The Golden Fruit: Olive Oil

Italian olive oil, both oil and an oil bottle ...Image via Wikipedia

For the past few years there's been an explosion of olive oil use in this country. It wasn't always so. I recall that as a kid in Spanish Harlem we used olive oil mainly for dressing on salads. That was about the extent of it. My Anglo friends didn't use it at all. When they did get exposed to it, it was at some Italian restaurant where it was drizzled on greens. Of course that has changed. Today olive oil is ubiquitous. It's everywhere. So I thought it'd be a good time to revisit this topic.

Olive oil goes back to the mists of time. The ancient Greeks and Romans used it in their diet, so did the Persians and Arabs. It has a long rich history in the Mediterranean. Essentially it's made the same way today as it was long ago: after the olive tree is harvested, and the olives plucked, they are pressed to extract their oil, usually within 48 hours to preserve their quality and flavor.

In ancient times olive oil was not only used in the kitchen. It also had uses as a medicine for cuts and burns. It was prized as a cosmetic to maintain a youthful glow (that's because olive oil contains something called hydroxytyrosol, an antioxidant, which can actually slow the aging process in the skin). It was even used as an ointment for dead people. Figure that one out. In the ancient Olympic games it was given as an award for victorious athletes. Imagine A-Rod of the Yankees getting paid with 10 million casks of olive oil.

What's good about olive oil, then as now, are its health benefits. Unlike butter or margerine it doesn't promote heart disease. It assists in regulating cholesterol. It is 77% mono saturated fat, the "good fat" that maintains good HDL cholesterol levels---as opposed to the bad cholesterol, LDH. In fact, if you want to maintain a healthy diet, instead of slapping wads of butter on your bread, do like they do it in Italy and Spain and sprinkle a little olive oil on the bread. It's unique flavor gives the bread just the right balance. And remember that in Mediterranean countries where olive oil consumption is high, they has less incidence of cardiovascular problems.

Olive oil can be used for cooking, baking, marinades, grilling, sauteing and stir-frying. There are different types, of course. The most popular these days is extra virgin olive oil. This comes from "cold pressing" of the olives. That means that no heat is used in the production so that the flavor matures naturally. It is beloved by connoisseurs. Then there's regular (or heavy) olive oil, which is a combination of refined and extra virgin or virgin olive oil. Being the Philistine that I am, I prefer the regular or heavy olive oil. Perhaps because that's all we had in Spanish Harlem, usually the Goya brand. To my palette it has a fuller flavor than the extra virgin. Next comes "light" or "mild" olive oil for the weight-conscious among us. It's basically a refined olive oil that has a lighter flavor and color than the regular type. However, here's a secret for all you weight conscious individuals: light or mild olive oil has the same caloric and fat content as all other oils (120 calories or 14 grams of fat per tablespoon). And then there is olive pomace oil which is used in the foodservice industry. This oil is extracted from the pomace, or the remaining portion of the olives after pressing. Most likely you won't find this one on your grocers' shelf.

There's an olive oil out there for all your uses. So instead of just splashing it on your salad, go and experiment. It's distinctive taste and aroma enhances any meal.

Below is a quick, easy recipe using, you guessed it---olive oil. It comes from my first cookbook, Puerto Rican Cuisine in America (Avalon Books) where olive oil is prominent in most of the recipes.



2 broiler fryers, about 3 pounds each, split in half

1/2 cup olive oil

Salt and ground black pepper to taste

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1. Wash chicken halves and pat dry with paper towels. Place in a large bowl.

2. In a small bowl or cup, mix the olive oil, salt and pepper, oregano, tarragon and crushed garlic. Pour over the chicken, rubbing the seasoning thoroughly into the skin. Cover and let stand 15 minutes or, better still, refrigerate overnight.

3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove chicken halves from marinade and place in a shallow roasting pan, skin side up. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown and the juices are no longer pink.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

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