While Old World countries of Europe and the Middle East have lauded the virtues of Olive Oil for centuries, in the New World many thought of it as the name of the cartoon character, Pop Eye’s girlfriend until about 30 years ago. No longer. This gold/green liquid has taken over much of the global culinary world and for good reason.
Nowhere is olive oil loved and revered more than in Greece. Said to be given by the goddess of wisdom, Athena, to the city bearing her name, the olive tree provides two staples of Greek cuisine – olives and olive oil.
It has been the most significant ingredient in the Greek diets since ancient times and is still an integral part of the Greek kitchen and rightfully celebrated on Greek tables. For Greeks cannot eat without olive oil. Rich, flavoursome extra virgin olive oil is on the table at all meals, which begin and end with olive oil; bread is dipped in it, salads and vegetables are doused with it, it is poured over soups, stews and many other dishes.
Olive oil is also used liberally in cooking, sometimes a surprising amount is called for in recipes. ‘Close your eyes and add olive oil’ is the wisdom imparted by many older Greek cooks (what this means is that a good amount of olive oil should be added).
Use the amount listed in the recipes or your meal won’t have that authentic Greek flavour. Extra virgin olive oil completely changes not only the taste but also the texture and richness of many favourite dishes. Enjoy it.
The Greeks have a whole special term for braising – ladera or ladthera. From the word Ladi the Greek word for olive oil. And it was in Greece that I learned a trick to stop okra getting mucilaginous – deep-fry it in olive oil for a few minutes before finishing in a sauce.
We can all take a lead form Greece where the olive oil is virtually all extra virgin olive oil. New season’s oil is used at the table, for salads and to pour over finished dishes while last season’s is used for cooking and deep-frying.
Greek’s consume more olive oil per capita than any other nation in the world, an average of 26 litres per person, per year! Despite its relatively small size Greece is the third largest producer of olive oil (behind Spain and Italy), with around 140 million olive trees, which produce approximately 450,000 tons of olive a year, 80% of which is extra virgin olive oil, making Greece the world leader in this oil.
Cooking with Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Although extra virgin olive oil is suitable for cooking and even deep-frying, due to its cost, many people prefer to save it for salad dressings, mayonnaise and for finishing off dishes like vegetables, soups and pasta, where the oil is added after cooking. Try it for making mashed potatoes!
Certainly cold it adds moisture and gloss to foods like salads and vegetables which increases both visual and taste appeal. It also helps with satiety. Think how often a dish in a restaurant is finished with a drizzle of EVOO.
However, extra virgin olive oil is perfect for all types of cooking. One of the keys is freshness of the oil, as well as quality, for a higher level of natural antioxidants. Some take the view that when heated the phenolics can be lost, but there is evidence to show that some of them transfer to the cooked food which can further help with the absorption of some nutrients in certain vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale. So more phyto-nutrients are absorbed than by steaming! EVOO is completely free from transfats and is stable. This has all been scientifically and well-documented. (Sarah Gray in The Journal of the Australiasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine June 2015).
A study by Professor Martin Grootveld in the Leicester School of Pharmacy at De Montford University showed that cooking in such saturate-rich animal fats like lard, butter or goosefat was preferable to frying in sunflower or corn oil because less harmful aldehydes are formed on heating. He concludes that the idea oil for cooking is olive oil.
I’m a cook and believe in unadulterated flavour in all foods. EVOO just tastes better to me and I believe that natural foods always do. In that way EVOO and good food make us happy.