I have been reading Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ recent publication Virgin Territory. This is an exceptional book, fully considered, and well researched. What unfolds is an interesting and engaging history of olive oil, and exciting ways to profile good olive oil in one’s own cooking. Her book motivated me to find some decent olive oils to highlight the end of season bounty, and she provides strategies for sourcing decent quality oil wherever you live.
Olive oil seems to transform food. When olive oil is added to a dish, the result is greater than the sum of its parts. A simple tomato or cucumber, which are satisfying alone, if not a bit austere, becomes generous when the oil is liberally drizzled over the top. Something happens as a result of the fat, acids, bitterness, and other compounds of the oil which goes beyond what is achieved by adding butter or another type of oil.
Olive oil is exceptionally healthy and Harmon Jenkins explains the science behind this better than I could ever attempt (Something to do with polyphenols, anti-oxidants, and monounsaturated fats. The higher the quality of oil the more health-giving they are). Unfortunately, it seems, finding really good oils in North America can be tricky as the best olive oil is found close to its source.
There is a buzz on the Internet about the dangers of heating olive oil and the resulting carcinogenic effect. It is not likely the entire Mediterranean has been poisoning itself since the beginning of time, and the Mediterranean Diet, which is highly centred around the use of olive oil, is known to be one of the healthiest on the planet. If you are concerned, there are many cooking mediums that have a higher smoke point. Olive oil can simply be used to finish a dish and this ensures its health giving properties remain fully intact. However, according to Harmon Jenkins, olive oil does have a reasonable smoking point and, additionally, many of the health giving compounds such as polyphenols reduce the risk of carceogenesis in the oil when it is heated. Her argument might suggest that olive oil is actually safer to heat than many other vegetable based oils lacking the healthful compounds which are naturally present in olive oil.
I have been inspired by Virgin Territory, but haven’t, as such, cooked anything directly from her collection of recipes. Rather, I have been thinking about my own August cooking differently and have been embracing a more Mediterranean approach.
Below are some dishes that do highlight the use of a good olive oil.
Warm Spiced Chickpeas and Fresh Vegetables
This salad was adapted from the Warm Chickpea and Fresh Vegetable Salad from Honey & Co. a very exciting book profiling Middle Eastern cooking. I tossed chickpeas in various spices such as cumin, paprika, allspice, and cardamom, and warmed them in a generous amount of olive oil. They were laid on a platter with fresh chopped cucumber, green pepper, and tomato, along with a mountain of parsley, green onion, fennel frond, and mint. All these separate components were heaped separately on the platter so that the diner can compose their own salad on their plate with as much of each item as they wish. A dressing of olive oil, honey, lemon and garlic was poured overtop of the platter just as we sat down to eat.
To serve along with the salad was a burnt zucchini dip – modelled after Baba Ganoush (normally eggplant is used). I roasted 4 medium sized zucchini in a 400 F oven until they blacked – turning them once half way along.
The insides were then scooped out, and all was mixed with a handful of herbs kept from the salad above, a bit of greek yoghurt, a scraping of crushed garlic, and salt and pepper. A generous drizzle of olive oil was worked in after all the previous ingredients were mashed together in a bowl.
The combination of the fresh herbs, warming spices, garlic and olive oil made for perfect August eating.
I plucked these peppers from their vine just before we departed on holiday. Some would argue that a green pepper is simply an unripened pepper and is similar to the experience of eating a green tomato, and I agree. However, I often pick them early for this dish because, and I would not normally suggest this, I actually think stuffed peppers in August are actually more interesting with unripened green peppers that have been stuffed with an aromatic tomato-infused rice. If I were purchasing the peppers rather than using them straight from my own garden, I would absolutely go for a ripened pepper. My favourite are lovely, mild, soft yellow-almost-white ones from our local fruit and vegetable stand.
These peppers were inspired by Elizabeth David’s method as outlined in A Book of Mediterranean Food. The filling, as I did it, was simply an onion and garlic sautéed with a quarter cup of pine nuts, a cup of basmati rice added in long enough to absorb the aromatics, a chopped tomato, and half a cup of water. Once the rice softened just a bit, and the tomatoes had integrated, a big handful of chopped dill and mint were added in along with golden sultanas. All was seasoned well with salt and pepper, as well as allspice and cumin.
The peppers are slit and de-seeded, and then stuffed. All is liberally drizzled with olive oil and baked uncovered for 45 minutes to an hour. Just before serving, drizzle liberally again with a good olive oil.
We served this with a big tomato salad and some good red wine brought by friends. A very satisfying dish to eat on a cool August evening while catching up with people after too long apart.
Chard and Zucchini Pie with Olive Oil Pastry
I based this very loosely on the popular Greek dish everyone loves, Spanakopita. It differs entirely though, because rather than commercial phyllo pastry I made an olive oil pastry, and rather than stuffing it with spinach and feta cheese, I made a filling of grated zucchini and swiss chard. I didn’t have any feta on hand, but we found it rich enough with the good olive oil in the crust.
The pastry was inspired by Tamar Adler’s recipe from her book An Everlasting Meal. I am uncertain of her proportions, but my method is two cups of whole grain pastry flour, a pinch of grey sea salt, 1/3 cup of olive oil, and 1/3 – 1/2 cup of cold water. The salt and flour are sifted together, and the olive oil is worked in until all the flour is moistened and crumbly. The cold water is worked in until a dough forms. Don’t overwork the dough too much, as with all pastry, but the olive oil makes this a much more forgiving pastry than a butter pastry. I made the dough quite wet and malleable so that it could be rolled quite thinly. It also puffs nicely and is quite tender as a result of the extra water. The dough should rest in the fridge for at least half an hour before it is rolled out.
For the filling I sautéed a chopped onion with a clove of garlic in a generous amount of olive oil. Added to this was a grated zucchini (Approximately 3/4 cup) and a big bunch of shredded chard. This was all sautéed with a generous glug of olive oil and salt and pepper. When it was cooked down to a softened silky texture (about 10 minutes) I added a good hand full of chopped dill and parsley. This was left to cool. If the vegetables are quite watery squeeze and drain them, however if you pay careful attention to pressing excess liquid out of both the zucchini and chard prior to sautéing it, you shouldn’t have too much moisture.
Once the filling was cool enough I rolled the pastry quite thinly – thinner than a beer coaster. I rolled the dough into a rough circle, placed the filling on one half and folded the dough over. The edges were crimped and the pie was baked for about 45 minutes at 375 F.
This was very excellent as a light supper with a glass of red wine all on its own.