I’ve had the pleasure of meeting noted food writer and historian Nancy Harmon Jenkins at our ranch. She’s an authority on the Mediterranean diet, its health-promoting properties, and extra virgin olive oil. Nancy – who divides her time between coastal Maine and an olive farm in Tuscany – has penned several acclaimed books, including the groundbreaking Mediterranean Diet Cookbook and the newer The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. We spoke with her by phone in New York City, where she talked about Mediterranean cuisine, her upcoming book on olive oil – to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2014 – and how she became interested in food.
What makes the Mediterranean way of eating different from other cultures’ diets?
The No. 1 reason why the Mediterranean way of eating is so healthy is the olive oil – and by that I mean extra virgin olive oil. It’s the principal cooking fat. There’s also an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables. By contrast, meat consumption, especially red meat, is low. The other interesting thing is wine consumption. Wine is consumed at every meal. But there’s a very low level of alcoholism. Children are allowed to consume wine mixed with water. It’s not seen as this dangerous thing. Also, meals are consumed in a very social manner. There’s some kind of social interplay that almost always takes place over food. And I think that’s an unexplored, but important, aspect of the Mediterranean diet.
You’ve just completed a book about olive oil. Can you tell us about it?
It’s about my own experience with olive oil. I have my own olive orchard in Tuscany and make my own oil. My experience with olive oil goes back to the late 1960s and the early 1970s when I lived in Spain. But the book is not simply a memoir about olive oil. I include a lot of recipes. There’s a chapter on the science of olive oil and why it’s good for us. There’s also a chapter on what extra virgin olive oil really is. Once the definitions are made, the only oil I think worth talking about is extra virgin olive oil. To me there’s just no other kind.
How did you become interested in food and cooking?
That’s a hard question to answer. I could say I’ve always loved to eat. But for me food is a really interesting way to get into another culture. I learn more when I go to a completely different country by going to markets, by going to restaurants, and by asking people what they’re taking home to cook. It’s about why people are eating that food and what they’re doing with it. Sometimes it has to do with the climate and the geography of a place. Sometimes it has to do with history. Sometimes it has to do with religion. In Italy, for example, people have always had pasta in their history. Also, Italy is a great wheat consuming nation.
You created a delicious olive oil mousse au chocolat using our Arbequina oil. We’ve made it countless time. What does the Arbequina contribute to the mousse?
Arbequina has a very flowery flavor to it. I almost think of it as an almond flavor. That balances well with the chocolate. You also need a fat to bind it all together. If you made that mousse with a Picual olive the taste would be totally different. Picual naturally has a strong taste and would cancel out the chocolate.
What’s your best piece of advice to home cooks when it comes to cooking healthy food?
I always say cook with extra virgin olive oil. And people will say you can’t fry with olive oil. But of course you can fry with olive oil. Olive oil is very good, even for deep-frying. You can heat it to the right temperature – which is about 365 degrees Fahrenheit, more or less – and it will crisp the outside of the food and won’t get soggy. There’s a myth that olive oil breaks down at frying temperatures, but that’s exactly what it is – a myth.
Because of its high content of polyphenols, extra virgin olive oil is actually very stable up to over 400 F. You can use it two or three times if you filter it. I also love the flavor olive oil gives to fried foods. I say use it for everything – eggs, chicken, fish. And you should certainly use it in raw sauces you make, like pesto or vinaigrette for salads.