All about Middle Eastern cooking series: Olive oil

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Olive oil is an essential ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking. Not only does it enhance the flavor of traditional Middle Eastern dishes, but it also adds a tremendous amount of nutritional values to these dishes. They can be produced and each brings a unique flavor to oil.

Olive oil can be of different grades based on acidity, absence of defects, odor and flavor. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the highest quality and most flavorful olive oil classification. It is simply pressed fruit juice without adding any additives, without the use of any solvents and under temperatures that will not degrade the oil. Other grades of olive oil include “light” olive oil (fit for human consumption) that is refined and has less flavor than EVOO, according to Michigan State University Extension.

Olive oil can be added to most dishes made with meats, fish, vegetables and beans to add flavor. It can also be used in baking breads and even some desserts as well as in marinades or simply drizzled on your favorite dips or salads. It is a very versatile ingredient that has been around for thousands of years and can replace many of the unhealthy fats. In general, olive oil’s smoking point is around 400 degrees F allowing it to be used even for light sautéing or frying.

To preserve the freshness and flavor of olive oil, avoid exposing it to heat, light and air that can cause its valuable nutrients to oxidize and loose its flavors. Keep a small bottle in your kitchen for daily use and store the rest in a cool, dark place such as a basement or in your kitchen cabinet. Try to consume olive oil within two years of pressing. If left longer than two years, flavors and nutrients deteriorate as a result of oxidation. However, extra virgin olive oil lasts longer than other grade because of the lower acidity level.

According to the Mayo Clinic, olive oil is a monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFAs) which is considered to be a healthy fat. Studies show that MUFAs may lower your total cholesterol and LDL (bad cholesterol). Other studies show that MUFAs may help individuals with type 2 Diabetes by controlling blood sugar and insulin levels. The Mayo clinic cautions consumers though that olive oil, just like any other type of fat, is high in calories, and recommends consumption in moderation.

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