In the kitchen where I grew up, oil was oil.
Not flax seed, safflower, truffle or rice bran.
Not virgin, and certainly not extra virgin.
Oil was vegetable oil, a healthier alternative to the traditional chicken fat, and a pareve (neither milk nor meat) staple, in my grandmother's kosher kitchen.
And canola oil?
Hadn't even been invented yet.
Canola -- an abbreviation of "Canadian Oil Low Acid" -- is a product of traditional plant breeding technology, genetic engineering, and clever marketing.
In the late 1960s, plant biologists crossed four varieties of rapeseed to create a seed with less erucic acid (which makes oils go rancid quickly) and glucosinolate (which tastes bitter). The oil pressed from this new seed had a lower level of saturated fat, and a higher level of "good" fat, than other similar neutral-tasting oils.
Marketed first to physicians as a heart-healthy alternative oil, canola raced to the top of the charts. However, scientists and growers in Canada (which produces the majority of canola worldwide, though the US, Australia and Europe also contribute) felt that a slight alteration would create a more viable crop.
One protein gene was modified to make it tolerant to some herbicides, the use of which reduced the amount of chemical needed for weed control in the fields. As all proteins are removed from canola during processing, the oil made from genetically modified plants is the same as conventional canola oil; however, some countries have banned the sale of oil made from genetically modified seed.
There's been a lot of misinformation published about canola oil, but for cooks watching their fat and calorie intake, canola oil offers many benefits. In addition to being the lowest in saturated fat, canola oil is high in monounsaturated ("good") fat, as well as omega-3 and linoleic acids. Spectrum sells an organic canola oil, available in my local supermarket.
With a smoke point of 435°F, canola oil is in the same range as olive oil, good for sauteing but not as good for high-heat frying as rice bran or safflower oils, which smoke at an impressive 510°F.
Canola is a great all-purpose flavor-neutral oil for dishes that don't need the pronounced, fruity overtones of olive oil -- dishes like vegetarian refried beans, Asian chicken salad, Mexican meatball soup, Asian pancakes, chicken stir-fry in peanut sauce, and low-fat lemon poppyseed muffins.
Potatoes with aioli dressing
Garlic mashed potatoes, without the mashing. Aioli is a garlicky mayonnaise that makes a rich dip for all sorts of vegetables, a flavorful sandwich slather, or a topping for grilled or poached fish. Serves 6.
1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar or lemon juice
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
5 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
5 Tbsp canola or vegetable oil
Kosher salt and fresh black pepper
1 lb red-skinned potatoes
1 Tbsp roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
Make the aioli: Add the egg yolk, vinegar and garlic to a food processor fitted with the metal blade. With the motor running, add olive oil drop by drop, and then the canola oil drop by drop. When the mixture starts to thicken, add the remaining oil in a steady stream, until it looks like a yellow-ish mayonnaise. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (Can be made ahead and refrigerated for several hours. Bring to room temperature before using; cold mayonnaise will not absorb easily into warm potatoes.)
Cut the potatoes into bite-size pieces, and place in a sauce pan with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat to simmer and cook for 7 minutes, or until just tender. Drain well, then add to a large bowl. Stir in the aioli dressing, and mix gently to combine. Let sit for 15-20 minutes, to allow the potatoes to absorb some of the sauce. Garnish with parsley, season with salt if needed, and serve warm or at room temperature.
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