Cooking with Olive Oil
The power of extraordinary olive oil in food is its binding and harmonizing effect, and not its function as a spice or a luxury ingredient in itself. Olive oil, together with wine and bread, is an essential pillar to all our foods, it is the peacemaker of flavors on our dish, it is the catalyzer which renders all other ingredients visible without rushing into the foreground itself. It creates the correct affinity between the pasta and its dressing, binds the fresh green flavors of the salad leaves from the garden into harmony, making them seem less green and aggressive, determines the consistency and moisture in our dough and breads, it is the skin to our food, keeping it from loosing its aroma during the force of the cooking process.
However Olive Oil is know as something completely different in the New World: as a healthy dipping substitute for butter, and for those who can’t get used to the chlorophyll driven green scents of uncured olives as a carrier of more familiar flavors such as Meyer Lemons, or garlic or even the fake versions of luxury foods in the form of truffle or porcini scented oils. Scented oils are almost un-known to the Mediterranean diet, even though they seem today the number one gift item out of the Italian pantry. Paradox wants it that the homecoming tourist readily adopted the fashion better than the original and promoted a culture of everything infused into oil, kicking of a baffling war of flavors. No garlic, peperoncini or truffle infused olive oils were part of the Mediterranean diet, as fresh foods, seasonally changing are the order of the day. While olive oil was always used to preserve foods, like peperoncini, or peppers and eggplants, dried tomatoes, it was never thought of as a ‘scented oil’. That the resulting oil acquired the flavor of the therein stored food was natural, and never discarded, but never created in order to represent a fancy flavor in itself. Just think about Wild Boar scented olive oil??? No, olive oil was used by the farmer to store and preserve precious foods for the few winter months, or as a short time preservative for making pesto of the various flavoring herbs available at the time. In this tradition olive oil and its strong capacity as an antioxidant is functioning to conserve a flavor and allow application in combination with other dishes, like pasta, rice and meats stabilizing these otherwise fragile scents.
Finishing oil: The grand touch of every true Italian dish is a drizzle of olive oil on the ready plated goods, or the addition of oil on the already served foods at the table by the chef. This last minute addition makes sure that the oil that never has been exposed to heat seals the flavor of the serving and by acquiring heat from the cooked goods helps the same to come forward abundantly and with harmony. It will sooth the guest’s palate and render foods moist, lively and aromatic.
Frying is another story all together. Many myths are floating around and suggest that its unique chemical composition is destroyed by high temperature. This belief is more myth than fact. Olive Oil has one of the highest burn and flame points of all cooking fats and when cooling down after a frying process, given it is properly filtered of impurities, can be reused many times. In the Italian kitchen it is the preferred frying oil, even though today few restaurants can afford pure olive oil for frying. But when making fried calamari, sage leaves or fritto misto from the garden, olive oil is the oil to use for its capacity to fry evenly, yielding light fritters easy to digest.
The classical and quintessential use of olive oil in the Mediterranean cuisine however is best described by its daily repeated opening movement: The chef initializing the cooking process by sautéing something, be it vegetables, meat, fish, an omelet or some fine porcini, nothing hits the pan without a dash of olive oil. And unlike Italian customs portrayed abroad, in the home country of simple cooking the sautéing process is not a burning and killing process, but rather a short opening and coating process that has nothing in common with the burnt garlic attitude of the new world. Glazing onions, shortly sautéing any greens like zucchini, spinach and chard, concentrating tomatoes and peppers, only the best olive oils are used for sautéing as the strong anti oxidative reaction of a healthy and fresh oil is required to protect the goods to be cooked from turning color and loosing fragrance. And good olive oil will always add that bit of creaminess and texture (tomato sauce!) that you can never achieve with any other oil.
Searing meats in olive oil closes their pours and preserves precious moisture in a lengthy oven roasting process. Animal fats do not reach as high temperatures and tend to burn earlier and as such do not protect the meat as efficiently as good olive oil.
In a particularly well equipped kitchen poaching in olive oil adds a touch of great nobility to your foods, especially appetizers, be it fish or vegetables, poaching in olive oil at around 65 - 80° C (140 ° F) will tantalize the palate for the fine texture and complex and lively aromas they carry. In many ways poaching in olive oil challenges the sur-vide (under vacuum) cooking process. Make sure that all parts of your prepared items are covered by the oil, that the temperature never rises above 140 ° F, after removing the item from the oil drip off for 30 seconds on a fine wire mesh (if possible above the warm oil itself), and serve immediately. Try with Dover sole filet over lentils. Last not least, olive oil is most commonly found around the world as the partner to balsamic vinegar in preparation for a vinaigrette salad dressing. True olive oil has the unique ability of rendering green and otherwise bitter leaves of lettuce agreeable to our palates. Chlorophyll and spicy components are tamed by the coating of the olive oil, while the vinegar adds life and aroma to the field mix. Unfortunately only a very small percentage (less than 10%) of what is offered as olive oil for salad dressing has actually been obtained from olives, and thus huge differences can be found on the market. Poor oils just render a salad heavy, greasy and hard to appreciate, while best oils turn the simplest side dish of the Italian table into an event of lifting experience. Strictly speaking, salad dressing belongs to the groups of emulsions that also includes mayonnaise and other forced combinations of watery and oily substances. And as all ingredients in this group will be consumed fresh or un-cooked, it is easy to understand that only the freshest and best ingredients yield a great result. The importance of fresh eggs for mayonnaise is well known, the aromatic difference between an industrial and artisanal vinegar will make a world of difference, and surely great olive oil yields the lightest and creamiest emulsions known in our kitchen.
Ingredients for 6 servings:
3 cups water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 red onion, sliced
1 fennel, sliced
2 carrots whole
2 celery stalks whole
2 garlic cloves, whole
Black pepper 6 corns
½ teaspoon Sea salt
6 (1/4-inch thick) slices white sourdough bread
1 garlic clove
2 tablespoons Parmesan
1 loaf completely dry sourdough bread, cubed
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 red onion, chopped
1 fennel, sliced
2 carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 leak, sliced
1 bunch of black cabbage (substitute with savoy cabbage or cale if you can’t find black cabbage)
1 bunch of sage
15 ounce cannelloni beans, rinsed and drained
8 peeled San Marzano tomatoes, no seeds, chopped
If dry cannelloni beans require soaking, do so as instructed by producer, usually 2-3 hours before starting your cooking process. Some superior quality, or recently harvested beans require only very short soaking!
Prepare your stock
This is where you may be most artistic. The base ingredients are listed above and need to be boiled together for 1 hour, but you may opt to add a chicken carcass, sausages, bones or beef of your choice.
Pre-heat the broiler.
Place bread slices on broiler pan or cookie sheet, broil until golden, turning once, about 2 the 3 minutes. Remove bread and rub each slice with garlic. Mince remaining garlic for the soup. Set aside.
To prepare the soup, heat olive oil in a large soup pot over medium high heat. Add onion and cook until glazed, stirring often, about 4 minutes. Add celery, and remaining minced garlic. Cover and cook until celery is almost tender, about 7 minutes more. Add fennel and black cabbage. Add the beans, tomatoes, and stock. Turn down heat and continue to cook slowly for 1.5 hours. Sauté the carrots and leaks separately in pan for 5 minutes and add to the soup. Low boil for 10 minutes. While stirring with wire whisk add dry bread cut in cubes. Taste, add sea salt and sage, add parmesan. Turn off heat and let sit for 30 minutes.
Deep fry in olive oil 3 leaves of sage per person until dry and crunchy.
Place 1 slice of toasted bread in the bottom of each soup bowl and cover with soup. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and dress with crunchy sage leaves.
Hint: In adding the dry bread, aim for the consistency of a thick, non-liquid soup!Ribollita means the ‘re-cooked soup’; hence make plenty, as this is going to be even better the second day!
If too liquid, place individual plates in oven before serving for 8 minutes at 350°F.
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