Olive oil: the miracle ingredient

Ruth Joseph on a versatile food which is as healthy as it is tasty,

By Ruth Joseph, December 11, 2008

Chanucah celebrates the supremacy of the Jewish rebels over Greek occupiers. During the period of the Second Temple, the Syrian/Greek rulers forced Jews to worship Greek deities and, under threat of torture and death, prevented them from practising their religions. Thousands of Jews were taken into slavery and massacred, while the Temple was systematically pillaged and despoiled.

And as every cheder child is taught, the Maccabees defeated Antiochus’s armies at the battle of Bet Tzur. Later, they regained the Temple and began its restoration and religious observances. But when the Greeks desecrated the Temple, they destroyed stocks of the most sacred olive oil necessary for religious services. A fraction of the amount — just one day’s worth — was unearthed and, miraculously, this lasted for eight days. Chanucah is not celebrated to remember this miracle but rather that the Jews were entitled to practice religious freedom. From that day, the olive tree and its oil have represented the strength and persistence of the Jewish race, while the olive branch is internationally known as a symbol of peace.

The Ancient Hebrews were told in Deuteronomy 6:11 that they would find olive groves (the Olea Europaea L) in Israel and the first known trees date back 2,200 years. The climate and soil in the mountains of Judea and Galilee is perfect for planting and raising olives. The Hebrews’ agricultural knowledge increased, so that by the late Iron Age (eighth to sixth centuries BCE), large-scale, stepped terraces were constructed. Coincidentally, the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the fleeing refugees became their agricultural workforce.

So the Jews became olive oil merchants. It was used to light lamps, for cooking, for soaps, for its healing powers, as a cosmetic and as currency. Athletes were cleansed by covering their skin with oil then scraping it to remove the dirt. Oil was also used to anoint priests and kings. Even the word moshiach — Hebrew for Messiah — means “anointed one”.

Today, we know it as a mono-unsaturated fat which contains no harmful trans-fatty acids. It lowers cholesterol and is said to help prevent cancer. Some studies indicate that taking approximately two tablespoons of olive oil a day may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and positive results after ingestion of olive oil have been noted on the strength of arterial walls. This could account for part of the reason why those diseases are less prevalent where olives and olive oil are consumed daily.

But apart from its venerated history and health properties, olive oil is a wonderful ingredient. A little green, virgin olive oil moistens mashed potatoes in a meaty meal — try adding a teaspoon of seed mustard or a finely chopped dill pickle for extra flavour. Replace chicken fat with olive oil in your kneidlach mixture for a lighter, healthier Shabbat soup addition and add a little olive oil to your challah mixture for an extra moist dough.

Combined with a free-range, organic egg-yolk, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and seasoning, it yields a rich, golden mayonnaise. And when whisked with a dash of balsamic vinegar, a little chopped garlic, salt, pepper and a handful of herbs, it creates a glistening dressing for peppery rocket leaves; or a tempting pesto when added to crushed basil leaves, freshly grated Parmesan cheese and toasted pine nuts. Use the lighter oil for the most deliciously crisp fried fish, pancakes and chremslach; also in cakes such as a honey or spice cakes when a loose batter is required.

For extra authenticity, you can use olive when making latkes or doughnuts. Or for a change, try my moist, healthy orange olive oil cake — it can be served warm as a dessert and may even help to lower your cholesterol.

Orange Olive Oil Cake

10 portions approx

2 free range organic eggs
225 g (8 oz) soft brown muscovado sugar
177ml, 6 fl oz light olive oil
177 ml, 6floz orange juice — approx juice of 1 ½ oranges soaked with the scraped seeds from 1 vanilla pod for 5 minutes
Grated rind of 1½ oranges — use remainder for decoration
140 g(4oz ) plain flour
2 heaped tablespoons ground nuts — almonds or walnuts are wonderful
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Pinch salt
Juice of ½ lemon with 150 g (5 ½ oz) icing sugar to mix for drizzling

Heat oven to 180°C, 350°F, Gas mark 4. Line a 23cm, (9 in) round deep cake tin
Sieve flour with raising agents, salt and ground nuts in a large bowl. Beat eggs and sugar together.
Then add the wet ingredients — the oil, the orange juice, vanilla seeds to the egg mixture.
Quickly combine with dry ingredients and stir just enough to remove any flour lumps — the juice will start to work with the raising agents as soon as they are mixed.
Pour into tin and bake for 40-50 mins until cooked. Let cake cool, turn out, drizzle with lemon juice mixed with icing sugar and serve.
Will freeze or keep for a few days in a cool place.

Last updated: 11:22am, December 11 2008