Monday, January 26, 2015

olive oil revolution | is olive oil suitable for Indian cooking? | which grade of olive oil is best?

I get a lot of queries about usage of olive oil for Indian kitchens. There are so many brands available and so many variants of olive oil that one gets confused about which one is right for cooking what? And if it is worth the money even if one takes the plunge. I know many people who actually cook all their meals in olive oil exclusively (*olive pomace oil actually) now and many more who have been planning to move to olive oils for everyday cooking but the cost is the inhibitory factor.

Else all the TV commercials are here to announce that you can fry your jalebis and pooris in pomace and that it is still healthy. How much more contorted it could get.

The goodness of cooking oils is only measured on the scale of how much high temperature it can withstand because all Indian homes deep fry all their food everyday. Right?

I say wrong. We don't deep fry all our foods and we do need other qualities in a cooking oil too. A cooking oil should be rich in omg3 and NOT have a higher omg6 ratio to omg3 as it becomes inflammatory in nature. But that is not the concern with olive oil because it has all the goodness of omega 3s and good amount of polyphenols if it is good quality.

Good quality olive oil is a genuine concern in our country because olive oil is labeled WRONGLY here. While extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is great if the brand is good and trusted but there is no virgin olive oil. All the oils labeled as 'virgin olive oils' are a mix of extra virgin olive oil and 'refined olive oil' and that is an absolute sham.

Normally virgin or pure olive oil should be olive oil that is not cold pressed but thermal process has been used to extract oil but that is not as bad. The oil still has it's goodness. Read the label carefully before buying this category of oil and see whether 'refined olive oil' is added to it.

Now one needs to know what is 'refined olive oil'. Refined olive oil is nothing but *olive pomace oil and we need to read the label carefully to ensure before buying. Olive pomace is the oil cake leftover after the cold pressing process and the olive pomace oil cannot be called as olive oil as per law of many countries that produce olive oil. The process of extracting oil from pomace involves the use of chemical solvents and the resultant oil is industrial quality fit only to be used as a lubricant or saponifying agent at the most. Marketing olive pomace oil as a healthy product in India is WRONG and is misleading people. Jalebi fried in pomace oil CANNOT BE HEALTHY.

I attended a masterclass with Chef Kunal Kapoor recently at Le Meridien hotel where he cooked a few recipes with Olive oil and a nutritionist Dr. Seema Singh spoke about the health benefits of it. As I mentioned, cooking with even extra virgin olive oil is okay if one is cooking a pasta sauce or is quickly stir frying vegetables as the temperature in the pan doesn't go beyond 110 C in that case. Chef cooked a chicken kabab with avocado in olive oil and made everyone taste it too. A pineapple chutney was also cooked and served to all.

Extra virgin olive oil is great as a source of antioxidants and omega3s but we must include many more types of antioxidants and omega3s in our diet so we are not dependent on oils for them. We must remember that cold pressed mustard oil is as healthy as cold pressed extra virgin olive oil if we use it sensibly. Remember not to smoke any oil during cooking.

Using only olive oils is no guarantee that you will lower your cholesterol level if you have switched to it for this reason. If you keep eating refined foods, refined ingredients (like white flour, white sugar, HFCS or corn syrup) and less fresh produce you may get prone to high levels of inflammation, metabolic disorders, high cholesterol and related symptoms. Fixing the lifestyle is the solution, none of the healthy ingredients can fix it in isolation.

I love using extra virgin olive oils myself a lot and many of my salads and ALL pasta dishes use EVOO freely. But I would never switch to EVOO for my Indian food.I cook my north Indian food in mustard oil or ghee, south Indian in sesame and coconut oil, pakodas are fried in mustard oil, poori and parathas are fried in ghee.

I would be really glad if Olives are grown in India and we get access to good quality cold pressed EVOO closer home and can enjoy the best flavours in Mediterranian and Italian foods that we love. Till then I would look for my EVOO and would not bother about pure virgin olive oil even if comes without a mix of refined olive pomace oil.

To supplement my food I have my extra virgin cold pressed mustard oil and extra virgin cold processed sesame and coconut oil along with ghee and butter to use every day. It is not saturated fats that increase cholesterol in the blood, it is high degree of inflammation caused by processed foods and faulty lifestyle that leads to increased levels of cholesterol.

To manage cholesterol one needs to minimise inflammatory load on the system. The best way to do so is to live an active life, exercise regularly, switch to cold pressed natural oils (not refined processed oils and margarine) and ghee, use them judiciousely (not fry everyday food) include more and more fresh produce, fruits, seasonal greens and vegetables in everyday diet.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

a warm salad with caramelised sweet potatoes and carrots | a stir fry salad with flavours of lime, ginger and chilly heat

It has been sometime when I had mentioned the 'Farm to Table' meal that we had at Aiyor Bai (close to Hyderabad) and how we dug out baby carrots and sweet potatoes to make a caramelised salad with them. Simple fresh produce was the inspiration for this salad that day and I am amazed at how many people have loved it already. While my friend Bhavana keeps hunting for sweet potatoes in Hyderabad markets, Madhu (the chief farmer at Aiyor Bai) experimented with it too. I myself made this caramelised sweet potato and carrots salad several times after that and took it to potluck lunches twice during the last month and everyone just loved it.

The recipe quickly stir fried at the farm was simpler as we did not have more ingredients but the freshness of the vegetables made up for it. Later when I made this salad at home I added a bit of ginger and crushed lime leaves for more aromatic flavours in the salad.

Since I don't have access to such fresh baby carrots here in Delhi, I used a mix of red winter carrots and the orange summer carrots (that are available sometimes in this season too) to bring out a complex sweetness and good colours as well and was not disappointed with the improved recipe.

The only precaution one needs to take while making this salad is to use thinner baby sweet potatoes as they slice well into bite size pieces and the cooking time is similar to the carrots. Although we are not cooking the sweet potatoes and carrots in this salad, the are just half cooked to retain the bite and allow caramelisation. 

I used a huge sweet potato once when I was making the same salad again to take to a family get together and was disappointed with the way the large (mature) sweet potato responded to caramelisation and had a very firm bite when done. Avoid too big and mature sweet potatoes for this salad.

(for 2-3 servings)

2 small sweet potatoes (about 250 gm)
3-4 carrots, preferably baby carrots or mixed variety but use whatever available (about 250 gm)
brown sugar or grated jaggery or unrefined brown sugar 1 tbsp or a bit more
butter 1 tbsp
broken red chillies 2 or roasted chilly flakes 1 tsp or as per taste
salt 1/4 tsp
lime juice 2 tbsp
ginger juice 1 tbsp
lime leaves (or use lime zest) 5-6 broken and crushed
roasted sesame seeds 2 tbsp ( I used mixed seeds for the friends potluck and it was good too)


Scrub and rinse the sweet potatoes, do not peel them but remove any dark spots from the surface.

Scrub and rinse the carrots as well, I prefer peeling them if they have too many crevices on the surface. Sweet potatoes are smoother so no such concern with them.

Now take a thick base pan and melt the butter. Add the broken dry red chillies and brown sugar or jaggery and let it melt a little. No need to caramelise this sugar as the slow *caramelisation happens when the sweet potatoes and carrots are added. The brown sugar is added just to enrich the taste and to balance the lime and ginger juices and the chilly heat.

Now add the sweet potatoes and sliced carrots at once before the sugar starts bubbling. Toss with salt and stir fry for 2-3 minutes. It takes longer if you are cooking more bulk of this salad, I really have cooked huge amounts of this salad by now :-)

Add the ginger juice and lime juice, the torn lime leaves (or a pinch or two of lime zest if using, roasted red chilly flakes too if using)) and toss the salad a bit more. Cook for total 5-7 minutes for this amount if you have sliced the vegetables thin. The slices should be half done and all the juices that release after adding salt should dry up.

Empty into salad bowl, sprinkle toasted sesame seeds or mixed seeds and serve warm.

You can skip ginger juice if you wish but please do not replace any other ingredient in this salad. You might like to make it just with carrots or just with sweet potatoes too, that is great but the caramelisation, the lime sourness and chilly heat combine really well with the inherent sweetness of these vegetables enhanced by the use of brown sugar. Sesame seeds add texture and more nuttiness, look great too. Some praline could be a good replacement for this but the base flavours of this salad are not meant to be disturbed.

I actually went ahead and created a pancake with sweet potatoes having the same flavour mix. I would definitely share the pancake recipe here, enjoy this salad till then.

*And since a friend asked about what caramelisation means in this salad when I posted a picture of it on my fb page, I think explaining it here makes sense. In this salad or any other starchy vegetable or fruit (with natural sugar), slow cooking with a little cooking fat results in the caramelisation (browning) of naturally occurring sugars in the vegetable and leads to a sweeter richer tasting end product. 

While browning of meat involves a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars at high temperature (called Maillard reaction), browning and caramelisation of vegetables is just a case of Pyrolysis (breaking down of sugars at high temperature) resulting in a nuttier and sweeter taste.