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Olives & Olive Oil : The Good Fat Cookbook

 

Olive Oil

When I was first learning to cook as a teenager, there was only one olive oil to be found in the supermarket, Pompeiian, which came in a tiny pyramid-shaped bottle. Rumor had it that Italians used this stuff as hair pomade, and it was generally viewed with suspicion, a fit companion for garlic and other bad actors. But the advent of pizza and pasta changed all that. Today in my kitchen there are about six olive oils (which is too many), all but one of them extra virgin. The sixth oil is a light olive oil I use just for frying. I use these oils or coconut oil for virtually all my cooking. My mother would be astonished to see me making a cake with olive oil.

By now the word has gone out: olive oil is the best oil of all for our health, and it's the most delicious oil as well. In fact, as with most real foods, taste is a reliable indicator in olive oil of how healthful the oil is: the more delicious, the better its health profile. So what makes olive oil so healthy?

The first news on this subject came from Ancel Keys, a researcher who was looking all over the world for the healthiest populations. His Seven Countries Study, done in the 1950s, studied twenty-two populations in seven different countries; Crete and Japan emerged as the healthiest. Because in the Fifties heart disease was the most feared illness, that and longevity were the subjects of the study. A very small group of men on the island of Crete were not only very healthy but also very long-lived. This study of what they ate and how they lived is the origin of the Mediterranean diet, a construct of American health researchers to reap the benefits. Except for the Paleolithic diet humans have flourished on for millennia, it's still the best diet around, and because the food is so delicious and so easy to prepare, it's a simple and enjoyable way to eat.

Olive oil is the centerpiece of the Mediterranean way of eating, and it should be the centerpiece of ours as well--not so much to replace butter, but to replace the vegetable and seed oils, such as safflower, sunflower, soy, and corn, that have taken over our food supply and pose such dangers to our health (see "Bad Cooking Fats," page 116). Unlike those polyunsaturated oils, olive oil is primarily a monounsaturated oil, so it doesn't stiffen cell membranes like saturated fat of animal origin and it doesn't contribute to the dangerous oxidation that sets the stage for vascular disease and other health disasters.

In fact, olive oil comes with its own natural antioxidant package. The olive oil antioxidants are a thousand times more powerful, weight for weight, than vitamin C. The antioxidants are basically sunscreen, the result of the olive tree's efforts to protect itself from the hot sun, and they're in the leaf of the olive as well as the fruit. The leaf (sold as olive leaf extract in capsules) contains some very powerful antioxidants, capable of killing some viruses, such as Epstein Barr. It can also lower blood pressure without any side effects. Inevitably some of the leaves get into the oil during pressing, which adds some pepperiness and more antioxidants to the mix. Most of the vast store of natural antioxidants, however, is lost when the olives are cleaned before pressing (the cleaning water is usually discarded). Enough, however, remain to make olive oil your best choice at the table and in the kitchen. And even when olive oil is refined, enough antioxidants survive the processing so that they protect the oil from completely breaking down at high heat, such as in frying, if it doesn't go on for a long time. You can actually taste the antioxidants in olive oil; they are highly concentrated in the slightly bitter olio nuovo, the new oil that's pressed every fall and bottled right away. You can see them too: the new oil is green (though some other oils are also green). But these antioxidants are fragile and the oil mellows quite soon--some would say deteriorates.

A University of Milan study in 1994 discovered that oleuropin, a key element in olive oil, actually inhibits the oxidation of LDL cholesterol--the process thought to lead to atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries. Important as antioxidants are for antiaging and cardiovascular health (not only decreasing LDL, the bad cholesterol, but also increasing the good kind, HDL, by about 7 percent), perhaps their most valuable asset is their activity against neoplasms, new growths on cells that can lead to cancerous cell growth. Olive oil seems to be specifically protective against breast and prostate cancers, as well as endometrial cancer. It also inhibits blood clotting, so it protects against stroke and heart attack. There is a much lower incidence of osteoporosis in areas where plenty of olive oil is eaten as well, and the same is true of dementia. When you consume lots of olive oil, your cell membranes remain fluid, able to receive nutrients and toss out their cellular garbage--good health at its most basic level. Because it's so healthful and so easily digested, it's great for both children and the aging. Extra virgin olive oil is usually one of a baby's first foods in Italy--and one of the last foods of the departing.

Of the three main categories of olive oil--extra virgin, virgin, and what's sometimes called pure olive oil--I'm sure you know that extra virgin is the best, and the most expensive: it's pressed without using heat or chemicals (unlike all other vegetable and fruit oils) and it's from the first pressing of the olives, the cream of the crop. Maybe. Unfortunately, in America there are no actual regulations beyond the acidity level (less than 1 percent, though the standard may shortly become more rigorous, dropping down to 0.8 percent). As long as the acidity and chemical analysis requirements are met, some of the oil can still be chemically extracted--or some of it can be not olive oil at all but nut oil or even the dreaded seed oils. Some of it will undoubtedly be real extra virgin oil, but if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. The way around this is to buy good estate-bottled oil, which is more expensive and usually more delicious, or find a merchant you can trust. And be guided by taste: the adulterated oils just won't taste as good.

The acidity level of virgin olive oil can be up to 2 percent, twice as high as extra virgin, but the oil is still not processed with heat. It doesn't have as much flavor, so it can be used in baking and frying. Plain or pure olive oil is a blend of a little extra virgin oil with a lot of highly refined oil (usually refined with hexane, a dry-cleaning chemical that's also used to refine soy and canola oils). The extra virgin is added because the refined oil has almost no flavor of its own--so it's often sold as "light" olive oil (a marketing ploy), meaning without flavor, not with lower calories or fewer fat grams. This stuff is the dregs, frankly, though there are even worse dregs, the solvent-extracted residue called pomace, which is used almost exclusively in institutions and some restaurants and not foisted off on the rest of us in the marketplace. (Though I've recently seen pomace, in a charming little bottle that sells for about $3 per cup, in one of Manhattan's finest gourmet markets.)

Olives pressed for oil can be harvested at several stages, from unripe, in which case the oil will be bitter, to mature, which produce a buttery oil. Greek Kalamata olive oil has traditionally been a buttery oil, but now it's changing to a more bitter one, to please the tastes of fans of Tuscan olive oil. The oil from unripe olives will have a slightly greener color, but otherwise color is meaningless.

The oil of the olive has become so coveted that gourmets speak reverently of it and carry on about its fine points and complexities as though it were wine--with which, in fact, it shares many characteristics. Olive oil is alive in the same way wine is, and a huge number of factors conspire to create its distinctive taste, as they do with wine. In Italy alone there are more than four hundred varieties of olives. So where do you start looking for a good oil? To muse about all the possibilities, or some of them, take a look at Deborah Krasner's The Flavors of Olive Oil, which characterizes some distinctive oils on a country-by-country basis and notes a few bargains.

Olive oil is like salt; if you can afford the really good stuff, get it - it will make a huge difference in your cooking and perhaps in your health as well. The good stuff is often estate-bottled, made in small quantities with great care. My top three picks for the good stuff are mild French oil, expensive but great for making mayonnaise and other delicate dishes; estate-bottled Tuscan oils, such as Cappezanna; and fine Arbequina olive oil from Spain. If I see unfiltered oil from a good source, I get it--these oils have a wonderful complexity and no doubt are full of some interesting elements we don't yet know about. (I'll never forget finding a brilliant unfiltered Arbequina oil from Spain at Costco for about $1 per cup; every time I walk in the store, I hope I'll see it again.) Although we know of more than three hundred elements that conspire to produce the aroma in a given oil, new discoveries of micronutrients are constant in the olive oil world.

Country of origin isn't always a good indicator of what you're looking for, although French oils are almost always more delicate. Spain is the largest producer of oil, some of it excellent, and some of it--along with Greek oil--destined for Italy, where it's bottled and sent to us as Italian oil, sometimes even as Tuscan oil. For a good everyday oil, I choose a good Greek oil such as a Kalamata from the Avia Cooperative (which appears here under various labels, but Avia will be listed somewhere on the label)--these are good bargains and usually wonderful. Iliada is another good Kalamata oil that's widely available. Price clubs such as Costco have some excellent extra virgin oils; if you have access to Trader Joe's, their organic oils are also very good. If you just want a good supermarket oil, try Colavita, which a number of professional cooks use as their house olive oil for general cooking.

Should you choose an organic oil? Olive trees do have a lot of pests, and they're usually controlled with chemicals. Besides, organic oils tend to be labors of love, so you may end up with a product far superior to what its price would suggest.

There are two specialty oils worth knowing about. Olio nuovo, from the first pressing of the year, is jammed with antioxidants and much prized by the locals. Savvy Italians go to the mill to taste the new pressing; they love the burn at the back of the throat these new oils have--the more peppery and burning, the better (and the healthier). The new oil is really more of a condiment, wonderful on bread and vegetables and fish. Despite all its antioxidants, this oil is a bit fragile and best used up within a few months. Look for olio nuovo in the spring.

Perhaps the most singular olive oil comes from Armando Manni, an impassioned amateur producer who wanted to create a perfect olive oil for the health of his newborn son, Lorenzo (no, this isn't Lorenzo's oil. . .). This had to be Tuscan oil, from a rare cultivar, and Manni wanted it to have the maximum polyphenol (antioxidant) content possible. The best oils have a polyphenol content of between 100 and 250 milligrams per liter. Manni's oil sometimes exceeds 450 milligrams, and it is always at least in the high 300s. For his child, he also wanted a delicate, light-on-the-palate oil. Manni's friends so loved this oil that they wanted their own, adult version, a bit fuller in taste, so of course he obliged.

Besides their polyphenol content and their superb taste, these very expensive oils are preserved with an amazing freshness, so that opening a bottle is like trying just-pressed oil. Almost all the damaging UV rays are screened by the glass of the bottle and special gases are used to minimize oxygen inside the bottle. If you want to learn more, go to www.manni.biz.

The quality of the oil you choose is only partly dependent on the producer; the minute you open the bottle, you become responsible for its quality thereafter. The enemies of olive oil, and all fragile oils, are UV light (which turns out to be much more damaging than previously thought), heat, and oxygen. Oxygen enters the bottle right away when it's opened, and from then on the process of deterioration is in full swing. Actually the oil is deteriorating slowly on its way to the market and on the shelf in the market, but the pace picks up once it's opened. It needs to be tightly sealed (no cute little countertop metal pitchers with open spouts, and definitely no copper), stored away from light and heat, and not left open after you use it. If it's in a clear (not dark) glass bottle, covering the bottle with foil is a good idea. You could keep it in the refrigerator to stall the inevitable a bit, but gourmets feel that's not a good idea for optimum flavor and texture. A trick I learned decades ago seems to be a good idea: when you open the bottle, add the contents of a capsule of natural vitamin E oil and stir it in well, to boost the oil's own vitamin E. In theory olive oil is good for two years after harvesting, but in fact it's a good idea to use it all the first year. The younger it is, the tastier, and the more antioxidants. Although there's no standardized labeling, look for a harvest date and count forward--or a "best by" date and count backward. If you need to use up a bottle before you thought you might, make some tuna confit (see page 242).

Different oils have different lives in the bottle; delicate Arbequina oil from Spain can go off as quickly as three or four months after the bottle is opened. How do you know if your olive oil is rancid? If it smells nutty (which sounds like a good thing, but isn't), or fishy, or like bananas, it's rancid and will do you harm. With all unsaturated fats, it's a struggle against oxidative rancidity, which turns them into trouble. Olive oil is much more protected by its own antioxidants than other oils, however, which is why it lasts longer.

You can use olive oil for almost everything you do in the kitchen, including baking. In fact, it's wonderful for baking, because it gives a good texture and good keeping qualities as well as some flavor--but you don't taste the cake and think, wow, that's olive oil. You can also use less oil when you bake if you're substituting it for butter or hydrogenated vegetable fats like Crisco-- just use one-quarter less olive oil. If you're replacing other liquid vegetable oils, use olive oilmeasure for measure. This is the one time you might consider using a light olive oil, if you want no olive flavor at all; it's a better choice than the bad vegetable oils.

Best:

  • Estate-bottled extra virgin oils from France, Italy, and Spain
  • Tuscan olio nuovo
  • Boutique extra virgin oils from California (like the Tuscan oils, these are expensive)

Good:

  • Kalamata extra virgin oil from Greece
  • Kirkland extra virgin oil from Costco
  • Trader Joe's organic extra virgin oil
  • Iliada extra virgin oil

Okay:

  • Colavita extra virgin oil

Avoid:

  • Pure olive oil, which is highly refined and tasteless - but okay for deep-frying
  • Light olive oil--'light" just means pale, i.e., very refined and deodorized; use only for frying and baking, if you need a flavorless oil

 

Olives

Olives have, of course, all the benefits of olive oil, but they have even more of the good things, because a lot of antioxidants go down the drain when olives are cleaned for making oil. Green olives have more antioxidants than dark ripe olives. All olives also have fiber and calcium, magnesium, and potassium, plus some nutrients that vary depending on the type of olive.

If it's good to have some nuts every day--and it is--it s also good to have some olives every day. Possibly this is why Europeans often serve nuts and olives with wine as a prelude to the evening meal. If you want something more interesting, serve warmed seasoned olives (page 169) and spiced nuts, which offer a big bang for almost no work.

You should taste olives before you serve them to anyone, because very often they're overly salty, especially Kalamatas. Give them a really good rinse and if that doesn't do it, give them a soak for 15 minutes and then a rinse.

Buy olives in bulk if you can, and ask for a little extra brine after they're weighed so you can store them at home in the fridge for several weeks. Or, once you get them home, drain the brine and toss the olives with olive oil to cover--they should keep for a month at room temperature and they'll taste better than refrigerated olives. But all olives go eventually; that little container at the back of the refrigerator may have mold growing in it, and even if it doesn't, the olives may be too soft and missing some of their flavor. To use up olives that might otherwise go off, make some tapenade (page 171) or olivada (page 170).

It's not hard to pit olives--sometimes you can do it with just your thumb against a cutting board--and you should always buy them with the pits intact. The flavor starts to go the minute they're pitted, so buying pitted olives is not a good idea.

 
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