Olive Oil: A Chef Challenges the Conventional Wisdom

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Sara Jenkins


To try Sara's Palestinian salad with garlic-lemon-olive oil dressing, click here.

Traditionally in the Mediterranean there was really only one fat, olive oil. Usually olive oil produced by your family (I know there's lamb fat and lardo but those are more special-occasion fats, or in the case of Umbrian lardo a flavoring added to the olive oil). The olive oil was used for everything: to cook with, to drizzle on salads, to rub on your skin if it was dry. And there weren't a whole lot of grades: usually you had the current year's olive oil for salads or finishing, and then the previous year's oil was for cooking and anything else.

One of my earliest memories of food is watching my neighbor Mita deep-fry battered pieces of chicken and rabbit in olive oil. I was pretty amazed when I first started cooking in professional kitchens at what chefs who were ostensibly trying to cook authentic Italian food used. They used this awful 10 percent, which is commercially available vegetable oil with some cheap olive oil swirled in to add flavor. I never understood why anyone would buy that—I mean if that's what you thought was a good thing to use, wouldn't you just blend your own? They used pomace oil, a disgusting chemically extracted oil made from the leftover pressings from the first or second crushings at the mill. Again, why buy it? You are better off buying straight-up grapeseed oil at that point. You really aren't getting any of the benefits of the olive in pomace or 10 percent.

I buy a Greek extra virgin olive oil in bulk because bulk Italian olive oil is often not Italian and in some cases not even olive oil.

The very first thing I ever learned to make for myself was a Palestinian salad dressing of garlic and salt crushed into a paste and then lemon juice and olive oil beaten in. I used to drink the dregs of that dressing from the bottom of the salad bowl. I thought everyone knew that olive oil was what you put on your salad, so imagine my surprise when making a salad dressing at one of my first prep cook jobs I was yelled at for reaching for the olive oil. "No No NO," yelled the chef, "everyone knows olive oil is too strong for salad dressing!"

As long as I have been cooking I have cooked with extra virgin olive oil exclusively and I think its one of the things that sets me apart from other cooks. I always have to train new cooks in this—they have all been trained that cooking in olive oil can't be done (really I think, considering 3,000 years of Mediterranean cooking, just a giant mistake I guess). It ruins the oil, they say. And it's true it "ruins" the oil—the oil can't be reused, but then neither can butter. For that matter, do you ever reuse your cooking fat? When I worked in Italy professionally everyone used olive oil to cook with even if they skimped on everything else. It profoundly affects the flavor of the food. It imparts a richness and distinct flavor that also lets you leave the ingredients alone. A piece of fish sautéed in extra virgin olive oil needs nothing more than some salt and a squeeze of lemon juice. A piece of fish sautéed in highly processed vegetable oil needs butter and sauce and just stuff to make it taste good and mask the flavor of the inferior oil.

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Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. She runs Porchetta, an Italian sandwich shop, and Porsena, a casual restaurant focusing on classic Italian pastas. More

Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. As Mario Batali put it, "She is one of the few chefs in America who understands Italy and how Italians eat." Sara is also the author, with Mindy Fox, of Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond, released by Houghton Mifflin in September 2008.

The daughter of a foreign correspondent and a food writer, Sara grew up all over the Mediterranean, eating her way through several cultures and learning to cook what appealed to her. She began her professional career in the kitchen with Todd English at Figs in Boston, then went on to work as a chef in Florence and the Tuscan countryside, as well as on the Caribbean island of Nevis, before returning to the U.S.

In New York City, Jenkins became chef at I Coppi, earning that restaurant two stars from The New York Times. After similar turns at Il Buco, Patio Dining, and 50 Carmine, she began work on her own cookbook.

In September 2008 she and her cousin Matthew opened Porchetta, a storefront in the East Village focusing on porchetta, a highly seasoned roast pork common in Italy as street food or festival food sold out of a truck as a sandwich. Porchetta has been wildly successful in New York City, both with gourmands and ordinary folk alike. Porchetta was awarded the top spot in Time Out New York's "100 best things we ate in 2008" and also received a four-star review from New York magazine.

In 2010, Sara Jenkins will open Porsena, a simple and casual restaurant down the street from Porchetta focusing on classic Italian pastas.

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