General

Get creative with olive oil: Chef Kathy Gunst shares stories and recipes from Italy’s ancient trees

Get creative with olive oil: Chef Kathy Gunst shares stories and recipes from Italy's ancient trees

You go to the supermarket and olive oil is on your shopping list – but there are so many to choose from. What do all those terms on the label mean? Extra virgin? Cold pressed?

Last fall I was invited to go to Northern Italy with cozy food to learn how olive oil is made and used. I learned so much on this trip about demystifying the terms on the olive oil bottle, but more than that what a versatile, delicious and healthy ingredient olive oil is.

Let me set the tone: we start in a small town on a steep hill overlooking the brilliant blue waters of Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake. This is where Jovial grows thousands of olive trees, including ancient varieties, some dating back to Roman times.

On a beautiful and strangely warm November day, we see a crew of workers harvesting olives using long mechanized rakes that pull the fruit from the trees onto tarps that lie on the ground. I was even allowed to take turns harvesting the olives.

Old olive trees above Lake Garda. (Kathy Favor/Here & Now)

While most olive oil comes from southern Italy, Lake Garda in northern Italy near Verona has a microclimate that makes it ideal for producing peppery, flavorful oils.

Most days, the crew will begin the picking early in the morning, and within hours the olives will be on their way to a nearby mill in the town of Grezzana, where they will be cleaned, crushed and the oil extracted through giant presses. Timing, it turns out, is crucial.

Daniele Salvagno, CEO of Redoro Frantoi Veneti, the mill where Jovial olive oil is pressed and bottled, explains that the moment the olives are picked, a process called oxidation begins. When the olives are crushed, the oil is exposed to oxygen which transforms and begins to age. This is one of the first and most important things I learned: that olive oil is a living product.

It is constantly changing at every stage of production, from the moment the olives are picked to the moment you open the bottle and pour it over your pasta. And it is perishable. So if you cook with olive oil, it is useful to take this into account.

Think of olive oil as a food that cannot be kept indefinitely. So buy it and use it within a few months. Most good oils now list the expiration date directly on the label. Proper storage is also important: you want to keep olive oil away from direct sunlight and the heat from your stovetop. And always keep the bottle closed and the cap tightly closed to prevent further oxidation.

Another important thing I learned is that the color of the olive oil doesn’t matter. I always thought that a deep green color meant the richest, most flavorful oil and a golden yellow meant a slightly floral oil.

But according to Rodolfo Viola, CEO and co-founder of Jovial Foods, color is not an indicator of quality: there are good green olive oils and good yellow olive oils.

“The color depends on the area and the variety,” says Viola. “Some companies just add green food coloring to appeal to consumers.”

Freshly harvested olives.  (Kathy Favor/Here & Now)
Freshly harvested olives. (Kathy Favor/Here & Now)

If the color does not indicate the quality of the olive oil, what are you looking for? There are a few important terms to look out for on the label. The label extra virgin indicates that the oil is the product of the first pressing and has an acidity of less than 0.8%. Low acidity equals healthy oil. Acidity indicates the health of the olives and the trees. Olive trees affected by poor soil, inclement weather, or insects will have higher acidity levels. Virgin olive oil, a lower quality oil, is closer to 1.5 to 2% acidity.

Cold pressed indicates that no heat or chemicals were used in the making of the oil. Heat breaks down the oil and reduces the flavor. When olives are pressed, the machines that apply the pressure to squeeze the oil out generate heat. If this process is done too quickly, too much heat will be generated. And that changes the quality of the oil. Cold-pressed means that the temperature during pressing never exceeds 75 degrees. And of course, organic indicates that the olives have been grown without pesticides or chemicals.

Keep in mind that extra virgin olive oil is essentially pressed fruit juice made without additives. The difference in quality is determined by the type of olives used, the terroir or qualities of the land where the olives are grown, and the care with which they are pressed and produced. Obviously, this is difficult to determine simply by looking at a bottle.

In the end it really is a matter of taste. Good quality oil can be expensive. (But now is a good time for chefs to use olive oil in new ways. Because, as you know, there is a worldwide shortage of vegetable oil because of the war in Ukraine.) In addition to reading the label, some stores organize olive oil tastings so you can see which flavor profile you like best. Olive oil can range from green and grassy to peppery and spicy to golden yellow, floral and delicate.

And it turns out that olive oil is really good for you. It is extremely high in antioxidants and high in good monounsaturated fatty acids. It is also considered an anti-inflammatory.

Many American cooks simply rely on olive oil for making salad dressings or sprinkling pasta. But according to Giulia Viola, Rodolfo’s daughter and vice president of Jovial, we underestimate olive oil.

“People don’t understand how versatile it is,” explains Guilia Viola. In many Italian households, olive oil is used for just about everything – cooking over high heat, frying, marinating, baking, sauces, cooking meats, etc.

I take my cue from her. I buy reasonably priced extra virgin in a large tin for everyday cooking such as baking vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, Swiss chard and kale. I use it as a base for almost any pasta sauce. I like to fry fish fillets, shrimp, clams, chicken or meat. And then I use my more expensive, delicate extra virgin oils for every vinaigrette or salad dressing I make. And to sprinkle over pasta and salads so you can really appreciate the taste. In general, olive oil is something I rely on daily in my kitchen.

Find more information about cozy food and mail order olive oil here.

Enjoy three new recipes that use olive oil as a flavorful ingredient instead of shortening.

Olive oil fried eggs

This is as easy as it gets. An egg is fried in olive oil and as it cooks, the oil is “stroked” over the egg to flavor it. You spoon the oil from the pan over the egg as it cooks. You can easily serve it sunny side up or over, but use a good extra virgin olive oil for this breakfast dish. The oil adds a ton of flavor to the egg.

Serves 1 to 2.

Olive oil fried egg.  (Kathy Favor/Here & Now)
Olive oil fried egg. (Kathy Favor/Here & Now)

ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 eggs
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Crispy bread or toast

instructions:

  1. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat for 30 seconds. Break the eggs into a bowl and slide them one at a time into the hot pan. Cook for 1 1/2 minutes, or until the whites are set, spooning the oil from the pan over the whites and yolks as it cooks. For eggs that are too easy, gently flip the egg and cook for another minute. If serving sunny side up, cook for another minute, scooping up the oil all the time. Serve with crusty bread or toast with oil from the frying pan on top.

Aglio e olio (garlic and oil) linguine

Aglio e olio (garlic and oil) linguine with Parmesan cheese.  (Kathy Favor/Here & Now)
Aglio e olio (garlic and oil) linguine with Parmesan cheese. (Kathy Favor/Here & Now)

This is my favorite pasta sauce when there’s not much in the fridge and I want to make a satisfying dinner quickly. All it takes is olive oil, garlic and some dried red chili flakes. It is worth using a good extra virgin olive oil in this dish as the oil is an important flavoring ingredient.

You can toss the sauce over the linguine or spaghetti. You can also finish the pasta with chopped fresh parsley and grated Parmesan cheese.

Serves 4.

ingredients

  • ½ cup, plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • Pinch of dried red chili flakes
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound pasta, linguine, or spaghetti
  • About ⅓ cup grated Parmesan cheese

instructions:

  1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat.
  2. Cook the pasta for about 11 minutes or follow the package directions, depending on the type of pasta you are using for al dente pasta, or pasta with a light bite. Make sure to reserve 2 tablespoons of the pasta water just before draining the pasta.
  3. Make the sauce: Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook for about 2 minutes or until the garlic just begins to sizzle and cook. Add the chili flakes, salt and pepper. When the oil starts to sizzle, remove from heat. Add the 2 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water and stir.
  4. Drain the pasta and place in a serving bowl. Mix with the garlic and oil and season to taste. Grate the cheese on top.

Olive oil cake with lemon and orange scent

Olive oil cake with lemon and orange scent.  (Kathy Favor/Here & Now)
Olive oil cake with lemon and orange scent. (Kathy Favor/Here & Now)

It may feel crazy to use your good extra virgin olive oil in this easy cake, but trust me, it’s worth it. This cake is whipped in a bowl and baked until golden brown. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve with fresh strawberries. I like to eat this cake for breakfast with small cups of strong espresso, but also as a snack or dessert.

Serve 6 to 8.

ingredients

  • Vegetable oil for greasing the pan
  • ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 ½ teaspoons for greasing the pan
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 ½ teaspoon grated orange peel
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup buttermilk*
  • 1 ¼ cup cake flour, or 165 grams**
  • Sugar for confectioners to pollinate
  • About 1 ½ cups strawberries, whole or thickly sliced

*If you don’t have buttermilk, add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice to cup of milk and let it sit for about 15 minutes.

**If you don’t have cake flour, a type of finely sifted low-protein flour, you can make your own by sifting 1 cup all-purpose flour (minus 2 tablespoons) with 2 tablespoons cornstarch (which has less gluten than regular flour). Strain again to get a very fine texture.

instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Using a 9 ½-inch tart pan: Cut a piece of parchment paper and outline with a pencil around the bottom of the tart pan to make a 9 ½-inch circle. Cut out the circle.
  3. Lightly grease the bottom of the cake tin with vegetable oil. Place the parchment circle on top and grease the paper and the sides of the pan with one and a half teaspoons of olive oil.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the lemon zest and orange zest and the egg and beat to combine. Add the buttermilk and beat until smooth. Sift the flour over the mixture and mix.
  5. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and place on the center shelf of the preheated oven. Bake for 30 minutes. The cake should be light golden brown and slightly domed. It is cooked when a toothpick comes out clean from the center.
  6. Remove from the cake and place on a cooling rack for about 5 minutes. Turn the cake over on the cooling rack and let it cool to room temperature. Turn the cake over onto a serving platter (domed side on top) and sift the confectioners’ sugar over it. Surround with strawberries.