25 March 2010

AUNT PASTA: - Oil Change

SARONNO, Italy - It’s time to prune my little herb garden and I'm going to use the trimming to make a couple of bottles of flavored oil. I bought the oil last week, extra virgin olive oil from Liguria, which I like for flavored oil because it is light. You can use other oils, peanut or sunflower, but oilve oil is the most pure and does the best job of capturing the flavor of the herbs. You can use almost any combination of herbs, it just depends on what flavor you are looking for and the type of food you want to use the oil on. The method is always the same.

An Italian cookbook I picked up a few years ago called ‘Cooking with Aromatic Herbs’ suggests that after you’ve decided on the flavor you want, cut your herbs into small springs and wash them carefully. If you are using more than one herb, tie them together with a piece of kitchen string. Push the herb bundle into a clean, dry bottle and cover it with oil. If you use the oil daily, keep refilling the bottle with oil as the oil level goes down. If you don’t use the oil often, it’s best to only make a half a liter because after a while the herbs tend to break down. They recommend the following herb combinations for one liter of olive oil.
For fish, grilled or roasted meat: sprigs of sage, rosemary and black peppercorns.
For spaghetti: 2 cloves of garlic, 4 small hot red peppers and a small spring of rosemary.
For white meat (turkey, chicken, pork): thyme, marjoram and white peppercorns
For pizza: 2 springs of oregano, a scallion, 2 small hot red peppers
For red meat and game: 2 bay leaves, 3 black peppercorns and 3 white peppercorns.

While ‘Cooking with Aromatic Herbs’ recommends tying the herbs together and keeping the peppercorns, garlic and hot pepper whole, I find that chopping the herbs and breaking up the garlic and peppercorns releases more flavor. And I tend to use more herbs and spices than they do. I’ve also found that making two bottles of flavored oil at a time works better than adding fresh oil to a bottle. It takes at least a week for the oil to infuse with the flavor of the herbs and, in my opinion, if you add fresh oil on top of your flavored oil, it dilutes the flavor.

My favorite combination is rosemary, garlic, black peppercorns and hot red pepper. For a liter of olive oil I use three or four long sprigs of fresh rosemary, at least 5 inches long; one or two garlic cloves; a pinch of salt; about a teaspoon of black peppercorns; and depending on how hot they are, one or two little red peppers.

I start by washing, drying and then stripping the rosemary leaves from the branches. Then I chop the leaves into very, very small bits and set them aside. I peel the garlic and chop and mash it with the side of a large knife. Then I add a pinch of salt and start to pulverize the garlic and salt together with my knife blade until it is mushy and completely broken down. The salt creates enough friction on the garlic to reduce it to pulp, and releases more flavor in the process.

The black peppercorns get broken up using my meat pounder. I just put them between some kitchen paper, fold it up and pound away. They just need to be in pieces, they don’t need to be pulverized or have any particular size or texture. The last step is the red hot pepperoncini. If they are really hot, I just make a small slice in the side of the pepperoncino and leave it like that. What I want is for the oil to penetrate inside the pepperoncino as the heat is all in the seeds. If they are not particularly hot, just cut them along the side so they are half open.

Then put everything in a clean bottle, fill it with olive oil, put the top on it and put it in your cupboard for at least a week. Chopped bits of rosemary may not look as pretty as entire sprigs but they do give the oil a more intense flavor.

For me, rosemary and pepper oil is the best for everyday use. I put it in and on everything including salad. The only problem I have is keeping enough of it around. A friend of mine is coming to visit the week after Easter so this weekend I’m going to make a couple bottles of oil to have on hand while she is here, and enough so she can take a bottle home if she wants to.

If you try any of the ‘Cooking with Aromatic Herb’ combinations, or my recipe, let me know what you think.
Photos: (1) flavored oils; (2) bunch of sage; (3) garlic

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