Olive oil

Olive oil

Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
2 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
William Meppem

We are both, to differing degrees, butter-free households. Greg, because he has to be careful with his cholesterol levels, but both of us also tend to prefer the underlying flavour olive oil imparts to many dishes. We use olive oil to cook with and as a condiment at mealtimes. In our view, there is virtually nothing which is not improved by a splash of fruity extra-virgin olive oil, whether it be a rich soup, a simple pasta, steamed crisp vegetables, grilled meats, chicken and fish, or a few humble leaves of lettuce.

Olive oil is the universal cooking medium of the Middle East and Mediterranean, and there is a wealth of literature praising its nutritional virtues, which we briefly touch on here. Beware of fanaticism, though; some dishes simply have to be made from butter. In Middle Eastern cooking these tend to be elaborate dishes like pastries, biscuits and cakes, which are eaten sparingly on special occasions.

Choosing a good extra-virgin olive oil has become a little like choosing a fine wine. Whether you choose a peppery Tuscan oil, a sweet, fruity Spanish, a bold, pungent Greek, a lighter floral French or a boutique Australian oil will depend on your personal preference. It makes sense to experiment and try all kinds of different oils.

Olive oil and cholesterol

It is universally acknowledged that replacing part of the animal fat content of our diet with olive oil can radically reduce levels of cholesterol. Current research centres around two main types of lipoproteins: low-density lipoproteins and high-density lipoproteins. The low-density ones (the ‘baddies’) move cholesterol around the body and leave deposits in the arteries and body tissue. They increase with our consumption of saturated animal fats. However, high-density lipoproteins (the ‘goodies’) have actually been shown to eliminate cholesterol from cells.

Polyunsaturated fats (found in sunflower and vegetable oils) have been shown to reduce both kinds of lipoprotein, whereas only monounsaturated fats reduce the level of the ‘baddies’, and actually increase the ‘goodies’. Oils such as canola, peanut, sunflower and nut oils do all contain varying small levels of monounsaturated fats, but olive oil has the highest percentage of all, by far (55–83 per cent).

As well as being good for the heart, olive oil also contains small levels of a range of other nutrients and antioxidants, which are thought to play a part in reducing the risk of developing cancers. Extra-virgin olive oil, the purest form, has the widest range of all these.

A word of caution, however: despite its good qualities, olive oil is still a fat, and therefore high in calories. If you are concerned about your weight, it makes sense to limit your consumption of all oils and fats. However, you might choose to use extra-virgin olive oil, as its stronger flavour means that you will be inclined to use only small amounts.

Selecting and storing olive oil

Light olive oil: this is not light in terms of calories, as the labelling might lead us to think, but rather in terms of flavour. This type of oil is a blend of lesser quality oils, which have been refined to give a mild, neutral flavour.

‘Pure’ olive oil: this is blend of refined oils with lesser quality unrefined virgin olive oil to give it some flavour. It is best used for general cooking purposes.

Virgin olive oil: virgin olive oil is extracted from the fruit by means which do not alter it in any way. This essentially means that no solvents and only minimal heat are used in the extraction process. The oil is not refined in any way and is not blended with other oils. Virgin olive oil is graded by its acidity – the lower the better. Less expensive virgin olive oils have an acidity of 1.5–3 per cent.

Extra-virgin olive oil: this is the purest form of the oil, with the best flavour and lowest levels of acidity (below 1 per cent). It is also the most expensive. Some extra-virgin olive oils are labelled ‘first pressed’ or ‘cold pressed’, which means little when used by the big brand-name commercial manufacturers – most olive oil these days is extracted using mega-presses, which extract the maximum amount of oil from just one press.

Small estates that press their own extra-virgin olive oils are a different matter. They fall under the same classification system, but are hugely superior. These oils may be extracted from organically grown olives using old-fashioned stone-milling techniques and minimal filtering. If they are labelled ‘cold pressed’ it really does mean that no heat has been used to enhance the extraction process. ‘First pressed’ means that the bottle contains only oil from the initial pressing.

When buying extra-virgin olive oils, there are all manner of fancy-shaped bottles and names to choose from, particularly in trendy food stores and delicatessens. In Australia we are lucky enough to have a small range of locally produced single-estate Australian oils which are excellent, as well as a large range of imported oils from small producers in Italy, France, Spain and Greece. These can be very pricey, but the aroma, depth and complexity of flavour will knock your socks off!

It is best to buy expensive oils in small quantities, so experiment and choose a different one each time. Olive oil deteriorates with age and in light, so store it in a cool cupboard or larder, and try to use it within a year of purchase.

Using olive oil

For all-purpose frying and cooking it is best to choose a mild-flavoured good quality ‘pure’ olive oil, and this is what we mean in all recipes when we refer to ‘olive oil’. Most supermarkets sell their own house brands as well as a range of imported Spanish, Greek and Italian oils. As a rule, most major brands will have a consistent and reasonably acceptable flavour.

Extra-virgin olive oil – especially the really expensive stuff – is better used in dishes in which you can appreciate its fine flavour. Use it liberally as a condiment: drizzle onto soups or braised dishes just before serving; sprinkle over your favourite pasta dish; brush it on grilled fish, poultry and meats; make a little well in the surface of dips and purées, and fill with oil; always dress salad leaves with a home-made olive oil dressing: and splash it about over fresh sun-ripened tomatoes with freshly torn basil leaves.

Olive oil is a very good choice for fried dishes. You might think that it is more expensive than a polyunsaturated oil such as corn or sunflower oil, but these can only be used once. Leading Australian nutritionist Rosemary Stanton says that olive oil may be used up to 40 times, if strained after each use, whereas polyunsaturated oils develop dangerous chemical compounds if reheated. She also advocates using olive oil for deep-frying, as food which is deep fried at hotter temperatures actually absorbs less fat than food that is shallow fried.

Recipes in this Chapter

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