Olive oil: Out of the frying pan and into the food


Chanukah celebrates the miracle of light, when one day’s worth of oil burned instead for eight. The oil the Jews used to rededicate their Temple was made from olives. I always thought the fact that olive oil can be used to light a menorah and to make great food is a miracle of another sort.  

Traditionally, we commemorate the winter holiday by eating food fried in oil. Thirty years ago, at two of my Los Angeles restaurants, I created a Chanukah menu. Of course, I served foods fried in oil — latkes and artichokes, what the Italians call carciofi alla giudia, or Jewish artichokes. But I also used the oil as Mediterranean chefs have for centuries — as a major ingredient in and of itself.

When you bathe ingredients in olive oil, you not only infuse them with the flavor of the oil, the oil itself absorbs, marries and spreads the flavors of the various ingredients. The result is a dish that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. In Hebrew, the word for bathing or anointing in oil is the same as the word for “messiah” — and there is something truly ennobling and transformative about this cooking technique.

The key, of course, is not to skimp on the quality of the extra-virgin olive oil. Always buy dated, estate-grown and bottled oil. In fact, in honor of the holiday, splurge on recently arrived “new harvest” oil. I often give bottles of the stuff as gifts. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the holiday that calls on us to use copious amounts of olive oil comes just after the annual pressing of the olive harvest. Three millennia before “farm to table” and “local and seasonal” became marketing slogans, Jewish holidays locked into the rhythm of nature and the seasons. 

That’s why, in our day, it makes sense to change our Chanukah menu a bit and use it to celebrate the wonders of olive oil itself. Instead of relegating olive oil to the frying pan, we can make it the key ingredient in long, unctuous braises. 

Olive oil is a marvel. Sometimes I think that instead of frying potatoes in it this time of year, we should literally bathe ourselves in the stuff in celebration of the Festival of Lights. But if anointing yourself with copious amounts of oil doesn’t appeal to you, perhaps I could entice you to bathe humble vegetables in it, and perhaps a chicken, too. Mediterranean cultures have known for centuries that olive oil can be transformative in cooking. Sure, you can change soft foods into crunch bombs by submerging them in hot oil, but there is more to the culinary use of oil than as a vehicle for fried food.  

When paired with a squeeze of lemon juice, some tomato or even just water, olive oil becomes a lush braising vehicle for vegetables and poultry. Its buttery texture and spicy vegetal aromas combine with the natural moistness of the main event to create an exchange. First, the main ingredient gives up its natural moisture to the braising liquid. That moisture then combines with the oil and other liquids to create a flavorful amalgam that then permeates the original ingredient.

Take the dish (whose recipe follows) of Long-Cooked Mediterranean Green Beans that shows up on tables in Turkey, Greece and Italy, for example. When heat is applied, the beans release their liquid. It then marries with the oil, water, tomato and liquid released by the onion — and over time (sometimes two to three hours) and low heat, a culinary miracle occurs. The oil penetrates the beans, now carrying their full flavor. The beans collapse on themselves as the texture is transformed from fibrous to an addictive silkiness. Despite the quantity of oil used, they are not oily in the least. An intrinsic benefit of this kind of cooking — known as zeytinagli in Turkey and lathera in Greece — are the juices created in the braise. Always have good bread on hand to sop them up. I also believe these vegetable dishes are better cold or at room temperature, so you have the advantage of making the dish ahead of time.

Like the beans, the chicken recipe is an example of a dish being so much greater than the sum of its parts. We served this dish at my restaurant Angeli for nearly 30 years. Over time, the recipe morphed from a spare squeeze of lemon juice, garlic and rosemary rubbed onto the bird into a luxurious bath of oil and lemon juice. That bath is reinforced with the lemon’s peel and chopped fresh garlic, rosemary and salt.

And as with the beans, the chicken releases its juices into the sauce, which in turn permeates the chicken and creates a magical dish. The amount of oil in the recipe is the “secret” to the sauce. I often share this secret with cooks who are reluctant to dive into the bath of oil. Do not be afraid. Yes, you can make these dishes with less oil, but they will be “meh,” nothing special. The oil is everything — as we already know as we light the candles each night.

Pair the richness of these dishes with some fruit anointed with oil: perhaps some sweet, juicy slices of peeled oranges and mandarins simply sprinkled with some good, crunchy finishing salts and drizzled with that rich, miraculous oil.

LONG-COOKED MEDITERRANEAN GREEN BEANS

Photo by Evan Kleiman

– 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
– 1 cup tomato sauce
– 1 cup water
– 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
– 1 tablespoon kosher salt
– 2 medium onions, peeled and minced
– 2 pounds green beans or Romano beans, if in season

In a large bowl, mix the oil, tomato sauce, water, sugar and salt.  

Place the onions, then the beans in a heavy, 6-quart pot. Pour the liquid mixture over them. Bring to a boil.

Place a sheet of parchment paper directly on the beans then cover the pot. Reduce the heat so the liquid simmers and beans cook slowly. Cook a minimum of 1 hour and up to 3 hours. Occasionally lift the pot lid and the parchment off the beans (carefully) and stir ingredients. Add a bit more water, if necessary, to prevent burning.

At the end of the cooking time, you will have a pot of silky tender beans coated with a thickened sauce. Serve cold or at room temperature with Greek yogurt or feta.

Makes 6 to 10 servings.

ANGELI POLLO ARROSTO

Photo by Evan Kleiman

– 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
– 6 to 10 garlic cloves, sliced
– 1 tablespoon kosher salt
– Generous grindings of fresh pepper
– 2 to 3 lemons
– 6-inch twig of rosemary, leaves removed (or more to taste)
– 1 fryer chicken, cut into 8 pieces

Pour olive oil into a bowl big enough to hold the chicken pieces. Add the garlic, salt and pepper.

Cut off the ends of the lemons, in order to make them stable when you remove the rind. With the lemon sitting on one of its ends, use a sharp paring knife to remove the rind in vertical strips (not only the zest, but the entire rind, including pith, so that the lemon flesh is exposed). You will have a bald lemon and the rind. Add the rind into the bowl containing the oil. Coarsely chop the peeled lemon and add it along with any juices to the bowl. Squeeze the juices from the remaining 2 lemons (or only one if it’s super juicy) into the bowl. Add the fresh rosemary leaves to the bowl. Stir the marinade.

Pull any excess fat off the chicken pieces and add trimmed chicken to the bowl of marinade and mix well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. If you’ve used a lot of lemon juice, don’t let the chicken sit for more than 30 minutes or the flesh’s texture will change. If you’ve used only two lemons, the chicken can sit for up to a few hours.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Select a low-sided roasting pan that will accommodate the chicken in one layer. There must not be any empty space in the pan or all the precious juices will evaporate — crowded is better than empty space. If your only roasting pan is too big, fill the empty spaces with onion halves. Place the chicken in the pan and pour on all of the marinade and collected juices, including all pieces of lemon, rosemary and garlic.

Bake uncovered until chicken is a deep, golden brown, turning once or twice as necessary. It should take about 45 minutes to 1 hour. The chicken should be very tender inside and nice and brown on the outside with lots of sauce in the pan.

Makes about 4 servings.

ORANGES AND OLIVE OIL

4 sweet oranges, navel or Valencia
High-quality extra-virgin olive oil
Finishing salt

Using a sharp knife, remove the outside peel of the oranges down to the flesh. Cut each orange crosswise into 1/4-inch slices. Remove any seeds. Arrange on platter in concentric circles. Drizzle generously with oil. Just before serving, sprinkle with salt.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.


Chef Evan Kleiman is the long-time host of “Good Food” on Santa Monica radio station KCRW and kcrw.com.