`You Can’t Butter a Salad - Olive Oil Times

You Can’t Butter a Salad

Mar. 23, 2011
Joelle Laffitte

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If you take a leisurely drive through the ver­dant coun­try­side of north­west­ern France, where lush pas­tures teem­ing with live­stock remind you of the cheeses of Camembert and the scent of fer­ment­ing apples fills the air, you know you are a long way from Provence, or the fla­vors of the Mediterranean. In the north, the cow is king (and not in the Indian way). Around here, peo­ple like their beef, and it’s not a ques­tion of how much but­ter, but salted or unsalted. An olive tree does not grow in Normandy.

On the other hand, you can’t but­ter a salad, can you? Butter and olive oil may be cre­ated equal, but they cer­tainly aren’t inter­change­able. Butter vinai­grette? On the other hand, a big nob of but­ter always goes into my saute pan first, and it’s just the thing for baked car­rots. A Frenchman would also say that but­ter is some­thing into which you dip radishes, but I have yet to be con­vinced. Olive oil, on the other hand, is more of a south­ern fla­vor, and while I respect regional tastes and pro­duce, I can’t help hav­ing an urge to reach for a bot­tle of the good stuff to add that final touch to my plate.

Finishing my food with olive oil is not a habit I acquired in France, but it is a rit­ual I learned long ago, a rit­ual that recalls my most impor­tant food mem­ory. It is impor­tant not because it was the ear­li­est or even the most dear, but because it marks the time when I dis­cov­ered that I was deeply pas­sion­ate about good food and skill­ful cook­ing. And even though I know my French friends, and even I, would like to say this pas­sion was trig­gered by watch­ing Julia Child or dream­ing of the Le Cordon Bleu, I would be fool­ing myself. And I would be lying. While it’s true that my ear­li­est fond food mem­o­ries and my train­ing to appre­ci­ate a finely crafted meal came from my Creole-cook­ing grand­fa­ther, the first time I actu­ally stepped behind the line of a pro­fes­sional kitchen and learned real culi­nary skills, was at the side of a Palestinian chef.

You see, long before I knew any­thing about the smok­ing point of fats or how to make a good beurre blanc, I worked in a Mediterranean restau­rant that fused the cuisines of Lebanon, Syria, Greece, and Turkey. I started as a wait­ress, but the chef/owner humored my inter­est in the cui­sine and let me come behind the line and learn a few tricks. From him I learned the proper way to fold grape leaves, bake mous­saka, blend houmus, make sour yogurt, and grill fresh sar­dines. I learned to love egg­plant with and with­out its skin, to under­stand the impor­tance of olives and capers and lemons, and why gar­lic should be grated, not chopped. Above all, I learned to use olive oil in every­thing. It was the alpha and the omega to every dish we served there. But it is also true that when we browned meat and onions, we used ghee, a clar­i­fied but­ter made from goat milk. We had no prej­u­dices, we just knew every fat has its place. And we never used olive oil for high-heat cook­ing, because as the chef empha­sized, it is dis­re­spect­ful to the oil.”

We kept two olive oils in the restau­rant: one mild vari­ety for saute­ing and cer­tain sauces, and a more pep­pery one which we used to enhance fla­vor in spicy dishes and which we poured over every­thing from hum­mus to big chunks of feta cheese or even yogurt. I loved the aroma of ground car­damom and corian­der, a sim­mer­ing pot of lamb stew on the stove. I can’t imag­ine any of those gor­geous and aro­matic plates of food with­out good olive oil, and plenty of it. I will always long for the smell of that kitchen, those spices, so fra­grant and warm and rem­i­nis­cent of lands I have still yet to see.

At home in my French kitchen, I stuff rich salted but­ter under chicken skin before roast­ing it, and always close at hand is a liter of olive oil made from pure picholine olives from the pays du Gard. I go through the liter in a week‘s time, and most of it is for driz­zling onto my food just before eat­ing. Sometimes, I use it to make a sta­ple dish I learned years ago, a meal where but­ter has its place and so does that other liq­uid gold. It may not be French, but it has won more than one French per­son over, and it will always be part of my immi­grant heart. And in this gas­tro­nom­i­cally splen­did coun­try of Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité, I think we have room at the table for every­one.

Hummus bil Lahmeh (Hummus with Meat)

250 grams (about a half pound) of lamb, chicken or beef
Hummus (favor­ably home­made)
50 – 75 grams pine nuts
Ghee (can sub­sti­tute but­ter)
Quality extra vir­gin olive oil
One large onion
Ground corian­der
Smoked paprika (optional)
Salt and pep­per

In a pan over medium heat, brown the pine nuts in a table­spoon of ghee until golden, then remove from the pan and set aside. Add more ghee if needed and the onion. When it is begin­ning to turn golden, sea­son the meat with salt, pep­per and ground corian­der to taste, and cook until done. Meanwhile, allow the hum­mus to come to room tem­per­a­ture before evenly spread­ing onto the plate. Drizzle the olive oil over the hum­mus, then add the meat and onions, and top with the pine nuts. Finish with a sprin­kling of paprika if using.

This dish can also be topped with bit­ter greens such as dan­de­lion, which can be cooked like spinach then fin­ished with lemon juice and olive oil.

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