Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cooking Techniques with Olive Oil

In my cookbook library I have perhaps half a dozen books on olive oil. It's clearly a rich topic, given that historically so many cultures around the globe produce and have built rich culinary traditions around olive oil, primarily in Mediterranean countries. Now we have a new entrant on the subject, Cooking Techniques with Olive Oil by Mary Platis and Laura Bashar. Platis is a San Diego culinary teacher, chef, and blogger (California Greek Girl). Basher, also from San Diego, is a food blogger (Family Spice) and photographer.

The self-published e-book (beautifully rendered on a full-color tablet), is divided into a brief section on olive oil information--its history, production, varieties and flavors, and how to select and store--and then chapters of technique-based recipes around poaching (probably the most effective one), braising, marinating, steaming, baking, and lightly touching on other techniques, like infusing, whipping, and blending.

The techniques and recipes are truly the reason to buy the book. Other authors have dedicated more space and depth to the intricacies and history of olive oil, my favorite being Peggy Knickerbocker's Olive Oil, From Tree to Table. For those who have a casual interest in the details of olive oil production, varieties, and storage, Cooking Techniques gives just enough basics.

But, those of us who shop for olive oil often have pressing questions that Platis and Basher don't address here in any detail. We wonder, for instance, what the difference is between the Spanish, Greek, California, and Italian oils we see on market shelves--and why the distinctive properties of the oils found in each region are so well suited to its distinctive dishes. Quality olive oils can be pricey. What oils can we use confidently and with abandon for sautéing or poaching and what's best saved for finishing a dish? Where are the best places to buy olive oil, including online? Given the many news stories about mislabeling of olive oil, how do we know if what we're buying is legitimately olive oil? How can we be guaranteed freshness from the store? I once found a dusty eight-year old bottle of oil on a store shelf--and oil is not something that benefits from aging. A little more depth would have been useful.

Nevertheless, Platis and Bashar provide solid basics for the olive oil novice and the enticing recipes are accessible for the home cook. Each chapter is launched with a thorough description of the highlighted technique. There are recipes for making vinaigrettes and several on marinating--for chicken kabobs, pork tenderloin, salmon, and vegetables. There are some eye-opening ones for baking (for those who'd never considered that option)--including a dark chocolate olive cake with strawberries.

And have you considered olive oil drinks--like this watermelon shooter with Persian mint syrup and olive oil?

I'll still go with the poaching recipes, which take true advantage of the best qualities of olive oil: its flavor and unctuousness. While I was surprised not to see any true confit recipes, you'll find all four poaching recipes delightful, and don't ignore the recipes for the accompanying side dishes.

Platis and Bashar provided this "Poached Tomatoes and Onions in Olive Oil with Fresh Basil" recipe as a little taste of what you'll find in the book, which is available on Amazon.com. And, hey, we're in high tomato season now, so here's a wonderful and novel way to use them.

Poached Tomatoes and Onions in Olive Oil with Fresh Basil
from Cooking Techniques with Olive Oil by Mary Platis and Laura Bashar
(printable recipe)

There is nothing like the taste of warm tomatoes poached with two classic flavors, spicy plump garlic cloves and sweet fresh basil. Serve the tomatoes straight from the dish, rustic-style. Add slices of freshly baked bread to scoop up the softened flesh of the tomatoes and the flavored olive oil goodness.

Serves 6

3 large tomatoes, peeled and cored
3 large onions, peeled and cored
12 fresh basil leaves
3 - 4 cups extra virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 freshly ground pepper
2 - 3 basil leaves, julienned for garnish
1 loaf of artisan bread, sliced

1. Heat the oven to 375˚F. Line the bottom of a large ovenproof dish with the basil leaves.
2. Place the tomatoes and onions core side down in the dish so they are snug but not touching.
3. Pour enough olive oil to cover the tomatoes and onions halfway. Add the garlic.
4. Bake for 45 - 6- minutes or until the tomatoes and onions are soft.
5. Sprinkle with slat, pepper and freshly sliced basil.
6. Slice and toast the bread and serve with the warm tomatoes and onions.

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  1. Caron, I've had an interest in olive oil for several years though I own only one book on the subject--Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller. I actually took the book on a trip to Australia and vividly remember reading it as I sat at the Bridal Trail in the Blue Mountains, listening to and watching the beautiful birds in the trees. Ahhhh. Such a beautiful country! Back on topic now, would you let us know what the titles of the books that you felt were worthy of being in your collection? I'd like to see about getting more worthwhile (and worth purchasing) titles.

  2. Sure. Another one I particularly like is Fran Gage's The New American Olive Oil, which profiles a number of U.S. producers and includes recipes. Micki Sannar has a terrific book called Olive Oil Desserts. Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller goes deep into olive oils virtues and the fraud that occurs in its production. And, there's The Passionate Olive: 101 Things to Do with Olive Oil by Carol Firenze

    1. Thank you for your list! I'll look into these for adding to my collection.