“An ounce of sauce covers a multitude of sins”, Anthony Bourdain.
By Nancy Harmon Jenkins for Women In Olive Oil (text and photos)
Never underestimate the power of fine olive oil to sauce almost any food. Salad, of course, and cheeses, fish, meat, vegetables whether raw or cooked--the oil, on its own or sparked with a spritz of lemon or good aged vinegar, always works a miracle. A baked russet potato, hot from the oven and cracked open to capture a dollop of fresh extra-virgin, a sprinkle of crunchy sea salt, might just be heaven on a plate.
Maybe not on dessert though, I was about to say—and then I remembered a deep dish of vanilla ice cream served at a late-autumn dinner party in the Italian region of Molise. A healthy spoonful of herbal local Gentile da Larino oil, fresh from the frantoio, topped the gelato, intensifying its sweetness by contrast with the oil’s almond flavors.
But there are other ways to use olive oil at the table too, in sauces from all the different Mediterranean cuisines that have evolved with olive oil as a base-line ingredient, as well as from places that have adopted and adapted its delicious, healthy nature and made it part of regional cuisines. In what we might call the Department of Healthy Garnishes, olive oil leads us in many directions.
Mayonnaise, the classic sauce for our prized extra-virgin, is the little black dress of the kitchen, at home on its own in a tuna salad with perhaps a handful of chopped chives stirred in; or lightly embellished with a dollop of Dijon mustard or horseradish or sriracha; or dressed up for a fancy date with adds like chopped gherkins, chopped green herbs (tarragon, chervil, parsley), capers, minced shallots, just to name a few. With garlic the sauce acquires a new name—aioli in Provence, allioli in neighboring Catalunya; and with a dollop of sriracha it becomes. . . well, I’m not sure what to call it except delicious.
Egg-and-oil-based sauces like these are best used quickly and certainly kept refrigerated if not consumed immediately.
But there are other sauces that can be kept for a week or ten days, refrigerated of course, and used as you wish. I’m thinking of sauces like:
Provencal rouille, sometimes made with egg too, but in the version from around Marseilles just sweet and hot peppers pounded with garlic, breadcrumbs for thickening and extra-virgin to turn it into sauce.
Italian salsa verde and French sauce verte, combinations of finely minced green herbs (think cress, basil, tarragon, parsley), sometimes a little spinach, with minced garlic or shallots, capers, a splash of vinegar and of course quintessential extra-virgin.
Turkish tarator, basically crushed walnuts with garlic and breadcrumbs, smoothed with olive oil to make a favorite sauce for seafood.
Muhammara, maybe my all-time favorite sauce from that wildly prolific region of the Levant that brings together Lebanon, Syria and Turkey in a culinary cornucopia (admittedly when wars do not interfere with the people’s kitchen), this combines the best of the best with fresh red peppers, fragrant dry-aged Aleppo peppers, crushed walnuts, pomegranate syrup, and of course our favorite extra-virgin.
With no raw eggs in them, these sauces will keep easily for a week or ten days in the refrigerator. Use them liberally, maybe as a garnish for that fish you’re grilling for dinner tonight, then later in the week on another dish, maybe to embellish braised lamb or chicken, or with a tray of roasted vegetables. Then perhaps thin the sauce with a little more oil and use it as a salad dressing; or serve it as a dip with vegetable crudités at a cocktail gathering—if we’re ever again comfortable with cocktail gatherings; add a dollop of sauce to spark up a minestrone or bean soup; or just spread it on crostini, crisp toasts of crusty bread. And the last few tablespoons at the bottom of the jar? Spread them on a grilled cheese sandwich and thank your lucky stars for olive oil!
About the author: Nancy Harmon Jenkins is a food writer and journalist with a long list of publications to her credit, including books, magazines, and journalism. She divides her time between a home on the coast of Maine and an olive farm in the hills of eastern Tuscany. Nancy is the author of eight books about food, mostly about Italy and the Mediterranean, including Virgin Territory, recounting her experiences in the world of olive oil. She has been a staff writer for the New York Times food section, publications director of the American Institute of Wine & Food, and a founding director of Oldways Preservation Trust. Semi-retired, she is sitting out the pandemic in a small town in Maine and hoping to get back to Italy for this year’s olive harvest. https://nancyharmonjenkins.com/