I found myself alone with my thoughts on a quiet Sunday morning, contemplating the contents of my oil decanter, which I had just refilled, and thinking about how many wonderful dishes I have either started or finished with a simple pour of some good olive oil. Truth be told, I love that little decanter, which was given to me by a very dear friend who enjoys cooking every bit as much as I do. Maybe more. After a while, I ended up replacing the pour spout on that decanter with a nicer one that doesn’t leak and made a point of getting her one, too. But enough about that; let’s talk about some of the wonderful things we can do with a little bit of good olive oil.
Right now you may be wondering, “What does he mean by good olive oil?” The answer to that question is highly subjective. I tend to use a lot of “extra virgin” olive oil (EVO), which is made from pure, cold-pressed olives. Some will say EVO is better suited to dipping and dressing than for cooking because of its relatively low smoking point. Me, I use it all the time. “Regular” olive oil may have some cold-pressed oils but also includes processed oils. It’s lighter in color and has less flavor but also has a higher smoke point, meaning that it doesn’t burn as readily. There are also “light” olive oils, which appear to have been developed for people who don’t like olive oil. They have very little color and almost no flavor. Now mind you, there are many different types of extra virgin olive oil with a price range to match. Some are infused with herbs, spices, etc. Some stink to high heaven. Cheap EVO is often exactly that but by the same token, more expensive does not necessarily mean better. Experiment. If you’re looking for a good place to start, my favorite mass-market EVO brand is Filippo Berio.
First off, you can make some wonderful Mediterranean style salad dressings and bread dips using extra virgin olive oil. People sometimes spend a small fortune on infused dipping oils. The next time you have some warm, crusty bread handy, try this: Pour some good EVO onto a small plate — at least enough to coat the plate and maybe a little more than that. Then add grated cheese, i.e. Parmesan, Romano, or both, followed by a little freshly ground black pepper. The flavor is basic, yet extraordinary. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reloading the plate.
For a simple-yet-bold salad dressing, pour some EVO into a cruet along with a splash of red wine vinegar or balsamic (use slightly more balsamic as it is less acidic). Then add salt, a little black pepper, some finely shredded fresh basil, and a clove of garlic, either pressed or finely minced.
Caprese salad or appetizer skewers? Easy duty. Line up your tomato, fresh basil leaves, and fresh mozzarella. Then drizzle with EVO and a light sprinkle of salt. Purists stop there but you can also add some cracked pepper and/or a drizzle of balsamic reduction to change it up a little.
Finally, my fire-roasted pepper salad, which is nothing more than (go figure) fire-roasted bell peppers, shaved garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, and salt. Put some of that on a sandwich and you’ll see God.
My best sauces, whether for pizza or pasta, begins with a simple pour of EVO onto a preheated skillet or pot. What follows next depends upon what you’re making. For pizza, fry up a generous amount of garlic and then add fresh, whole peeled, or crushed tomatoes seasoned with oregano, salt, pepper and just the slightest amount of basil. For pasta sauce, use a little less garlic and add onion (for sweetness) before pouring in either fresh tomatoes or tomato purée. Then season with basil, oregano, salt, and pepper, any secret/special ingredients you might have, plus your meats unless you are making a marinara.
By the way, if you’re making a bread dough pizza crust, apply a little olive oil to the top and bottom as you spread your dough. Then pre-cook the crust until it begins to rise and dry out a bit. Add your toppings and continue baking. The crust will be more chewy, with crisp edges, and less mushy in the center.
Next up, how about some roasted veggies? Roasting brings out an entirely different flavor and texture profile than you would otherwise get. I hated the notion of eating Brussels sprouts until my friend Ann convinced me to try them roasted. But don’t stop there. Many vegetables can be brought to life via pan roasting. Just toss them in some extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, turn them out on to a sheet pan, and roast them on high heat, turning at least once until the edges begin to char.
Of course, you can also sautée your veggies but as sautéeing involves relatively high heat, you must constantly keep your veggies moving so that the olive oil does not burn. You can also use EVO, salt, pepper, and Italian herbs to marinate and grill many vegetables, including zucchini, asparagus, bell peppers, and corn. For me, the perfectly grilled veggie has some char on it but is neither burned nor dried out. The key here, as with sautéeing, is vigilance. You can’t turn your back on this stuff.
EVO can also be a component in meat marinades, especially pork tenderloin. My go-to Mediterranean pork tenderloin marinade involves a generous pour of EVO, two to three cloves of garlic, pressed or finely minced, a good portion of salt, about half as much cracked pepper, a dash of dried oregano, and some fresh lemon juice. Marinate for at least two hours before grilling. I prefer to sear the meat by grilling on direct heat and then finish indirect, usually adding some wood smoke while the meat finishes.
As an aside… about a year ago, I was on the Baja peninsula of Mexico, an area well-suited to vineyards and olive groves. It was during this business trip that I saw olive trees for the first time. I still smile every time I think about it. For what it’s worth, the wines of Baja California are also quite good but haven’t really caught on in the US yet. I believe that’s coming, though.
As you can see, olive oil is a versatile component of many Mediterranean style dishes. To be sure, I use other oils for other purposes (do not try stir-frying with EVO) but for the various dishes I have described here, only a good olive oil will do.
As always, thanks for hanging with me.