The Morality Of Olive Oil

I got it into my head to have pasta for dinner with a good tomato sauce, so I turned to the book Modern Sauces by Martha Holmberg, which both makes good sauces and is fun to read. The last thing I made from there was a vanilla bean creme anglais that, for a modest nutritional cost, made a simple store-bought angel food cake I bought on sale taste like the best dessert ever.

This time, I worked from her basic tomato sauce recipe, which involves sauteing carrots, celery and onions in olive oil, throwing in some garlic, adding two big cans of crushed tomatoes and some parsley (you can also use fresh basil, but I didn’t have any), and letting it simmer. 

After I had prepped all the vegetables, I went to get the olive oil heating, and I saw that for roughly six cups of sauce, she calls for a half-cup of olive oil. I automatically cut it in half when I poured it into the pan. Just automatically, almost without thinking. 

This is what’s left over from the fact that I grew up worrying about everything I ate during the don’t-eat-any-fat era, when the advice was to base your diet around carbohydrates (this, for instance, was an influential book on me when I was a teenager, and the subtitle says it all) and to eliminate as much fat as you could from your diet, with the exception of what you absolutely needed in order not to die, basically. (It was acknowledged that humans could not survive with absolutely zero dietary fat, so you shouldn’t insist upon dropping it to zero.) This was the anti-butter era, the anti-egg-yolk era, the cooking-in-dry-nonstick-skillets era, the dress-your-salad-with-just-lemon era. 

It was all well-intentioned, and it was based on what people thought at the time; nobody was trying to give terrible advice. But of course, the conventional wisdom is now much more nuanced, saying that it depends on what kind of fat, and that fat in your food doesn’t necessarily translate to fat on you, and that carbohydrates of course must also be chosen with care. Plenty of fats aren’t really treated as problematic in moderate amounts in what I read now. 

Olive oil, for instance.

But it’s hard to get used to measuring oil in cups rather than spoons, really. When I look at an entire half-cup of olive oil, it just looks … ridiculous, like something I would never do. It’s not how I cooked when I was learning how. And in tomato sauce? You put in the tomatoes, you put in the other stuff, it’s still going to be tomato sauce, right? I can make this without all that oil.

And don’t get me wrong – if you have some dietary reason to do it, you can make a perfectly good tomato sauce without a half-cup of olive oil. There are people who are under orders to be stingier than I currently have to be. But the oil isn’t in there for no reason except recklessness, either, the way I was kind of acting like it was. After I started cooking the vegetables in the quarter-cup I’d measured out, I thought better of it, so bit by bit, I put the other quarter-cup in (slowly, so it wouldn’t drop the temp). After all, it’s making 12 half-cup servings of sauce (it actually made 13, when all was said and done); the half-cup means that each serving has two teaspoons of olive oil. I can fit that into the rough guidelines I’m following, particularly since today, I’d had fresh bread with jam for breakfast and super-healthy black bean soup with modestly constructed cornbread for lunch. (In fact, if my day was a skitch out of balance when I ran the numbers, it was a skitch too carb-y.)

The thing is, olive oil helps make tomato sauce taste really good, as it turns out. When it finished cooking and I had some with a little spaghetti, I could definitely tell it had a good slosh of oil in it. Particularly if you’ve eaten a lot of things where other things (especially sugar) have been swapped in and all the oil has been taken out, you can tell when something has a shot of butter or oil for richness. It feels a certain way to eat, and it took me a while to realize that this was part of what I instinctively treated as “like restaurant food.” It’s a rich and complex sauce – and that’s despite the fact that I forgot the tiny hit of hot sauce it’s supposed to get at the end. As with not all things but many things, the difference between what’s in a jar and what you can make yourself is pretty staggering.

The lady whose recipe it is has a book called Modern Sauces – she knows how you make sauces, you know? She puts olive oil in her sauce because it’s better, not because she’s trying to live la vida loca. I can remember thinking when I was younger, “Why do people ever cook eggs in even a small amount of butter when I can make a perfectly good egg in a dry nonstick skillet and save all that monstrous poison?” But I also remember thinking, “Why do people bother eating fried eggs?” And, of course, it didn’t exactly help me improve my health.

I still own nonstick, which is great for some things. But I use it much less than I used to. (I actually do still use it for fried eggs, because I cannot get eggs not to stick to my stainless steel skillet, even with butter. I include a little butter in the nonstick, though – maybe a half-teaspoon – because it really helps a fried egg out.) I cook in a little oil – olive, grapeseed, sesame, peanut, whatever – some of the time, and I cook in a little butter some of the time, and because I get the little brown bits on the pan when I sear meat, I make weird little pan sauces with wine or cream or whiskey. I also switched from skim milk to 1 percent at some point. I just like it more, and the difference is not huge, given the limited amount of milk I drink. 

Olive oil has no morality, you know? It just fits or doesn’t fit in with whatever you’re doing. And it has a place in a sauce when the sauce writer says it does. That doesn’t mean I can’t elect to do without it, but it means that I’m trying to work on that instinct.