"Olive oil is one of the first foods that Italian babies eat, and one of the last foods offered to the dying." - Nina Planck, Real Food: What to Eat and Why
Last week Chef Brett posted about enjoying good crusty bread dipped in balsamic vinegar and olive oil so we decided we'd segue into olive oil this week. Olive oil is one of the "good" fats—high in oleic acid (a monounsaturated fat), a good source of palmitic acid (a healthy saturated fat), vitamin E, and polyphenols. Monounsaturated fats and palmitic acid help lower LDL, or "bad" cholesterol while vitamin E and polyphenols help prevent cancer and heart disease. Olive oil inhibits platelets from sticking together, reduces inflammation, and lowers blood pressure.
Olive oil is great used cold in vinaigrettes or for dipping bread, but is also a good choice for cooking at moderate temperatures. The monounsaturated fatty acids are relatively heat stable (more so than polyunsaturated fats—vegetable oils—which are more susceptible to oxidation); a blend of olive oil and butter is even better because of the saturated fats in the butter.
Olive oil requires very little processing, unlike other vegetable oils. It typically comes in 3 grades: plain, virgin, and extra virgin. Virgin and extra virgin are best—particularly if made cold-pressed which preserves the vitamin E and antioxidant polyphenols. Extra virgin olive oil is made from the first pressing of the olives and retains the most nutritional and antioxidant value. Plain olive oil is usually very refined and rancid—extra virgin olive oil is usually added to make it palatable. Olive oil is very susceptible to oxidation and should be stored in a cool, dark place.
As I type this, I am enjoying a sourdough baguette dipped in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar—I'd highly recommend you do the same!