Olive oil, and a very grand aioli (Recipe: roasted fennel with potatoes and onions)
Last weekend, in a cooking class in my home kitchen, ten students worked together to produce a Grand Aioli, a typical harvest feast held in villages throughout Provence.
I know what you're thinking.
A French harvest festival. In the middle of May.
In Rhode Island.
In Provence, traditionally, the farmers bring their vegetables, the bakers contribute bread, the hunters might bring rabbit, the fishermen bring... well, you know. And the women of the village make the aioli, the garlic mayonnaise that is the raison d'etre for the entire meal. And there is wine, and singing and dancing.
In northwest Rhode Island, the farm stand and supermarket provided most of the food. Bread came from a local artisan bakery, fish from the fishmonger, and herbs from my garden: beautiful chives, thyme and lemon thyme, tarragon and mint. There was music, but no dancing; it was too early in the morning for wine, and maybe for dancing, too.
Ted built a fire in the fire pit and we cooked our fish on a giant paella pan suspended over the ashes. And, at the kitchen table, everyone took a turn pounding the aioli in two stone mortars; it took almost forty-five minutes to incorporate all of the olive oil, drop by drop.
On the platters, along with sliced red and yellow peppers, chunks of tomato and lemons, and chives from the herb garden, we arranged:
- Potatoes, fennel, baby zucchini and red onion, roasted in salt, pepper and olive oil
- Chick peas, sautéed in olive oil, garlic, bay leaf and herbs
- Salmon and cod, rubbed with olive oil, salt and pepper, cooked over a fire pit
- Chicken, seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil, cooked on the grill
- Ditto asparagus, cooked on the grill
- Mussels, steamed in white wine, shallots, garlic, parsley, and a little bit of olive oil
- Broccoli and green beans, blanched, tossed with some salt, pepper and olive oil
Olive oil. The common denominator.
When I was growing up, my mother never cooked with olive oil -- we were strictly a vegetable oil, margarine and chicken fat family -- but in my kitchen, olive oil is most often the cooking oil of choice.
Nothing fancy, no extra virginity required. Just plain old olive oil.
For dressing salads, or when I want to add a fruity finish to a dish (i.e., the oil isn't going to be cooked, or will be heated only briefly), I use the best extra virgin oil I can afford, and I keep several varieties in the pantry.
For cooking or sautéing, I use blended olive oil, which has a higher smoke point (438°F) than extra virgin (375°F). Just as you needn't use your best wine for a long-cooking stew, you don't need the most expensive olive oil for cooking.
What's the difference between the different grades of olive oil? I've compiled this list from various sources, including the International Olive Oil Council:
- Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of the fruit of the olive tree, using solely mechanical or other physical means in conditions, particularly thermal conditions, which do not alter the oil in any way. It has not undergone any treatment other than washing, decanting, centrifuging and filtering. It must have less than 1% acidity. Most expensive; best for salads and drizzling on finished dishes.
- Virgin olive oil, made in the same way as extra virgin, has an acidity less than 2%, and has a good taste. There can be no refined oil in virgin olive oil. Good for cooking, and often good enough for salad dressings, in a pinch.
- Olive oil is a blend of virgin oil and refined virgin oil, containing at most 1% acidity. Mild flavor; great for cooking, but makes a mediocre salad dressing.
- Refined olive oil, also called pure oil, is a lesser grade than virgin. No real good use for this, except as part of a blend.
Olive oil draws its flavor and color from the particular variety of olives pressed, and from the terroir. Greek, French, Italian, Spanish and California olive oils reflect the quality of the soil, air and water of each region. Some olive oils are bright green and grassy, others are spicy and fruity.
Taste to find oils that appeal to you, and keep several in your pantry, for ratatouille, lemon-olive oil ice cream, olive oil tart crust, and linguine with garlic and olive oil. Store olive oil in a cool, dark part of your cupboard; it should last for at least two years.
For cooking, I love Trader Joe's olive oil (only $6.99 per liter; TJ's also sells extra virgin that looks almost identical, so be sure to check the label). My current favorite extra virgin is Nuñez de Prado, a lovely Spanish artisan oil that's organic, mild and a bit fruity.
What's your favorite olive oil?
Roasted fennel with potatoes and onions
A few ingredients simply prepared, this dish is the essence of Provence -- and a perfect companion to aioli or grilled chicken or lamb. Serves 6-8 as a side dish.
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed quartered, cores removed
2 medium red onions, peeled and quartered
2 lbs baby red-skinned new potatoes or Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered
2-3 zucchini, cut into 3/4-inch chunks
8 oz large black pitted canned olives
Olive oil, a few tablespoons
Coarse sea salt and fresh black pepper
Preheat oven to 425°F. In a large roasting pan (I use a nonstick heavy roaster), combine all vegetables. Add olive oil, salt and pepper, and toss with your hands to make sure all of the vegetables are coated with oil. Roast for 40 minutes, stirring once during that time, until potatoes are cooked through and crusty on at least one surface. Serve hot or at room temperature.