Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Importance of Olive Oil

In a Greek household, it is difficult to sit at the dinner table and not encounter at least one dish that contains olive oil. This is no surprise, given the amount of time that the olive has been a part of Greek heritage and the many functions that its oil has. The symbol of the olive tree dates back to ancient mythology, when the goddess Athena gave the fruitful gift to the citizens of her namesake city. Moreover, nowadays, olive oil does not only have a culinary purpose; it is also used for skincare, medicine, and religious rituals. To the outside world, however, it is widely known for its high nutritional value.
Olive oil contains monounsaturated fats, which serve to reduce cholesterol. As a result, the oil can lower blood pressure and minimize the risk of coronary heart disease. Besides its great taste, these health benefits present even more of a reason to consume it daily, either in raw salads or in cooked foods. And the Greeks, whose country is among the top worldwide in olive production, use it frequently in their traditional recipes.

The following recipe may seem simple, but it is an essential part of every Greek meal. Horiatiki, or, as it is known in the United States, Greek salad, is a universal dish in Greece. Its name can be roughly translated as “rustic salad,” which is justified given the simple, pure ingredients it contains. Although it’s not specific to any particular region, the olive oil used to make it often originates from Kalamata, a city in the south of Greece. It is the second largest city of the Peloponnese region and is an important commercial port, with large exports of olives and olive oil. Besides its agricultural significance, however, Kalamata also presents an array of sights for the curious tourist. One can visit the 13th century castle overlooking the city, stop by the Byzantine Church of the Ypapandi to see its famed miraculous icon, or browse through the various small museums.

Horiatiki (Greek Salad)

3/4 pound tomatoes, seeded, diced (about 2 cups)
2 cups diced, seeded, peeled cucumber (from about
1 large)
1 cup diced red bell pepper (from about 1 large)
1/4 cup Kalamata olives
1/4 cup diced red onion
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2 ounces feta cheese

Toss first 9 ingredients in medium bowl to blend. Gently mix in cheese. Season with salt and pepper.
(Can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature.)

Makes about 4 ½ cups.
Do you know of any other recipes in which olive oil is a main ingredient? Or do you have any suggestions for improving the recipe for horiatiki above? Your comments are welcome!

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