The Mediterranean diet is once again at the forefront for the health-conscious, thanks to a relatively recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and as a result, many people are also thinking about olive oil, a major component of the diet. In fact, people have been thinking about olive oil for quite some time.
A quick look at the numbers confirms this intuition: According to Tom Mueller, author of Extra-Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, sales of olive oil over the past 15 years or so have doubled in North America, tripled in northern Europe (traditionally butter country), and increased by six times in some countries in Asia.
Why is olive oil so popular? There are a few reasons. Mueller characterizes olive oil as "a fresh fruit juice with the ideal blend of fats for the human body." Olive oil, unlike most other oils available in supermarkets, is milled from fruit rather than seeds, with all its attendant health benefits. The extra-virgin grade, in particular, is awarded to oils that exhibit fruitiness, a characteristic that gives an olive oil a unique combination of flavors, aromas, and ultimately, personality. Or, to put it in more prosaic terms, a Chevy is transportation; a Ferrari is an experience. The same is true for extra-virgin olive oil when compared to, say, a bottle of Mazola.
Extra-virgin olive oils also often exhibit pepperiness and bitterness, two flavor characteristics that are a result of a class of antioxidant compounds known as polyphenols, which, according to Mueller, have also been shown to have natural anti-inflammatory properties similar to ibuprofen. Research has demonstrated that these compounds have beneficial effects against heart disease, stroke, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease.
But one characteristic that remains intact in all olive oils, not just extra-virgin, is its fat profile. According to Eryn Balch, executive vice president of the North American Olive Oil Association, "Olive oil is primarily composed of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats — the good fat — and when used in place of saturated fats, can lower total cholesterol." Furthermore, she adds, "Among pourable cooking oils, olive oil is one of the richest sources of monounsaturated fats."
That's why the USDA also recommends ditching solid, saturated fats like butter and lard and swapping in monounsaturated fats like those found in olive oil in its recently released 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
That may sound like a compromise, but in some respects, you might find that olive oil is superior from a taste perspective as well. For example, baking with extra-virgin olive oil results in cakes that are moist and fluffy, and which often retain the unique flavor characteristics of the particular olive varietal (or blend of varietals) used to make the oil. Your spicy chocolate cake, then, will absolutely sing when paired with a fruity, peppery oil, for example.
Simpler dishes, such as salads, can also benefit from a carefully selected extra-virgin olive oil. The spiciness of arugula, for example, can either be enhanced or tempered depending on whether you pick a particularly pungent, early-harvest olive oil or a creamier, late-harvest olive oil. Bold, assertive olive oils can stand up to rich, grilled meats, while fruitier, mellower oils may be ideal for tomato sauces for pasta, where they will blend into the background.
Over time, you can build up an inventory of olive oils that you may like for certain dishes, much the same way as any cook builds up a spice rack. A good rule of thumb when deciding what oil to buy is to pick oils from countries where the dish you're cooking originated. It may sound simplistic, but there is an element of logic to it; the olives used to make an oil often take on the flavor characteristics of surrounding crops and the soil that those crops share.
To inspire you to start cooking with olive oil, then, we've come up with nine original recipes for you to try this week. Where should you start? The winning recipe, Lemon and Olive Oil Cupcakes with Black Truffle Buttercream by Sarah Kwan, is probably a good place.
All of the recipes featured here can be made at home for about $36 or less, excluding the cost of small amounts of basic ingredients such as butter, oil, flour, sugar, salt, pepper, and other dried herbs and spices.
Will Budiaman is the Recipe Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @WillBudiaman.