Sunday 19 November 2017

Green gold: Enjoy a taste of the Mediterranean

Use the fresh, fruity flavour of extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings and sauces such as tapenade and pesto, says Brenda Costigan, and enjoy a taste of the Mediterranean

Baked salmon tapenade
Baked salmon tapenade

At harvest time, in the autumn, a treat for the olive pickers is made by toasting bread over a wood fire and rubbing it with garlic before dipping it into the oil of freshly pressed green olives. Green olives, which can be somewhat bitter, ripen through to a purple-mauve colour, and finally ripen to black, when they are usually less bitter.

Extra virgin olive oil is extracted from the first cold pressing of the ripe olives. This has a distinctive fruity flavour which will vary from region to region, rather like wines do. Extra virgin olive oil must have an acid level of no more than 1 per cent. If the level of acidity is at 1.5 per cent, the oil is called fine virgin olive oil, and it may not taste quite so fruity.

When the label just says 'olive oil', this is made from the third or subsequent pressings, which use heat and some chemicals. This oil usually has a bland flavour and is good for cooking purposes. Usually some of the extra virgin oil is mixed through it for taste.

Keep the more flavoursome and expensive extra virgin olive oils for use in salad dressings and sauces such as pesto. Once opened, keep the oil in a cool, dark place and use within about six months. The cheaper olive oil can be used for cooking.

According to the English wine expert, Jancis Robinson, when the wine trade visit each other, they don't bring the usual bottle of wine, but a bottle of extra virgin olive oil.

With typical Italian flair, many of the following recipes allow for lots of personal tweaking with the basic recipes.


I find this olive and anchovy-based sauce quite addictive. There's no cooking involved, either. Use it as a dip for crudites, or to flavour various fish and chicken dishes (see baked salmon tapenade recipe below). A food processor prepares this in seconds -- otherwise, chop the ingredients, and then give them a final mash in a pestle and mortar. Don't omit the anchovies, as their inclusion results in a richer, more complex flavour. Makes about 200ml (7fl oz or 11 tablespoonfuls).

You will need:

125g (4 1/2oz) pitted black olives

25g (1oz) capers

1/2 tin anchovy fillets (about 4-5 fillets)

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

50ml (2fl oz) extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

4-6 basil leaves or 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (optional)

Buzz all the ingredients in a food processor, until they are finely chopped. Put the tapenade into a bowl, cover with cling film and chill it until it's required. Freeze it, if you like, in small serving containers.



Since the tapenade is cooked in the oven, ordinary olive oil will suffice if you're making it specially for this recipe. Serves 4.

You will need:

Olive oil for brushing

4 x 200g (7oz) salmon fillet with skin on

4-8 tablespoons tapenade (see above recipe)

Vegetables of your choice, to serve

Preheat the oven to 200 C, 400 F, Gas 6. Brush a baking tin with the olive oil and arrange the salmon fillets on it, skin-side down. Spread the tapenade in an even layer on top of each fillet.

Bake uncovered in the oven for about 20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, until it is cooked through and the visible salmon flesh is lightly golden. Serve this dish hot with vegetables of your choice.


Genoa in Italy is the home of this sauce. As with all classic dishes, there are endless subtle variations. Pesto is traditionally made with fresh basil, and tossed through freshly cooked pasta. Use a light touch -- the pasta should not be swamped in pesto. It is important that the pasta be moist -- you can use a few tablespoons of the cooking water for this -- before adding the pesto.

Pesto can be used as a dip with crudites, or added to mayonnaise for a tasty, speckled look; there are loads of other uses.

Although it is not in the classic recipe, the inclusion of a few fresh mint leaves is recommended by a few different cooks to give a subtle hint to the flavour.

Makes about 125ml (4?fl oz) of a thick, paste-like pesto. For a more runny pesto, add more olive oil.

You will need:

50g (2oz) fresh basil leaves, smaller stalks can be included

1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed (see note)

3-4 fresh mint leaves (optional)

15g (1/2oz) pine nuts (lightly toasted if wished)

15-25g (1/2-1oz) freshly grated Parmesan

60-75ml (2 1/2-3fl oz) extra virgin olive oil (more if you want runny pesto)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 teaspoon of lemon juice (optional)


If raw garlic is a problem for you, a simple remedy is to lightly cook the crushed garlic in a tablespoon of the measured olive oil, allowing it to cool before mixing it with the other ingredients.

If you have a glut of fresh basil and you wish to keep the pesto for longer than a week, it is better to freeze it -- but it is best not to add the Parmesan until the pesto is defrosted.

Do not use any damaged basil leaves. Put the fresh basil leaves, the crushed garlic, the fresh mint leaves, if you are using them, the pine nuts and the freshly grated Parmesan into a food processor with a dash of the extra virgin olive oil. Turn the processor on and add the rest of the oil slowly until you have a thickish consistency. Add more oil if you want your pesto runnier. Add some salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Add the lemon juice, if you are using it.

Put the pesto into a clean jar and pour a little extra olive oil over the top to keep out the air.

Variation 1:

Instead of the basil leaves in the above recipe, substitute 25g (1oz) of watercress and 25 g (1oz) of flat-leaf parsley, including the tender short stems of both.

Variation 2:

Instead of the basil leaves in the above recipe, substitute 50g (2oz) of coriander leaves, including the short stems.


You will need:

2 large red peppers

4-6 anchovy fillets

2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4-1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (optional)

Cut the red peppers in half, deseed and grill them, skin-side upwards, under a hot grill until the skin is blistered and charred. Put the grilled peppers on a plate covered with a bowl or tin foil -- to keep the steam in -- and leave them for about 30 minutes. This loosens the skin. Scrape off the skin, but don't be tempted to wash off any bits as this will also wash off the tasty juices. Put the anchovy fillets, the extra virgin olive oil, some salt and freshly ground black pepper and the smoked paprika, if you're using it, into a food processor and buzz quickly to chop everything up small, but ensure you don't make a puree.


Nigel Slater suggests this tasty way to serve chicken breasts. The fried chicken breasts are spread with pesto and then with slices of mozzarella. There are two methods for finishing off this chicken dish: under the grill until the cheese is nice and gooey; or fried on the pan with the cheese-side downwards so that the gooey cheese mingles with the pan juices. The chicken is then lifted out and served with all the juices. Nigel is very generous with the pesto sauce, but you can be more sparing if you like. Serves 2 as a main dish. Accompany with a salad.

You will need

2 large boneless chicken breasts

40g (11/2oz) butter

2 tablespoons groundnut or vegetable oil

3 tablespoons pesto (see above recipes)

110g (almost 4oz) mozzarella, cut in 5mm slices

Freshly ground black pepper

Two tablespoons water

Slit each chicken breast in half lengthways and open each one out like a book. Put the breasts between two sheets of cling film or baking parchment, and flatten them with a rolling pin until they are 5mm thick. Be gentle, you don't want them pureed!

Cook the flattened chicken breasts in the melted butter and the groundnut or vegetable oil, whichever you are using, in a shallow pan for 1-2 minutes on each side. Without removing the chicken breasts from the pan, spread each one with a tablespoon of the pesto. Place a slice of the mozzarella on top and sprinkle with some freshly ground black pepper.

Method 1: Place the pan under a hot grill and cook until the cheese melts. Serve on a plate. Add the remaining pesto to the pan with the water, heat and stir and then pour over the grilled chicken.

Method 2: Having prepared the chicken breasts with the pesto and sliced cheese, do not put the pan under the grill. Instead, add the remaining pesto and the water to the pan, and turn the chicken pieces so they are cheese-side down in the pan. This will be messy. As soon as the chicken starts to melt and sizzle, scoop up each breast with a fish slice, making sure that the cheese is not left behind, and put them, cheese-side up, on serving plates. Spoon over any remaining juices from the pan.


This mash makes a tasty accompaniment to many main dishes. Serves 4.

You will need

750g (1 1/2lb) potatoes (Rooster or Golden Wonders), peeled and cut in generous chunks

15g (1/2oz) butter

2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

40g (1 1/2oz) black olives, chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

3-4 tablespoons fresh cream, warmed (optional)

Steam the potato chunks until they are tender. Melt the butter in the rinsed-out saucepan and add the olive oil and the chopped black olives and cook together for a minute to flavour. Add in the potatoes. Season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Mash until smooth, and then stir in the fresh basil. Add the fresh cream if wished.

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