Italian Olive Oil Often Imitated, Never Duplicated
Authentic Italian Food. The Quality of Life
Olive Oil: Good for Health and a Thrill for the Taste Buds Despite constantly changing viewpoints on the health benefits of one cooking fat over another, olive oil has held its ground as the healthiest of all. Research shows that extravirgin olive oil is actually a “good” fat with many beneficial attributes. It is an aid to digestion, a balm to the scalp, food to the skin and cholesterol-free. As a monounsaturated oil, it actually lowers “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, leaving “good” (HDL) cholesterol to help clean out the arteries. In Italy and other parts of the world, extra-virgin olive oil is taken as preventive medicine, in the same way as we administer cod liver oil to ward off diseases. Many scientific studies have established proof of its health-giving properties and confirmed the research done in the 1950s that proved a correlation between the traditional olive oil-based diet and the lowest rate of heart disease in the western world. The newest reports highlighting the benefits of cooking with olive oil may increase its sales and ultimately increase exports from Italy, the world’s largest producer of olive oil.
A Symbolic and Primordial Food The olive tree is imbued with symbolic meaning in the imagination and mythology of all Mediterranean cultures. Its existence merges with the very origins of civilization itself. The first olive seed is said to have germinated in the Earthly Paradise and sprouted from the grave of Adam. In the Book of Genesis, Noah releases a dove that returns with an olive twig in its beak, a symbol of the end of the flood — and of God's wrath. Jacob, when he sees a ladder reaching toward heaven, anoints the rock upon which he had lain with olive oil, transforming it into a sacred stone. Before his death, Jesus goes into an olive grove to pray, and weeps. Olive oil is still used today in Christian holy rites — to anoint the newly born at baptism, children at their confirmation, monarchs at their coronations and the dying in their final breath of life. Olive trees were cultivated in Italy by the Etruscans as long
ago as 6,000 B.C. Once the Etruscans and the Romans learned how to make use of the olive and extract and preserve its oil, it became a staple of their diet. In ancient Greece, the worst damage a city-state could inflict on the economy of a rival was to cut down the foe's olives and vines.
Olive Cultivation A Dantesque vision of what the landscape would be like without the olive was provided by a storm that struck central Italy in January of 1985. Bitter-cold winds originating in the Russian steppes swept in from the northeast and in a single night killed thousands of trees over a vast area, particularly in the central regions of Tuscany, Umbria, the Marches and Latium. No one could view the devastation of the once soft and silvery Italian hillsides without feeling the sorrow and loss of the nation. The beauty of a countryside that inspired the master Italian painters and awed the world was vandalized by force of nature in less than twenty-four hours. The Italians were stunned, but they responded just as the inhabitants of the Greek city-states had when the enemy slashed and burned their olives. They chopped down trees that were hopelessly damaged, severely cut back those that had survived, and planted new shoots. Now, decades later, few scars of the disaster remain, thanks to the determination of the olive growers. Olive trees bear fruit on a two-year cycle. A plentiful crop of olives one year is followed by a dearth the next. But late spring frosts can reduce the number of flowers, and what is supposed to be a year of plenty can easily turn into two years of scarcity. A prolonged dry spell in the summer may also reduce the crop. The olive thrives in mild climates, but not necessarily in all temperate zones. It needs a microclimate that is strongly conditioned by a large body of water. Such is the 2
atmosphere in the Mediterranean regions and those blessed with large freshwater lakes, including central and northern Italy, especially the vast Lago di Garda in the Veneto region. With the exception of the areas immediately surrounding these lakes, and the northern slopes of the Apennines in Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna, the olive thrives best south of the Apennines, in central and southern Italy, and on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily.
Making Olive Oil Because the olives destined for oil should not be bruised, they must be taken directly from the tree, not collected from the ground. It is critical to press them as soon as possible after harvesting. If the olives are left unpressed for too long, they begin to ferment. After picking, the olives are immediately washed, then crushed between large stone wheels where no heat is applied -- thus the term, “cold pressed.” The olive oil of the highest level of quality is the extra-virgin, which is produced solely on a first pressing by mechanical means only (without use of chemicals). It must be cold presssed and contain no more than 1 percent acidity. Next in rank comes Virgin with the same rule of extraction and a maximum of 2 percent acidity. After Virgin come “olio di oliva” or Pure, a blend of oils that has been chemically rectified to reduce acidity to 1.5 percent. The lowest grade derived chemically from the dregs of pressed olives is known as Pomace, used in cosmetics and in pharmaceuticals, not for cooking. New equipment and techniques have been developed for removing the oil from the fruit but the object is the same today as it was in the days of the Etruscans -- to exert sufficient pressure to obtain the oil without, at the same time, extracting impurities and deleterious substances. Premium extra-virgin olive oil is a completely handmade product, from the picking of the olives to the pressing. The 3
average yield per tree is extremely low in some areas, especially those where the most highly regarded oils are produced. In such zones, a tree may bear sufficient olives to provide no more than a couple of quarts of oil. Genuine extra-virgin olive oil is costly because it is labor-intensive and time-consuming to produce, and only a small quantity of this grade can be extracted from a batch of olives.
A Diversity of Olive Oils Olive oils vary in taste according to the type of olive (approximately 120 different varieties are cultivated), climatic conditions, soil, and processing. While there can be no hard and fast rules, there are general regional characteristics for oil that hold true. Southern Italian oils are considered "riper" and thicker than more northerly oils. Ligurian oils are golden and delicately flavored. Northern Italian oils are peppery and pungent, and oils from Tuscany, Umbria and other parts of central Italy are very fruity. The extra-virgin olive oil produced in the hills of central Italy is usually but not always dark green in color. It is fruity and sapid, and generally considered the finest oil overall. Milder olive oils varying from light green to dark yellow that are sweeter and less assertive also have their uses and their aficionados. Italians, if they can afford it, keep several types of olive oil in their pantries. Each has its own particular use. 4
Storing Olive Oil Olive oil is at its best when it is very young. Unfiltered olive oil has a more full-bodied flavor and aroma than filtered oil because it contains more of the fruit, although it turns rancid more quickly than filtered oil. Premium grade olive oil has a rich golden-green color that is unmistakable when compared to the pale gold of the lesser grade oils, which are made from subsequent pressings. Although heating extra-virgin olive oil causes it to lose its potency, it is superior to any other oil for the rich flavor it imparts to cooked food. It is very important to use fresh olive oil, because as it ages, it begins to spoil. Light and heat will cause it to deteriorate quickly. Many olive oils on the market are stale before they are ever purchased. Buy in small quantities from stores where merchandise moves quickly (keep in mind that the new vintage arrives every winter, usually around January), and use it frequently. The best grade extra-virgin olive oils are often numbered and vintage-dated, which enables buyers to be assured of both the freshness and purity of premium extra-virgin oils. The best way to keep olive oil is to store it capped in a cool place. Do not refrigerate it, and do not store it near a direct source of heat. Nor should you ever top it with fresh oil from a new bottle. Using it often is the best way to ensure that the oil is fresh.
Cooking with Extra-Virgin Olive Oil The Italian term for extra-virgin olive oil is, simply, olio -literally, oil! Is there any other kind? For cooking and flavoring food in the Italian kitchen, the answer is a resounding no! The rich, pleasantly grassy flavor and aromatic properties of olio are critical in the preparation of the majority of Italian dishes. Extra-virgin olive oil is ideal for sautéing, roasting, baking, grilling, basting, marinating, and, yes, -- deep-frying and flavoring. Imagine how Americans once used butter for added flavor on bread, and in or over cooked foods. Use extra-virgin olive oil in the same waywith the bonus of not adding cholesterol to your food. The best way to experience the full, clear taste of extra-virgin olive oil is to use it cold, as is done with so many Italian dishes. Drizzle it over soups, vegetables, sauces, pasta dishes, or fresh cheeses. Use it to finish everything from seafood to steak. Or use it “straight-up” as a dip for raw vegetables or bread.
Bagna cauda â€œWarm Sauceâ€? Makes approximately 1 1/2 cups This classic hot garlic and anchovy dip of Piedmont is eaten with raw or cooked vegetables, and hearty slices of bread. Leftover sauce can be used to dress pasta or as condiment for boiled meats or fish. This sauce is served in a fondue pot or chafing dish, or in individual terracotta bowls, in which to dip the vegetables or bread. Because bagna cauda must remain hot, it should be placed on warmers or small chafing dishes to keep it simmering constantly.
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil 4 large cloves garlic, crushed 2 2-ounce cans anchovy filets preserved in olive oil, chopped and olive oil reserved 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted freshly milled black pepper assorted raw vegetables for dipping, including cardoons, carrots, celery, fennel, red or yellow bell peppers fresh artisanal bread In a saucepan, warm the olive oil and add the garlic and chopped anchovy fillets and their oil. Stir constantly until the anchovies disintegrate. Blend in the butter. Add pepper to taste. Keep the sauce hot over a chafing dish and dip raw vegetables and bread into it. Note: The garlic flavor becomes somewhat milder if the cloves are left to soak in milk for a few hours before making the sauce. Alternatively, stir in a small amount of cream at the last minute.
Pasta di olive Black Olive Pesto Makes about 1 cup Because the fragrance and flavor of extra-virgin olive oil are partially lost in cooking, this pesto is a good way to experience the taste of olive oil directly. Pasta di olive can be served as an antipasto, spread on toast, or it can also be used as a sauce for spaghetti or linguine. Mince the olives by hand rather than in a food processor to avoid over-grinding them.
1/2 pound imported black Italian olives, pitted and coarsely chopped (about 1 cup) zest of half a lemon 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil fine sea salt freshly milled black pepper In a bowl, combine the olives and lemon zest. Add the olive oil a little at a time, blending the mixture with a spoon as you do. Be careful not to mash the olives. Add salt and pepper to taste. Put the mixture into a jar; cover it completely with more olive oil and seal. It can be used immediately or kept for up to a month in a refrigerator.
Frisedda alla pugliese Bread with Tomato and Olive Oil Topping For 4 people This humble recipe from Puglia, the heel of Italy’s “boot” is based on a type of hard-tack biscuit made from leavened dough and pepper, called frisedda. A successful substitute can be made with sturdy, artisanal-type hardened bread.
4 frisedda bread disk, or substitute 4 large, thick slices hardened artisanal bread 4 ripe tomatoes, cored, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped sea salt to taste 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh oregano or 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano 4 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil freshly milled black pepper if substituting genuine hardened bread for frisedda Immerse the frisedda or hardened bread slices in water for 10 seconds. Squeeze dry without breaking them and lay them on a plate. In a bowl, combine the tomatoes, salt, oregano and olive oil. Distribute the mixture over the top of each frisedda or bread slice. Eat at once.
Maccheroncini alla puttanesca (versione cruda)
Harlot-style Macaroni (uncooked, summer version) For 4 people There are many versions in Italy of this spicy-sounding dish. It could be that the name bestowed on the sauce arises from the quickness with which a nourishing meal had to be prepared between customers in Naples' legendary houses of ill repute. Or, the title might refer to the zesty ingredients that go into the sauce. In any case, this version, in which the sauce is completely uncooked, and for which sweet, ripe summer tomatoes are essential, is quite different from the cooked version.
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil 3 large garlic cloves, smashed 2 1/2 pounds fresh, ripe, sweet tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped 1/4 cup black imported olives, pitted 1 tablespoon capers dried hot pepper flakes to taste fine sea salt to taste handful fresh basil, torn into small pieces 1 pound medium-sized macaroni such as pennette ("little quills"), or fusilli ("twists") Combine the olive oil and garlic in the bowl in which the pasta will be served and set it aside. Bring enough water to cover the tomatoes to a boil. Blanch the tomatoes for 30 seconds to facilitate peeling them. Drain. Remove the skin, any tough core near stem and seeds. Chop the tomatoes coarsely. Add the tomatoes, olives, capers, pepper, salt and basil to the bowl. (It is preferable to refrigerate the sauce anywhere from two to eight hours, but I often make this dish in a pinch to serve immediately, and find this spontaneous version delightful, as long as the tomatoes are ripe and sweet.) 11
Remove the garlic cloves when you are ready to use the sauce. In a soup kettle, bring 5 quarts of water to a rapid boil. Stir in the pasta and 2 tablespoons of salt. Cook over high heat according to package instructions, stirring occasionally to prevent the pasta from sticking together. Drain and toss cool sauce with hot pasta. Serve immediately.
Agliata & Porrata Garlic Sauce & Extra-Virgin Olive Oil and Leek Sauce Agliata is one of the most ancient sauces in Italian cooking. Its use dates back to classical Roman times and it is still popular today. Use it to sauce piping hot, barely drained dried pasta, or as a condiment for boiled or broiled fish, poultry, game, fowl, boiled meats or vegetables.
2 or 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar 3/4 cup diced stale white bread, crusts removed 6 cloves garlic, peeled and cut into several pieces fine sea salt to taste freshly ground white or black pepper to taste 2 cups extra-virgin olive oil Combine the vinegar and the bread in a medium-sized bowl. After the bread has absorbed all the vinegar, drain and squeeze dry completely. In the meantime, in a large mortar and pestle, finely pound the garlic with the salt and pepper. Add the crumbled bread and the olive oil, in a slow, steady stream, beating to obtain a smooth mixture. Check for salt and pepper. Alternatively, soak, drain and squeeze the bread as described. Crumble the bread and beat it together with the other ingredients in a food processor of blender. Variation: Porrata, a variation of agliata, is made with leeks in place of garlic. Substitute the bulbous white portion of one fat leek for the garlic and proceed.
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Published on Feb 2, 2012