Oiling Philosophic

My absolute favorite pasta sauce is Big Red by Hoboken Farms. I like it so much that as my pasta is cooking I stand at my counter and eat the sauce with a spoon. I usually finish one jar in two nights. My budget can't handle this kind of bourgeoisie behavior often, but pasta on its own can be very cheap (my pasta of choice is local sprouted wheat macaroni elbows in bulk from Whole Foods), so I started making my own pasta topping. The Honeybunch method is quick and super veggie-heavy with a generous amount of red pepper flakes (feel free to tone this down or leave them out if you don't like spice).  Adjust your veggies for the season - the more fresh and local your veggies are, the richer the flavor will be.

Culinary controversy: cooking with olive oil

Aside from the fact that I make this dish every other day and wanted to share it with you, I also wanted to write this post to figure out why people say you should not cook with olive oil. I do not like sautéing my mushrooms and tomatoes in coconut oil, the oil most often recommended by health food bloggers for cooking over a flame - I think that combination of ingredients tastes really funky (bad funky).

Let's look at olive oil for a moment. What makes it good for us? Largely, it is the phenolic compounds - wait! Don't go anywhere! I can explain this to you. 

Our organs are made of tissue, which is made out of cells, which are made out of molecules, like this:


Every molecule has a few pairs of electrons. Environmental pollution, poor diet, drug use, radiation, stress, and other unsavory things can cause one of those electrons to be dislodged, leaving a molecule with an unpaired electron. When this happens, ol' one ball becomes a free radical, and he'll stop at nothing to have a complete set of electrons once again. After the free radical steals a shiny new electron from another unsuspecting molecule, that second poor mole-fool then becomes a free radical himself, and so on. Every molecule that undergoes this sneak attack loses its ability to function normally, which damages or even kills the larger tissue cell that he is a part of. This is oxidation! You know what else is oxidation? When metal gets rusty and when apples turn brown. 

The body needs a continually replenishing pool of antioxidative molecules to stop this process. The antioxidants drive down the highway that is your blood vessel and drop off electrons to the free radicals, while magically avoiding turning into free radicals themselves. Frequent consumption of antioxidants stops the destructive, epidemic spread of free radicals and consequently reduces the things that happen when your cells are oxidized, like cancer, heart disease, and signs of aging. Olive oil is chock full of chemical mixtures called phenolic compounds, which act as antioxidative molecules in the body. You know what else is an antioxidant? The protective coating on stainless steel and the skin of an apple.

So what makes olive oil so good for you? For one, it's full of phenolic compounds! How greatly enriched with these compounds the oil is depends on the varietal of the olive, the location in which it was harvested, the degree of ripeness, how the oil is stored and, importantly, everything that happens during the process of extracting the oil from the olive. If too much heat is used in this process, not only is the delicate flavor of the oil compromised, but also the phenolic compounds that we need so badly. It is estimated that 80% of the phenolic compounds are lost in the refining process - the process used to extract any oil that is not virgin or extra virgin. The same is unfortunately true for heating olive oil to cook with. What happens to your tissue cells from oxidation due to poor diet, pollution, etc., also happens to the antioxidant compounds in olive oil due to thermal oxidation, or heat. Oil from a single extraction, at the lowest temperature possible (you may recognize this as the "first cold pressing" from your bottle of oil), drizzled at the end of cooking or eaten raw, has the highest level of polyphenols

All this is great, but means nothing if our body doesn't actually use it. This is called bioavailability, and the bioavailability of olive oil is heavily studied but largely unknown. There are so many factors that affect how our bodies absorb and deploy antioxidants, down to the amount of fat in our individual diets, that human trials attempting to test olive oil's bioavailability have come back with a myriad of results. It is apparent, however, that a person under great oxidative stress, like a cigarette smoker, will make more use of antioxidants than a person under very little oxidative stress. This is attributed to the human body's natural regulation of pro-oxidant and antioxidant reactions, so if you are in good health, you might not be using the antioxidants coming from your olive oil, just because you don't really need em!

Honeybunch recommendation: invest in your extra virgin olive oil - buy the good stuff. Oil that has been carefully and properly extracted from happy, perfectly ripened olives is going to yield the greatest concentration of nutrients. You get the most bang for your buck when the oil is not heated, taste-wise and health-wise. There is so much that goes into picking an olive oil if you get serious about it, and I can't say it any better than award-winning journalist Tom Mueller in his guide to buying olive oil.

Consider also the smoke point. The smoke point, most often a lower temperature than the boiling point, is when the fat begins to decompose into particles that become airborne (smoke!). When your oil is smoking, you know you have lost the nutrients. The freshest oils will also have the highest smoke points. Each time an oil is heated, its acidity level rises, and its smoke point lowers. This occurs with non-extra virgin olive oils, as they are repeatedly heated in the refining process.

If you look at a side-by-side comparison of cooking oils, you will see many oils with a higher smoke point than olive oil. This is where a lot of people get hung up. But, I say, the phenomenal phenolic compounds, decent smoke point, range of price points combined with almost no saturated fat and a good amount of monounsaturated fat make olive oil an excellent choice when you just have to sautee your veggies in a fat. No other vegetable oil is going to give you all of those things in one. 

When I cook this recipe, I keep the flame on the lowest setting (I cook everything low) and my cast iron pan does not reach above 350 degrees, so ostensibly, the oil is still okay. If you have a well-seasoned cast iron pan, you don't even need any kind of fat for the below recipe. Consider the water option: add water by the teaspoon as you saute if you sense things are getting dry, but definitely drizzle on some oil at the end. This recipe will make two servings. I usually eat the entire thing at once, but this also makes for great leftovers - refrigerate what you don't eat in an air-tight container, and reheat for a few minutes in your skillet when you are ready to re-eat! I add the basil and the garlic in at two different points because by doing that, as Mario Batali put so eloquently in this Munchies video, "You capture the entire spectrum...suddenly you understand all of basil's flavor, not just one note of the basil flavor."