Olive Oil: The Bacon of the Mediterranean!

It’s been about eight years now since I first put forward my theory that “bacon was the olive oil of North America.” The theory has spread steadily through the food world. So much so that a few weeks ago I was being interviewed about Camp Bacon by a food person I really respect and love, and she started into her next question: “I’ve heard,” she said, “that someone called bacon ‘the olive oil of North America.’ What do you think about that?” At first I thought she was messing with me a bit, by sending my own kind of crazy theory back at me. But when she didn’t follow her query with a chuckle, I realized the question was serious. “Well, . . .” I said, slightly stumped for a good response,“I…well…I’m the one who made that up in the first place. I wrote about it in Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon.” She started to apologize for not knowing from whence the idea had originated, but I assured her it was nothing to worry about—the best compliment one can probably have for an idea is when it’s embedded itself so effectively into the culture that no one can remember where it came from.

Two days later I sat down to write about these four great olive oils that had only recently arrived at the Zingerman’s Deli, and it struck me that if my original theory is accurate, then by some unrecognized, yet to be named, transitive property of good food philosophy, the concept would probably work just as well in reverse. Having played around with the thought for a few days, I’ve decided to run with it; olive oil is the bacon of the Mediterranean!

The parallels are clearly there. Both bacon and olive oil have the honor of being the primary fat in the food of their respective regions. Without pork fat it’d be hard to properly prepare much of the traditional food of North America. Even many Native American tribes—who had no hogs to work with until the arrival of Europeans—have woven bacon fat into their regular eating routines. (See Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon for my friend Meg Noori’s recipe for Mac ‘n’ Bacon and her stories of growing up eating oatmeal topped with bacon fat). Same, of course, can clearly be said for olive oil in the Mediterranean—you really can’t properly prepare the traditional foods of Italy, Spain, Sicily, Greece, the Middle East or North Africa without it.

Both bacon and olive oil are critical to the commerce of their home regions, both become prominent subtexts in local and national politics (subsidies, farming, etc.), essential in both legend and lore, a big piece of their area’s economy and, of course, of eating. Both are consumed and cut across class and ethnic lines—pretty much everyone eats and enjoys them.

Bringing my bacon as olive oil theory full circle, I’m going to look into starting up my new campaign slogan—everything is better with olive oil! To keep some alliteration in there maybe it ought better to be “Everything is optimized by olive oil!” Or, “Everything is extraordinary with olive oil!” I’ll work on the wording, but in the mean time I’d recommend that you get going—pretty much everything really is better with olive oil! Personally I’ve been putting this idea into practice for so long now that I’m almost what Maggie at ZingTrain would call “unconsciously competent” about it. I just instinctively put good olive oil on almost everything. Bread, salad, fish, steak, soups, sandwiches, olives, cakes, cookies, and bean dishes, are all delicious when dressed with it. But olive oil is also excellent in places you might not expect: fruit, honey, jam, and your morning toast are all terrific with it. Like bacon, olive oil is also showing up and showing pretty well in places one might not normally expect—I’ve had olive oil mousse, olive oil popcorn, olive oil gelato, olive oil chocolate cake, chocolate bars.

Here are a few thoughts on what you might do with some really good olive oil:

Olive oil &­ fresh ­mozzarella:
The milky freshness of the mozzarella provides the perfect palette for the olive oil to work on. If you want to add really good tomato, or equally excellent roasted peppers, that’s terrific too. A few flakes of the amazing Maras red pepper would be terrific. Better still, do this with burrata from Zingerman’s Creamery.

Olive oil and ­honey:bee-c07
I totally love this combination—pour some good olive oil on a plate or bowl. In the middle (or actually wherever your creative mind is moved to put it) plop down a few good sized spoonfuls of honey. Eat with bits of warm Paesano or Rustic Italian bread by dragging the bread through both the honey and the oil. You can also top it with toasted pine nuts.

Make ­a­ L.O.T.:
Following my metaphor, if olive oil is the bacon of the Mediterranean and a BLT is one of the best sandwiches we make, then of course an Lettuce, Olive Oil, and To- tomato sandwich would be terrific as well. Really great lettuce from the farmer’s market, heirloom tomatoes as soon as they start coming in mid-summer, toasted Bakehouse bread and a generous dose of extra virgin oil. Toast a couple thick slices of Farm bread, dress with the olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and brush with garlic if you want. Pull off whole leaves of one of those totally beautiful lettuces that have been showing up at the farmers market. Add a few slices of an heirloom tomato. Smush it all together and eat! In its most basic form, a LOT is vegan and very good. I like to tune(isian) it up and add harissa. Delicious.

Olive oil ­and ­jam:
An excellent way, it turns out, to top off your morning toast. The sweetness of the preserves is a perfect foil for the slightly spicy green fruit of the oil.

Olive oil­ and ­fish:tuna-cmyk
Certainly one of my favorites—olive oil and fish (like bacon and fish) blend beautIfully. Simply sauté, grill or broil the fresh fish of your choice, then dress with a good bit of really good extra virgin olive oil. For this, I really recommend the more delicate oils.

Olive oil­ and­ fruit:
I learned this one from the cooking of the island of Menorca in the Mediterranean. Toast some farm or Paesano bread, dress it with olive oil and then add slices of ripe peach, plum, nectarine, or whatever else looks good at the market. Fresh fruit, either grilled or raw, is great with a few drops of olive oil and a bit of black or red pepper. A salad with watermelon, feta and arugula is one of my favorites. Cantaloupe and olive oil, topped with a good grind of fresh pepper, a pinch or two of sea salt is superb.

Olive oil and ­steak:
A Tuscan classic—cook a steak to your desired level of doneness (in Florence that means very rare) and then rub it with fresh garlic and dress it with a great peppery olive oil. Poggio Lamentano would be lovely. Great topped with chopped fresh arugula too.

Olive oil­ and ­bacon­:
I got you there! But it’s true— each is great of course on its own but the two actually make a marvelous team. You can use them in tandem in almost any setting—fried bacon and olive oil on salad, in bean soups, on sandwiches, etc.

Super­ simple­ salad:bibb-&-blue-salad copy
All salads are, we know, excellent with olive oil. But of late I’ve been more and more appreciative of really simple ones—great greens, oil, a touch of vinegar, sea salt and pepper. This really couldn’t be simpler or more elegant or easier, but nevertheless it’s amazing. Just get some of the fantastic lettuce from the farmer’s market. Wash it and then dry the leaves on towels. I like to leave the leaves whole for effect (both visual and textural). Sprinkle with good sea salt and a fresh grind of black pepper. Then dress with some great vinegar and an extra virgin olive oil of your liking. If you want, grate on a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Toasted­ bagels­ with­ olive­ oil­:
I want to tell you that this is a traditional breakfast for Mediterranean Jews but that wouldn’t be true. It is however delicious. Toast, drizzle, eat, enjoy. Add a bit of fresh Zingerman’s Creamery cream cheese or goat cheese to take it up a notch.