The miraculous oil of the olive

Try to add some olive oil in your cooking this Hanukkah

Marinated chicken kebabs. (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Marinated chicken kebabs.
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
The Hanukka story highlights the significance of pure olive oil for the Temple’s rituals.
But the quality of the olive oil used in our cooking is also important, according to Mary Platis and Laura Bashar, authors of the new book Cooking Techniques and Recipes with Olive Oil (published by their company, Two Extra Virgins). It should be extra virgin olive oil, which “you can use for just about everything.” Fine olive oil does wonders for all sorts of foods – vegetables, fish, meat and even fruit.
“Extra virgin olive oil is like freshly squeezed fruit juice – it’s made by pressing the fruit of the olive tree,” said Platis at the authors’ recent olive oil presentation in Los Angeles.
“Like wine, some olive oil tastes fruity,” she said Platis. But “unlike wine, using a bottle of extra virgin olive oil is urgent,” added George Menzelos of Arianna Trading Company, an importer of Greek olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil should be used while it is still fresh.
How will you know it’s fresh? It should have the harvest year on its label, said Menzelos, or even better, the harvest season. Ideally, the oil should be used within 18 months from that date.
The flavor of olive oil depends not only on the olive variety but also on the time of the harvest, said Platis. The major season for olive harvest is fall, when the olives are green and the oil is pungent and tastes “artichokey and peppery.”
Later, in spring, the olives are more mature and have turned almost brown, so the resulting olive oil is smooth, buttery and lighter in flavor.
The authors illustrated this point with a tasting. We sampled olive oil made from olives harvested at different seasons, and indeed, the oil from the fall harvest was the strongest in flavor, while the spring harvest oil was the most delicate.
Olive oil’s enemies are heat, oxygen and light – both sunlight and artificial light, said Menzelos. That’s why dark bottles are better, and why the oil should be stored in a dark, cool place.
Many don’t realize that olive oil has other uses beyond enriching salad dressings and marinades. For this reason Platis and Bashar organized their book according to cooking techniques, including poaching, braising, steaming and even dessert baking. Poaching in olive oil means cooking food such as lamb, chicken, fish or tomatoes in the oil at a slow simmer, at about 82C (180F), said Platis. The food becomes “immensely tender with a subtle hint of the oil’s flavors.”
Indeed, at La Varenne Cooking School in Paris, master chef Fernand Chambrette taught us to prepare tuna poached in olive oil, and it was one of the best tuna dishes we had ever tasted.
In order to be defined as extra virgin, said Menzelos, olive oil must have an acidity level below 0.8 percent; such oils can be heated to high temperatures without smoking. They are safe for roasting vegetables, such as the delicious roasted baby carrots with thyme made by Platis and Bashar. (See recipe.) Menzelos enthusiastically recommended frying eggs in extra virgin olive oil but said it should not be used for searing meat in a pan, because the temperature required is too high.
Olive oil is useful for enhancing steamed foods so they won’t be bland, wrote the authors. When baking salmon in parchment paper, for example, which is actually a form of steaming, they brush the salmon with olive oil, season it with salt and pepper and top it with asparagus spears, sliced shallots, capers and chives before enclosing it in the parchment.
Cakes, cookies and scones can be made with olive oil, wrote Platis and Bashar, and noted that olive oil can replace butter in a ratio of 3 to 4 – that is, ¾ cup olive oil for every cup (225 grams or 8 ounces) of butter.
They even make olive oil vanilla ice cream and olive oil chocolate cake. (See recipe.)
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book,
Classic Cooking Techniques.
Mary Platis and Laura Bashar recommend serving marinated vegetables with artisan cheeses or cold cuts, along with breads and pickles. It’s best to marinate the vegetables at least one night in advance.
Makes 5 to 6 cups
❖ 3 sweet red bell peppers
❖ 3 sweet yellow bell peppers
❖ ½ cup shelled fresh fava beans or ½ cup canned small white beans
❖ 5 garlic cloves, sliced
❖ 1 cup mixed pitted olives, drained and halved
❖ 400 gr. (15 ounces) artichokes canned in water, drained and coarsely chopped
❖ 280 gr. (10 ounces) small white mushrooms, cleaned and quartered Marinade:
❖ ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
❖ 1 / 3 cup sherry vinegar
❖ ½ tsp. dried oregano
❖ ½ tsp. dried basil
❖ ½ tsp. salt
❖ ¼ tsp. freshly ground pepper
Lightly rub peppers with olive oil. Place on a sheet pan and roast in a 205ºC (400ºF) oven until blistered. Place in a large bowl while hot, cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 15 minutes.
Peel peppers and cut into strips. Return to bowl.
Cook fava beans in a small pot of boiling water until tender. Drain and cool. If using baby fava beans, you do not need to remove the outer skins; if using larger fava beans, discard outer skins. If using canned white beans, rinse and drain.
Add beans, garlic, olives, artichokes and mushrooms to peppers.
To make marinade: Whisk olive oil, vinegar, oregano, basil, salt and pepper in a small bowl.
Add marinade to vegetables and gently toss.
Place mixture in a jar or deep bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight, or up to several days. Turn often to allow marinade to coat vegetables.
To serve, drain vegetables and serve with a little marinade in small, shallow bowls.
Other vegetables that benefit from roasting, wrote Platis and Bashar in Cooking Techniques and Recipes with Olive Oil , are potatoes, asparagus, green beans and Brussels sprouts.
Makes 4 servings
❖ 16 baby carrots, trimmed
❖ 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
❖ ¼ tsp. salt
❖ 1/8 tsp. freshly ground pepper
❖ 1 Tbsp. fresh thyme
Preheat oven to 200ºC (385ºF). Arrange carrots in one layer on baking sheet. Coat carrots with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Roast in oven until fork tender, about 25 minutes. Transfer carrots to serving platter, garnish with fresh thyme, and serve.
“Moist and filled with extra-chocolaty goodness, this cake is sure to please kids of all ages,” wrote Platis and Bashar. “Choose either a fruity or neutral olive oil, depending on your personal palate.” Serve the cake on its own, dusted with powdered sugar, or with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
The batter can also be baked as cupcakes. Instead of strawberries, you can use raspberries or sliced pears, oranges or peaches. The recipe calls for nonfat Greek yogurt; you can substitute low-fat labaneh or any thick yogurt.
Makes a 23-cm. (9-inch) round cake
❖ 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
❖ ½ cup unsweetened dark cocoa powder
❖ 2 tsp. baking powder
❖ tsp. salt
❖ ¾ cup granulated sugar
❖ ¾ cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt, other thick yogurt or low-fat labaneh
❖ 3 large eggs
❖ 1 tsp. vanilla extract
❖ ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
❖ ¾ cup dark chocolate chips
❖ 8 large strawberries, halved, with tops removed
Preheat oven to 180ºC (350ºF). Apply nonstick spray to a 23-cm. (9-inch) round baking pan, and line bottom with parchment paper.
In a medium-sized bowl whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt.
In a large bowl, mix sugar, yogurt, eggs, vanilla and olive oil until combined.
In batches, mix flour mixture into yogurt and stir until combined. Stir in chocolate chips, then pour cake batter into prepared pan.
Arrange strawberry halves over top of cake.
Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.
Allow cake to cool in pan for 15 minutes; then gently run a knife along side of cake. Carefully remove cake from pan and transfer to cooling rack to cool completely