Olive oil has been recognized as the defining food of the Mediterranean diet. Many of the health benefits associated with this diet are attributed to the health properties of olive oil, so I want to share some advice on selecting it plus some creative but simple ways to incorporate them into every-day meals. For such a keystone component of the Mediterranean Diet, it’s important to get this right!
Olive oil is produced throughout the Mediterranean, and now even the US, but I’m naturally partial to Greek olive oil. Greece has been producing olive oil since Minoan times (as early as 3000 BC!) and the Greeks take pride in producing a high-quality product. In fact, much of Greece’s oil is produced from small, family-owned farms that have operated for generations. And quality is actually key when considering olive oil’s health benefits—not all oils are created equal. Both the olives themselves and the production process play an important role in how nourishing the final product is as the oil can degrade by exposure to heat, light and other environmental factors.
With this in mind, every oil offered in my store is single-origin, meaning the olives come from one location and many are Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)—an official recognition that certain foods have special characteristics related to that location. Because of its PDO, we can only get Kalamata olives and oil from Kalamata. This is really important because many olive oils sold are actually sourced from a variety of producers and locations, and the consumer has no guarantee of the origin or quality of the final product. I only select and use “extra virgin” oil, which simply mean that the oil is unrefined. This preserves the health-promoting polyphenols, or antioxidant compounds, of the oil.
While we’re talking about polyphenols, I should note that polyphenol concentration can vary widely between different varieties of olives. The olive oil produced in Greece most commonly comes from the koroneiki olive, which is one of the most highly concentrated in polyphenols. Many of our oils, including Vrisi36, Greek Pony Farm, Orino, and Vee, are produced from the koroneiki olive, and several are quite affordable for every-day use, giving you a great nutritional bang for your buck. One of my favorite finishing oils, Pamako from Crete, is produced primarily from the tsounati olives that grow on wild trees that have been around since Minoan times. Analysis of this special oil has verified that it has a very high polyphenol concentration, and it’s characteristic bitter, but well-balanced, flavor is indicative of its antioxidant content.
Like wine, olive oil develops unique characteristics depending on the variety and terroir, so it’s helpful to consider an oil’s flavor profile when selecting it for particular dishes or uses in the kitchen. The oils in my store range from light and fruity to full-bodied and bitter. Each one gives that characteristic “tingle” in the back of the throat that is the byproduct of the oils’ polyphenols.
One obvious but versatile use for olive oil is salad dressing. As opposed to the full grocery store aisles of prepared and shelf-stable salad dressings that we find in the US, in Greece we typically dress salads with a simple drizzle of EVOO, vinegar or fresh lemon juice, and salt and pepper. The same goes for “horta” or cooked greens like spinach or dandelion. Sometimes I mix it up by adding any combination of crushed garlic, red pepper flakes, mustard or herbs. All these ingredients add to the nutritional benefit and also amp up the flavor. A high-quality finishing oil also makes a great dip for bread, sprinkled with some flaked seal salt and a little Greek oregano.
In Greece, we also have a whole category of dishes called “ladera”, meaning “in oil”. At their most basic, these are (primarily vegetable) dishes cooked in olive oil to create a rich sauce and make them more filling because they are typically served as main courses. After cooking we usually add another drizzle of oil for good measure. If you would like to develop a more plant-based diet, ladera dishes are a great place to start. Their richness and satiety can win over even die-hard meat eaters. While there are too many ladera dishes to name, I suggest trying my fasolakia yiahni (green beans in tomato sauce), black-eyed peas with chard & olives, and briam. Be sure to have some crusty bread on the side for dipping, perhaps some Greek feta or olives, and you won’t even believe that you’re eating something so good for you.