 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
■ 5 or 6 cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half
■ 4 anchovy fillets, each cut in 3 or 4 bits
■ 2 Tbsp. salted capers, rinsed
■ About ¼ cup fresh goat cheese (chèvre)
■ 6 pitted black olives, coarsely chopped (optional)
■ Freshly ground black pepper
■ Chopped fresh basil leaves (for garnish)
Preheat oven to 190°C (375°F). Cut peppers in half the long way and remove seeds and inner white membranes but leave some of stem to keep each half intact. Lightly oil a baking dish in which all the halves will fit comfortably in one layer. Set peppers in the dish, skin side down.
Put inside each half: a few thin slices garlic; 2 or 3 cherry or grape tomato halves, cut side down; 3 or 4 bits of anchovy; and about 6 capers. Add a dab of goat cheese and some of the chopped olives. Top each pepper half with 1 or 2 teaspoons olive oil and several grinds of black pepper, but no salt because of the anchovies and capers.
Bake peppers for 40 to 50 minutes, until they are tender all the way through and edges are brown. Serve hot or at room temperature. For an extra touch, sprinkle chopped fresh basil over each half just before serving.
With white fish, Jenkins prefers a light, fruity, not overly pungent or bitter olive oil. In this Sicilian entrée she uses fish steaks, but the dish is also made with whole fish.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
■ 900 gr. (2 lb.) potatoes, preferably yellow, peeled
■ ¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
■ 1 medium onion, chopped
■ 1 plump garlic clove, chopped
■ 1 cup dry white wine
■ ²⁄3 cup chopped plum tomatoes (from 2 or 3 plum tomatoes, peeled, or canned plum tomatoes)
■ Pinch of crushed red chili pepper (optional)
■ ¼ cup salted capers, well rinsed
■ 4 halibut or other similar fish steaks, cut 2 to 2.5 cm. (¾ to 1 in.) thick (900 gr. or 2 lb. boneless or 1.1 kg. or 2½ pounds fish with bone in)
■ 900 gr. (2 lb.) small, slender zucchini, halved lengthwise
■ ½ cup pitted black olives, preferably salt-cured
■ Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
■ ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
■ ¼ cup minced parsley
Cut potatoes in chunks, about 4 cm. (1½ in.) to a side. Drop into a pan of rapidly boiling water. Return to a boil and cook for 5 minutes; drain.
Combine ¼ cup olive oil, the onion and garlic in a sauté pan. Cook over medium-low heat just until vegetables soften, stirring occasionally. Raise heat slightly and add wine, chopped tomatoes and chili pepper. Cook rapidly, stirring, until wine has reduced by about one third and tomatoes are melting in the liquid. Remove from heat and stir in capers.
Preheat oven to 165°C (325°F). Use some of remaining olive oil to coat bottom and sides of a roasting pan large enough to hold fish in one layer. Set fish in pan and arrange blanched potatoes and zucchini pieces around slices. Scatter olives among potatoes and zucchini. Spoon sauce over fish and vegetables, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and add remaining oil in a thin thread over the top.
Bake for 10 minutes; using tongs, turn potatoes and zucchini and return to oven for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until potatoes are tender, by which time fish should be cooked through. Test with a fork to make sure it flakes tenderly.
Transfer fish to a heated serving platter, arranging vegetables and olives around it. Stir lemon juice and parsley into pan juices and spoon over fish. Serve immediately.
PASTA WITH GREEN BEANS, POTATOES AND PESTO – trenette, fagiolini e patate al pesto
“The most elegant pasta dish that Italian cooks have ever invented is astonishingly simple to make,” wrote Jenkins, “...if you make your pesto with a food processor.”
Makes 4 servings as a main course, 6 as a primo
■ 2 cups packed tender young basil leaves, torn in small pieces
■ ¼ cup pine nuts
■ Sea salt
■ 2 plump garlic cloves, crushed with flat blade of a knife
■ ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, or more to taste
■ ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese, or more to taste
■ 225 gr. (½ lb.) small, yellow-fleshed potatoes, peeled and sliced about 6 mm. (¼ in.) thick
■ 110 gr. (¼ pound) tender young green beans, cut into 2.5-cm.(1-in.) lengths
■ 450 gr. (1 lb.) trenette or other long, thin pasta
Combine basil with pine nuts, 1 teaspoon salt (or to taste) and crushed garlic in food processor. Pulse until mixture is coarse and grainy. With motor running, add oil in a slow, steady stream. Add cheese and pulse just enough to mix well. If sauce seems too dry, pulse in a little more oil. Add more cheese or salt to taste.
Bring 6 liters (6 quarts) water to a rolling boil in a large saucepan or pasta pot. Add at least 2 tablespoons salt and the potato slices. Cook about 5 minutes, or until potatoes have started to soften but are not cooked through. Add green beans and continue boiling another 5 minutes.
Add pasta and stir. Start testing pasta after 5 minutes. When it is al dente, the potatoes and beans should be tender. Drain in a colander and turn pasta and vegetables immediately into a preheated bowl. Set aside a couple of tablespoons of pesto for garnish; add rest to pasta and mix thoroughly. Serve immediately, garnished with reserved pesto.
Quinces give a lush pink color to the glaze, wrote Jenkins. They can be prepared several days in advance.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
For quinces:
■ 1 lemon
■ 450 gr. (1 lb.) quinces (about 3 medium)
■ ½ cup sugar
■ ½ cup honey
■ a 2.5- to 5-cm. (1- to 2-in.) piece fresh ginger, peeled and very thinly sliced
■ 1 tsp. ground cardamom, preferably freshly ground
For cake:
■ Unsalted butter, for greasing pan
■ 2 cups cake flour, unbleached if available
■ 2 tsp. ground ginger
■ 1 tsp. ground cardamom
■ 1 tsp. baking powder
■ Pinch of salt
■3 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk
■ ¾ cup sugar
■ ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
■ 1 tsp. vanilla extract
■ ½ cup Greek-style yogurt
For quinces:
Grate zest of the lemon; set aside. Add juice of ½ the lemon to a bowl of cool water to prevent quinces from turning brown.
Peel and core quinces and slice all but one of them into wedges, adding each wedge to the lemon water. Chop final quince into small pieces and add to lemon water.
Combine sugar, honey, ginger and cardamom in a saucepan with the lemon zest and the juice of the second lemon half. Add 2½ cups water, bring to a simmer and add all the quince, both sliced and chopped. Cover and simmer quince pieces about 20 minutes, or until they are tender all the way through. Remove quince from syrup and set aside, separating chopped pieces from slices. Boil syrup until thick and syrupy. Refrigerate both quince and syrup, if you’re keeping them longer than a couple of hours.
For cake:
Preheat oven to 165°C (325°F). Butter bottom and sides of a 23-cm. (9-in.) springform pan. Line bottom with parchment paper and butter paper. Arrange quince slices in a pattern over bottom of cake pan.
In a bowl sift flour with ginger, cardamom, baking powder and salt.
Beat eggs and egg yolk briefly in another bowl. Beat in sugar, a little at a time, until mixture is fluffy, then beat in oil and vanilla. Using a spatula, fold in a few tablespoons of flour mixture and the yogurt. Then fold in the chopped quince and rest of flour mixture.
Spoon cake mixture over quince slices. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until cake is golden on top and pulling away from sides of pan.
Remove cake from oven and set on a wire rack to cool slightly, then invert it onto a serving platter. Remove paper from pan, leaving quince slices in place. If reserved quince syrup has gelled, set it over very low heat until it loosens, then spoon it over top of cake, letting it dribble down sides, to make a glaze.