The taste of oil

If cooking was a Hollywood movie, oil would be relegated to a very small supporting role. A couple of lines, nothing memorable, nothing to build a career on.

Frankly, with the way most generic vegetable oils taste, that’s a proper casting. Your average corn, canola or sunflower oil doesn’t have have much personality: it may be hard to tell them apart, unless you’re really paying attention. Made that way, oil is pretty much something to avoid food from sticking to the pad or to help prevent spices and herbs from burning, when basted on roasted meat, for instance. But as something to heighten a dish’s flavors?

The notable exception to this is, of course, extra-virgin olive oil, whose varied taste, from smooth Portuguese oils to peppery, intense Tuscan oils, gets a better deal. To get back to the acting metaphor, it may be the character actor, recognized by those in the know, appreciated by many, without being a household name. The actor or actress that you know when you see the picture, but the name only maybe rings a bell.

Extra-virgin olive oil added at the end of a recipe – a few drops on a soup, on a ratatouille or on a sunchoke-white bean purée – can give the whole dish quite a lift. Also, think of the pleasure of dipping good bread in a tasty olive oil. There’s plenty of flavor there.

Extra-virgin olive oil (top) and first cold-pressed sunflower oil (bottom) are both great for dipping bread.

Olive is not the only tasty oil available, of course. Walnut or hazelnut oils have a very distinctive taste, and so does the very pungent sesame oil (use sparingly).

However, what I’m mainly thinking of, here, are tastier versions of “standard” oils like canola or sunflower. With the growth of artisan, organic products, organic oils have become more easily available, thus giving access to much more flavorful oils.

This week, I bought a first cold-pressed sunflower oil from Maison Orphée, an excellent oil-maker based in Quebec City. It was a bit of a revelation. I’d had “extra virgin” canola oil, previously, and it had a rather intense flavor that can give a whole new dimension to a vinaigrette. But the sunflower oil tasted like fresh sunflower seeds, with a precise taste that came through in a bean-potato-tomato-coconut milk dish I prepared this week.

It was such a nice addition that it led me to try the oil straight up, as a dip for bread – just like extra-virgin olive oil. It’s just as fun, adding a familiar nuttiness to the experience, and a fresh note to the bread. It’s really not just liquid fat. And it now has me thinking a lot about how it could enhance specific recipes.

Suggestions, anyone?

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