Like most of us cooks, your pantry or refrigerator holds three different hot sauces, a couple of types of mustard, two or three sundry salad dressings and some kind of vegetable oil.
And just one bottle of extra virgin olive oil. (I’ll call it EVOO.) But that’s simply one flavor, one texture, one impression.
That’s like merely cooking one kind of meat, or fish, or vegetable, or bean. Or toasting only one sort of bread. Or keeping just one brand of cereal in the pantry.
Not done, right?
From a food’s point of view, extra virgin olive oil is exactly like those hot sauces and mustards and salad dressings, but even tastier and more versatile. In the parts of the world where it’s largely produced (nearly all the countries that line the Mediterranean Sea and eastward to Greece and Turkey and way East to California), EVOO is a condiment, a flavoring element, something added to food. Quite infrequently is EVOO the oil in which foods are cooked.
The other vegetable oils, such as canola or sunflower, do the heavy lifting of sautéing, frying and stovetop starts. EVOO comes in after any of those as a kicker.
That’s why you need more than one EVOO around, because each EVOO is unique, carrying its own personality of flavors, texture, aroma, even hue.
For example, dipping bread? A buttery Ligurian EVOO from Italy would be nice because it’s, well, buttery. But it’d also be nice to have at hand an earthy Puglian, or a spicy Tuscan. Heck, let’s cross a couple of borders and tout a fruity, peppery Andalusian from Spain. Or a creamy Greek.
EVOO is any kitchen’s mood ring. Having one EVOO on hand is nice, but having at least three or four is best: flexible, fitting, flavors on all fours.
Here are three general types of EVOO. At least one of each type would be good to keep in the pantry.
Soft and mellow
These EVOOs resemble melted butter, with aromas and tastes of nuts like macadamia or raw cashew. They are not “green olive-y,” as are many other EVOOs. They often do not even look green, but more golden or hay-colored.
By and large, the southern French, mostly Provencal, EVOOs are these sort, as are (as mentioned above) many of those from Liguria, on the crook of Italy’s Mediterranean coast.
Use these EVOOs just as you’d use butter: for drizzling on cooked fish, for instance, or for dipping bread or crudités.
Fruity and smooth
These EVOOs are a bridge between the soft and mellows and the next group, those that are pungent and peppery. They often have a sort of “dynamism” to them, starting out unctuous and buttery, unfolding with green vegetable tastes such as celery or cooked artichoke leaf, then snapping to a somewhat peppery close. A taste of a fruity and smooth EVOO can be just like chewing a scoop of ripe avocado that you’ve topped with a leaf of sorrel.
Fruit and smooth EVOOs come from many places where olive trees long have lived, from Greece to Spain to California, even Lebanon, Tunisia or Argentina.
Use them for baking (olive oil cake!), for quick sautés where the oil flavor matters, or as another dip for bread. Drizzle over new greens, cioppino or aged cheese. Pour over grilled vegetables or summertime soups.
Pungent and peppery
These robust, even fiery EVOOs play a special role with food. While they taste like liquid green olives, their piquant bite or “finish” on the palate can be electric, like eating top-drawer unsalted nuts and then popping onto the palate a large leaf of arugula.
As such, use these oils sparingly but deliciously, precisely for their intense flavors, as a brush on grilled lamb, for example, or full-fleshed fish and — get this! — a drizzle on pistachio gelato.
Pungent and peppery EVOO may be too much for a salad dressing and certainly shouldn’t be wasted cooking in a frying pan. Above all the other EVOOs, they are the great condiment of the entire family.
Many Tuscan Italian oils are pungent and peppery, as are several Spanish and some Californians.
Spanish Vinaigrette (Vinagreta)
From Claudia Roden, “The Food of Spain” (HarperCollins, 2011). Use this as a dressing over grilled vegetables (scallion, eggplant, asparagus, tomato, zucchini, mushroom cap, bell pepper, and so on). Serves 6.
- 7 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons white or red wine vinegar, or 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar plus 1 tablespoon Pedro Ximenez or other sweet wine
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 small, sweet onion, red or white, finely chopped
- 1 hard-boiled egg, finely chopped
Using a fork, beat the oil and vinegar with salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl, then add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
Variations: Use the juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon, or to taste, instead of the vinegar and add the grated zest of 1/2 lemon. Add 1 tablespoon chopped herbs, such as tarragon and oregano. You also might add capers, chopped olives or cucumbers to the vinaigrette.
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