Season to Taste: Israel’s Oil Surplus
Back in the days of the Holy Temple, the miracle of the oil—a one-day supply lasting for eight—didn’t involve canola oil. Rather, it was olive oil—that golden elixir that in the past decade has seen a renaissance in Israel, where olives have been grown since biblical times. a Now, Israelis are taking advantage of climate, topography and unique soil composition perfect for producing quality oils. Artisans sell rustic bottles at the country’s famed outdoor markets, and sleek olive-oil stores such as Olia, which sells nine varieties at its Tel Aviv boutique, are cropping up.
Quality olive oils typically contain between 0.5- to 0.8-percent acidity (the lower the acidity, the better) and are often cold pressed to prevent the oil from breaking down during manufacturing. If you want to ensure that your oil contains all Israeli olives, look for the Israeli Olive Board’s oval certification sticker, with its green olive cluster and stamped registration number on each bottle.
This hanukka, why not take an evening off from frying and host an Israeli olive-oil tasting instead? “It is a fun, new twist on Hanukka’s oil-based traditions,” says Dina Cheney, author of Tasting Club (DK), a book that shows readers how to sample a variety of foods with a critical eye. “You will be surprised at the differences in aroma, flavor, pungency, sweetness, floral characteristics and finish.”
To run a tasting, Cheney recommends filling one-ounce plastic cups with 1/2 TB each of different oils. Have pencils and notepads available for observation. Next, swirl a cup of oil with one hand covering the cup, then remove your hand and bring the oil up to your nose. With your eyes closed, inhale deeply and note what you smell. Then sip a small amount and roll the oil around your mouth and tongue, sending it to the back of your mouth but not swallowing. Breathe in sharply a few times to aerate the oil, then spit out or swallow. Clear your palate with a bite of baguette and a sip of cold water, and move on to the next variety.
“The most important question to ask of yourself is, did you like it?” says Cheney.
Here are some great Israeli oils now available stateside:
•Olia Coratina: a southern Italian-style oil with notes of almonds and artichoke, plus a hint of bitterness and a peppery bite. Drizzle over steamed asparagus or toss with tomatoes, olives and basil as a bruschetta topping (www.olia.co.il; orders can be placed via e-mail to email@example.com).
•Kvuzat Yavne Extra Virgin Olive Oil: a milder, grassier oil made on a kibbutz in Israel’s coastal plain near the city of Ashdod. This one is great for salad dressings, sautéing and in pizza dough and focaccia (available from www.israelikosher.com).
•Halutza Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil: produced in the Negev Desert (considered by many the best olive-growing region in the country). Bright, fresh, full-bodied, it is a great finishing oil—drizzle on soup, grilled fish and roasted vegetables—or use it in the recipe for Olive Oil Cookies on the next page. It is one of the few Israeli organic oils available in America (www.halutza.com).
•Pereg Extra Virgin Olive Oil: made by Israel’s renowned spice manufacturer. This oil has a bitter back note and a more oily feel in the mouth. Mix with balsamic vinegar and dried red chili flakes and serve with crusty bread or breadsticks (www.pereg-gourmet.com).
•Peace Oil: a Fair Trade oil that is a joint project between Israelis and Palestinians. Sweeter and slightly more floral with a hint of spice at the end, combine it with arugula or basil, walnuts, garlic, salt and pepper for a pesto. It is also great stirred into a hearty vegetable soup or tossed with pasta (www.peaceoil.net).
Olive Oil Cookies
Makes about 30 cookies.
Using olive oil instead of butter or margarine in these cookies is a healthy surprise. Rather than opting for a lighter, less flavorful oil, try a good extra-virgin olive oil (such as Halutza). The oil helps the cookies spread nicely but still maintain an airy structure. If you like, brush cookies lightly with oil right when they come out of the oven; you can replace the anise seeds with lightly toasted pine nuts or sesame seeds.
1 3/4 cups flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup whole milk or soy milk
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsps lemon zest
2 tsps anise seeds (optional)
1. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper and set aside. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl and whisk to incorporate. In a separate bowl, whisk together oil, milk, egg, vanilla, lemon zest and anise seed (if using) until smooth.
3. Pour liquid ingredients over dry ingredients and stir with a fork until just incorporated; batter will be fairly thick but not like dough.
4. Drop batter onto prepared cookie sheets 1 scant TB at a time, letting batter spread slightly and leaving about 2 inches between cookies. Bake until edges are golden brown, about 13 minutes.
5. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Transfer cookies to a wire rack and cool completely. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days, or freeze in a zip-top bag for up to 1 month.
André Aelion Brooks can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org