It’s a new year! We made it to 2022 – a time for fresh starts, resolutions, and healthy habits! This is a great time to commit yourself to a better tomorrow than today, and what better way than with one simple rule: start every day off with a shot of olive oil.
That’s right, you read it correctly – start every day off by drinking a shot of olive oil. One fluid ounce of liquid gold right when you wake up in the morning is the perfect way to get your body ready for the amazing day ahead of you. Think of it as oil for your car engine, or lubricant for your proverbial gears.
I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember; since my Papou (grandfather in Greek) used to give all of us children one tablespoon of olive oil every morning after we woke up. This was a tradition in our family for generations; we loved to drink the oil off his spoon—we would line up like little chickens waiting for our feed. My grandfather told us if we drank it every day, our hair and eyes would shine, we would have better teeth, and we would be healthier.
An apple a day… or a tablespoon of olive oil?
In America, people say, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. But in Greece, we say a couple of tablespoons of olive oil a day will keep many doctors away. So, why not do both?
Dr. Stefanos Kales of Harvard University writes, “The ‘Mediterranean’ diet is based on the traditional diet of Greek villages in the 1950-60’s with Crete as the most famous and prototypical example. It is widely recognized through multiple lines of scientific evidence as the healthiest eating pattern for the prevention of chronic diseases. The central element of the Greek diet is an emphasis on plant-derived foods, including the use of extra virgin olive oil as the principal fat for marination, cooking, salads and at the table as a condiment. Experts recommend consuming at least four tablespoons per day of extra virgin olive oil.”
Turns out, my Papou knew what he was talking about!
Olive Oil – a Gift from the Gods
Olives and olive oil have been a part of Greek culture since the ancient times. Per ancient Greek mythology, olive oil was symbolic, a sacred gift. It’s also how the city of Athens got its name. According to the myth, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, got into a competition with Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea and horses. Both gods wanted to be the one to name the capital of Greece, a new city growing in the heart of the country.
In order to decide who would name their city, the citizens wanted a useful gift from each god. Poseidon gave them warhorses and pierced his trident into the land, causing seawater to spring up. Athena responded by striking a rock with her spear, causing an olive tree to grow there.
It didn’t take the citizens long to decide who had won: They knew the olive tree would bring them good health and flavorful food year-round, from olives and olive oil. The city declared Athena had won and chose the name of Athens for itself.
Living that Olive Oil Life…
As a Greek, having olive oil every day comes naturally to me – my earliest memory growing up was the smell of our house. It smelled like olive oil. The fragrance came from our cellar, where my family stored our barrels of olive oil. We were poor, but we had acres of land, where we raised hundreds of olive trees.
From all my family’s olive trees, we made olive oil. Every fall, everyone—my father, mother, three sisters, brother, and grandparents, along with friends and extended family from our village—would go out into the fields and gather the olives, shaking the trees and handpicking the best fruit. We would put all the olives we chose in a special bag so they wouldn’t become bruised, and then walk them to the eleotrivio, a big wooden olive press in the middle of our village.
This was special—not every village had an eleotrivio. Ours was operated by donkeys, which pulled a long wooden beam that extended from the center of the press in a large circle. This drove a stone grinder that crushed the olives and sent their juice running out into a big metal pot.
The juice from the eleotrivio was unlike anything else: The first press came out as a beautiful green color, rich and thick, and the fragrance reminded me of freshly cut grass. And it tasted like heaven. I always went to the eleotrivio with a cup in my pocket and some fresh bread my grandmother had baked that morning, so I could taste the first press.
Since I was the youngest, I was allowed to sneak to the front of the line. I remember feeling so lucky while eating my bread with the first drippings from the press. After I ate, I would take a couple of drops of oil in my hands and rub them together so I could smell the fruitiness from the olives all day long, the way my grandfather had taught me.
So, What Makes Olive Oil ‘Good’?
Indeed, rubbing olive oil between your hands vigorously to smell the fresh, bright qualities of the oil is my favorite way to check the quality and caliber of an oil, but there are other ways, too.
To properly taste an olive oil, which allows you to experience all the aromas and flavors different varieties provide, follow these simple steps:
- Pour one tablespoon of olive oil into a tasting glass (you can use a wine glass or a brandy glass), and cover it with a lid or the palm of your hand;
- Hold the glass from the bottom to allow the oil to warm from the heat of your hand;
- Swirl the oil around the glass, allowing it to coat the sides (this releases the aromatic qualities of the oil);
- Remove the lid or your palm, and inhale to experience the various sensual qualities of the oil;
- Now, ‘slurp’ the oil into your mouth, and hold it there – don’t swallow right away; try to inhale through the sides of your mouth to intensify the flavor of the oil, and breathe out through your nose;
- Swallow the oil, and concentrate on the flavors and sensations you
Was the olive oil fruity? Grassy? Bitter? Pungent? Spicy? These are all different qualities a person can experience when tasting olive oil. The earlier the harvest, the less ripe the olives, which tends to yield a brighter, grassier, spicier and more peppery oil.
Polyphenols… the Gold in ‘Liquid Gold’
Spicy is often used to describe a ‘peppery’ sensation, which is directly connected to the phenolic content of olive oil – this refers to the concentration of polyphenols (antioxidants) in the olive oil. The more an olive oil ‘burns’, the higher its antioxidant concentration, therefore being much better for you. In specific, one type of polyphenol, known as Oleocanthal, is known to have incredible healing qualities. This makes daily consumption of good olive oil a must!
My friend and colleague, David Neuman, is the author of Extra Virgin Olive Oil: The Truth in Your Kitchen. David is one of the world’s foremost experts on extra virgin olive oil – the good, the bad, and everything in between. His new book will be an excellent resource to learn more about what makes an olive oil good…or bad…and why.
Olive Oil All Day, Every Day
However, tasting olive oils is essential not only to learn whether it is good or bad. But much like wine, the different qualities of different oils made from different olives lends a whole new element to culinary applications.
While it is true, there are some delicate olive oils that benefit most from cold applications. Like finishing salads, soups, and plates in general to lend another layer of flavor, there are many extra virgin olive oils that are hearty enough to stand up to the appropriate kitchen heat. With the smoke point of extra virgin olive oil landing between 375-394º F, many direct and indirect heat cooking methods would benefit from the use of a high-quality extra virgin olive oil, making the dishes created healthier and more delicious.
I shared one of my favorite recipes with Dr Simon Poole, author of The Olive Oil Diet and The Real Mediterranean Diet, who wanted to share it in his book because it showcases both the hot and cold application of extra virgin olive oil in a single recipe. I hope you enjoy this recipe below for Fasolia Salata, or Greek Bean Salad, and incorporate it into your life as you strive to make healthy changes for 2022. Kalí órexi! Enjoy your meal!
Fasolia Salata – Greek White Bean Salad – Serves 4-6
Ingredients – Salad:
- 1 pound dried cannellini beans
- 1 white onion, halved
- single teaspoon salt
- 2 /3 cup Greek extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium red onion, finely chopped
- 1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
- single bunch scallions, finely chopped
- 1 bunch fresh dill, chopped
- 1-2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
- 2 oz Feta cheese
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Ingredients – Dressing:
- 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
- 2/3 cup Greek extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Greek Oregano
- The night before you plan to serve this dish, place the beans in a large bowl with water to cover by 2 or 3 inches. Set aside to soak overnight.
- The next day, drain the beans into a colander and discard the soaking liquid. Place the beans and halved onion (both halves) in a large pot, add water to cover; add a teaspoon of salt and 2/3 cup of Greek extra virgin olive oil. Bring to a boil and cook until beans are fairly soft, about 35-40 minutes. Remove the beans from the heat and drain them into a large colander, discarding the cooking liquid. Rinse the beans well and drain them again. Allow to cool for half hour, then rinse under cold water, and drain again. Reserve.
- Add the red onions, green pepper, scallions, dill, and tomatoes to a large mixing bowl; add the cooked beans, and toss gently to combine. Taste, and season accordingly with salt and pepper.
- To make the dressing, combine 1/3 cup of red wine vinegar with 2/3 cup of olive oil in a resealable container. Season with salt, pepper, and Greek oregano to taste. Shake vigorously until emulsified.
- Dress the salad with as little or as much dressing as preferred, tossing gently to fully combine; crumble the feta into the salad, and toss again to fully combine. Serve and enjoy!
Chef’s Notes: Tailor this recipe to your taste! Use different beans, or additional varieties; use your favorite herbs, vegetables, and seasonings to make this recipe your own. Remember, if you don’t like something, change it!
All Olive Oil Photos courtesy of Sparta Gourmet. Maria Loi photo courtesy of Loi Estiatorio