Get creative with olive oil: Chef Kathy Gunst shares tales and recipes from Italy's ancient trees
You go to the supermarket and olive oil is on your shopping list — but there are so many to choose from. What do all those terms on the label mean? Extra virgin? Cold-pressed?
Last fall, I was invited to go to northern Italy with Jovial Foods to learn about how olive oil is made and used. I learned so much on this trip about how to demystify the terms on the olive oil bottle, but more than that what a versatile, delicious, and healthy ingredient olive oil is.
Let me set the scene: We start in a small town on a steep hillside overlooking the brilliant blue waters of Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake. This is where Jovial grows thousands of olive trees, including ancient varieties some of which go back to Roman times.
On a gorgeous and strangely warm November day, we watch a crew of workers harvest olives using long mechanized rakes that pull the fruit off the trees onto tarps laying on the ground. I even got to take a turn harvesting the olives.
Although most olive oil comes from southern Italy, Lake Garda in northern Italy near Verona has a microclimate that makes it ideal for producing peppery, full-flavored oils.
Most days the crew begins picking early in the morning and, within hours, the olives are en route to a nearby mill in the town of Grezzana, where they will be cleaned, crushed and the oil extracted by giant presses. Timing, it turns out, is crucial.
Daniele Salvagno, CEO of Redoro Frantoi Veneti, the mill where Jovial olive oil is pressed and bottled, explains that the moment the olives are picked a process called oxidation begins. When the olives are crushed the oil is exposed to oxygen which transforms and begins to age it. This is one of the first and most important things I learned — that olive oil is a living product.
It’s constantly changing at every stage of production, from the moment the olives are picked to the time you open the bottle and pour it over your pasta. And it’s perishable. So when you cook with olive oil it’s helpful to keep that in mind.
Think of olive oil as a food that doesn’t have an indefinite shelf life. So buy it and use it within a few months. Most good oils now list the expiration date right on the label. Proper storage is also important: you want to keep olive oil away from direct sunlight and away from the heat of your stovetop. And always keep the bottle closed and the cap tightly sealed to avoid further oxidation.
Another important thing I learned is that the color of the olive oil doesn’t matter. I always thought a deep green color meant the richest, most flavorful oil and a golden yellow indicated a light flowery oil.
But according to Rodolfo Viola, CEO and co-founder of Jovial Foods, color is not an indicator of quality: There are good green olive oils as well as good yellow olive oils.
“The color depends on the area, and the variety,” Viola says. “Some companies just add green coloring to appeal to the consumer.”
If the color doesn’t indicate the quality of the olive oil what do you look for? There are a few key terms to look for on the label. The label extra virgin lets you know the oil is the product of the first pressing and has less than 0.8% acidity. Low acidity equals healthy oil. Acidity indicates the health of the olives and the trees. Olive trees affected by poor soil, bad weather or bugs will have higher acidity. Virgin olive oil, a lesser grade oil, is closer to 1.5 to 2% acidity.
Cold pressed indicates that no heat or chemicals were used in making the oil. Heat breaks down the oil and diminishes the flavor. When olives are pressed, the machines that apply the pressure to squeeze out the oil generate heat. If this process is done too quickly, too much heat is generated. And that changes the quality of the oil. Cold pressed means the temperature during the pressing never exceeds 75 degrees. And, of course, organic indicates that the olives were grown without pesticides or chemicals.
Keep in mind that extra virgin olive oil is essentially pressed fruit juice made without additives. The difference in quality is determined by the type of olives used, the terroir, or the qualities of the land where the olives are grown, and the care with which it is pressed and produced. Clearly, these are hard qualities to determine simply by looking at a bottle.
Ultimately, it’s really a matter of taste. Good quality oil can be expensive. (But this is a good time for cooks to use olive oil in new ways. Because, as you know, there’s a worldwide shortage of vegetable oil due to the war in Ukraine.) In addition to reading the label, some shops will host olive oil tastings so you can see which flavor profile you like best. Olive oil can range from green and grassy to peppery and spicy to golden yellow, floral, and delicate.
And, it turns out, olive oil is really good for you. It’s extremely high in antioxidants and is high in good monounsaturated fatty acids. It’s also considered an anti-inflammatory.
Many American cooks just rely on olive oil for making salad dressings or drizzling over pasta. But according to Giulia Viola, Rodolfo’s daughter and vice president of Jovial, we are undervaluing olive oil.
“People don’t understand how versatile it is,” Guilia Viola explains. In many Italian households olive oil is used for virtually everything — cooking at high heat, frying, marinating, baking, sauces, cooking meat, etc.”
I take my cue from her. I buy moderately priced extra virgin in a large tin for everyday cooking like sauteing vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, Swiss chard and kale. I use it as a base for almost any pasta sauce. I like to sauté fish filets, shrimp, clams, chicken or meat. And then I use my more expensive, delicate extra virgin oils for any vinaigrette or salad dressing I make. And for drizzling over pasta and salads so you can really appreciate the taste. All around, olive oil is something I lean on in my kitchen on a daily basis.
Enjoy three new recipes that use olive oil as a flavorful ingredient rather than a cooking fat.
Olive oil fried eggs
This is as simple as it gets. An egg is fried in olive oil and, while it cooks, the oil is “basted” over the egg to flavor it. You spoon the oil from the skillet over the egg as it cooks. You can serve it sunny side up or over easy, but use a good extra virgin olive oil for this breakfast dish. The oil contributes a ton of flavor to the egg.
Serves 1 to 2.
- 1 ½ tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 2 eggs
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Crusty bread or toast
- In a medium skillet set over medium-low heat, heat the oil for 30 seconds. Crack the eggs into a bowl and slide into the hot skillet one at a time. Cook for 1 1/2 minutes, or until the whites are set, spooning the oil from the skillet over the egg whites and yolks as it cooks. For over-easy eggs, gently flip the egg over and cook for another minute. If serving sunny side up, cook another minute, spooning the oil the entire time. Serve with crusty bread or toast with any oil from the skillet poured on top.
Aglio e olio (garlic and oil) linguine
This is my go-to pasta sauce when there’s nothing much in the refrigerator and I want to make a satisfying quick dinner. All it requires is olive oil, garlic, and some dried red chili flakes. It’s worth using a good extra virgin olive oil in this dish as the oil is a key flavoring ingredient.
You can toss the sauce on top of linguine or spaghetti. You can also top the pasta with finely chopped fresh parsley and grated Parmesan cheese.
- ½ cup, plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 3 to 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- Pinch dried red chili flakes
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound pasta, linguine or spaghetti
- About ⅓ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat.
- Cook the pasta for about 11 minutes or follow the directions of the package depending on the type of pasta you use for al dente pasta, or pasta with a slight bite to it. Be sure to reserve 2 tablespoons of the pasta water just before you drain the pasta.
- Make the sauce: In a medium skillet heat the oil over moderately low heat. Add the garlic and cook for about 2 minutes or until the garlic just begins to sizzle and cook. Add the chili flakes, salt and pepper. When the oil begins to sizzle, remove from the heat. Add the 2 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water and stir.
- Drain pasta and place in a serving bowl. Toss with the garlic and oil and season to taste. Grate the cheese on top.
Lemon and orange-scented olive oil cake
It may feel crazy to use your good extra virgin olive oil in this simple cake but trust me it’s worth it. This cake whisks up in one bowl and is baked until golden brown. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve with fresh strawberries. I love eating this cake for breakfast with tiny cups of strong espresso, but also as a snack or for dessert.
Serve 6 to 8.
- Vegetable oil for greasing the pan
- ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 ½ teaspoon for greasing the pan
- ¾ cup sugar
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon fine salt
- 1 ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 1 ½ teaspoon grated orange zest
- 1 egg
- ½ cup buttermilk*
- 1 ¼ cups cake flour, or 165 grams**
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
- About 1 ½ cups strawberries, left whole or thickly sliced
*If you don’t have buttermilk add 1 ½ teaspoons lemon juice to ½ cup milk and let sit for about 15 minutes.
**If you don’t have cake flour, a type of finely sifted low protein flour, you can make your own by sifting together 1 cup of all-purpose flour (minus 2 tablespoons) with 2 tablespoons cornstarch (which contains less gluten than regular flour). Sift again to get a very fine texture.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Using a 9 ½-inch cake pan: cut a piece of parchment paper and, using a pencil, sketch around the bottom of the cake pan to create a 9 ½ inch circle. Cut the circle out.
- Lightly grease the bottom of the cake pan with the vegetable oil. Place the parchment circle on top and grease the paper and the sides of the pan with a teaspoon and a half of olive oil.
- In a large bowl whisk together the sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add the lemon zest and orange zest and the egg and whisk to combine. Add the 3/4 cup of olive oil, buttermilk and whisk until smooth. Sift the flour on top of the mixture and combine.
- Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and place on the middle shelf of the preheated oven. Bake for 30 minutes. The cake should be a light golden brown and slightly domed. It is done when a toothpick comes out clean from the center.
- Remove from the cake and place on a cooling rack for about 5 minutes. Flip the cake out onto the cooling rack and let cool to room temperature. Flip the cake over onto a serving plate (domed side on top) and sift the confectioners’ sugar on top. Surround with strawberries.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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