The numerous qualities and the potential of olive oil were evident right from its ancient origins and they have been passed down to us today in the form of ancient and modern methods for use. Olive oil is used in cosmetics, as a fuel, for sacred rites and wellness treatments, as a remedy and as a foodstuff.
So let’s try to examine its many possible applications, starting perhaps from the beneficial effects of its components.
Already during pregnancy, where specific nutritional needs develop, and from weaning onwards, extra virgin olive oil should be added to baby soups and meals in general. The high content of monounsaturated (oleic) and essential (linoleic) fatty acids guarantee energy and high digestibility, in addition to promoting development; its composition is that most similar to maternal milk and its richness in vitamin D promotes bone calcification.
For these very reasons, it is one of the most fundamental elements in every sports diet, as it combines the capacity to reduce the time required for digestion with an effective action against gastric acidity. The oil, thanks to its beneficial effect on the mucosa, protects against the risk of ulcers while its natural laxative action helps resolve chronic constipation problems.
In the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, linoleic acid contributes to the elimination of cholesterol and the reduction of LDL cholesterol, limiting atherosclerotic alterations, and various studies have proven that the regular consumption of extra virgin olive oil safeguards against the formation of tumors (especially those of the colon and breast).
The phenolic richness of extra virgin olive oil is a precious resource for combating cell aging; combined with the presence of vitamin E, it creates an incomparable natural defense with the power to inhibit the cell damage caused by ‘free radicals’, especially those threatening the skin and hair.
From these last comments, the value of the oil in the field of cosmetics and well-being is unquestionable; massages, beauty masks, an array of ointments and creams, soaps and conditioners bear witness to it being one of the most important, and most efficacious, ingredients.
Stepping a moment back in time we encounter the sacred use of oil (rites, services) and that of lamp lighting (it is no coincidence that the lowest quality oil in the oil classification is defined as ‘lampante’) and still today the use of oil as a fuel is widespread.
But now, last but not least, it is time to analyze the role of extra virgin olive oil – an indispensable element of our daily diet and of Mediterranean gastronomy – at the table and in the kitchen.
The unanimously recognized plus point of extra virgin olive oil is that of being able to impart fragrance and flavor to dishes, improving their taste and palatability in addition to enhancing the harmony of the complex combination of numerous ingredients.
A clear distinction should however be made between its use hot, in various forms of cooking, and its use uncooked, which guarantees that all the aforementioned nutritional qualities are maintained intact.
The latter is the best accompaniment for all types of food, from vegetables to fish, from meat to pasta, to risottos; perhaps only fruit is excluded from the long list of foods to which the classical drizzle of oil brings that naturally inimitable touch of personality, exploding in a incredibly wide range of fragrances and flavors.
Not to mention the excellent properties that raw oil has for preserving a wide variety of vegetables, fish etc. in glass jars.
To better assess its use in cooking, it is important to consider that heating increases its fluidity but also causes its rapid oxidation which, although combated by the phenolic components, can nonetheless considerably reduce its freshness, vitamin content and digestibility; these less positive transformation factors are strongly affected by the length and temperature of cooking.
So short periods of cooking at low heats are recommended, applicable to the sautéing of chopped vegetables and the cooking of sauces, while for roasts and stews, cooking times should be lengthened. So it is possible to use the oil in small quantities at the start of cooking, creating an emulsion effect, and then add some more, raw this time, on serving the dish, as this will considerably enhance its taste.
It must be taken into account that, in some meat recipes, there is already a degree of fat in the cut used and that it will, in any case, be possible to add a little more oil at any time during cooking, since it has rapid amalgamation properties.
A real extra virgin olive oil has an incredible yield. Let’s learn to use it daily, sensibly and judiciously; we will enjoy the benefits it will bring us in taste, health and savings, without having to forego quality and typicality.
But the technique most closely related to the use of oil is unquestionably that of frying, i.e. when foods are immersed in oil and cooked at high temperatures, of between 140° and 180°, and here too extra virgin olive oil comes out tops as it maintains its ‘smoke point’ (tolerance threshold over which harmful degradation takes place) at approx. 200°, in contrast with seed oils, margarine, butter and lard.
We are speaking of conventional cooking, during which the high external heat causes the foods to expel their liquids and/or when certain ingredients are transformed, creating that crunchy coating typical of fried food.
There are foods that can be immersed directly in oil (potatoes), others that give better results if covered with a light coating of flour (small fish, calamari); if these foods are then immersed in beaten egg, the typical golden-brown coating is obtained. This method may be applied to a wide variety of vegetables (zucchini, artichokes, eggplant, onions) as well as to other foods (brain, sweetbreads, ricotta).
The immersion of the food in the egg and its rolling in breadcrumbs makes a breading which is ideal for sliced meat, ribs of spring lamb, chicken, rabbit, rice croquettes; while the practice of batter coatings cuts across all foods and can be applied to vegetables (broccoli, stuffed zucchini flowers), to fish (dried cod fillets) and to the creation of sweet or salty fritters.
Some handy hints for good frying results:
- first heat the oil and stabilize its temperature,
- cook in plenty of oil and use suitable pans,
- do not put too many pieces of food in the pan together (they tend to stick together and reduce the temperature) and do not immerse cold foods,
- dry the pieces well before immersing them in the oil and drain them dry after frying using kitchen roll,
- eat the fried food when still hot and do not cover (it goes soft),
- salt or sweeten immediately before serving at the table,
- do not keep the oil for re-use.
Here are the values of extra virgin olive oil, an ancient food, always apace with the times, a dressing that is utterly healthy and hence incredibly modern, and which has broken new ground today, discovering new frontiers for use, where refinement and taste can enhance one another in new challenges.
Such as designer cocktails, recently perspicaciously introduced by one of the most noteworthy Italian barmen, Massimo D’Addezio of the Stravinskji Bar of the Hotel De Russie in Rome. With a pinch of courage and a bright intuition, extra virgin olive oil goes straight into the mix of the classical Bloody Mary, binding with the tomato, preferably fresh and garnished with the inevitable basil leaf, but it may also add aroma to an elegant celery semifreddo served alongside the explosive Red Snapper. Now that we have got started, the sky’s the limit! Possible combinations extend to include typical fried vegetables served with a variety of Martini cocktails, finally reaching the (apparently) sacrilegious juxtaposition of the salt-garnished Margarita with the toasted garlic bread of Canale Monterano (unsalted, baked in a wood oven, naturally leavened) and a decidedly grassy extra virgin olive oil.
text edited by Stefano Asaro