Oiling the Wheels of Cuisine

My ancient recipe books are fascinating for many reasons, not least the ingredients required for the dishes. Lard, butter or – perish the thought, margarine – were often the preferred mediums in which to cook meat, chicken and fish; occasionally there is the daring suggestion of oil, and even more rarely vegetable oil. One recipe for ‘Chili’ instructs you to ‘in a large saucepan brown minced steak, onion and capsicum’ without actually mentioning any type of browning-fat at all. Dry-frying, one can only assume.

How far, gratifyingly, we have come. Most of us will use some type of oil when we cook, be it Mediterranean or Asian food; butter, having been pounced on as a ‘bad fat’, and possessing characteristics which cause it to burn at high temperatures, is much less commonly used.

These choice-rich days the preferred oils for cooking are olive oil, vegetable oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, flax seed oil, corn oil, soy oil and canola (the US marketing name for rapeseed, a member of the turnip family.) Add to this list avocado, mustard and cottonseed – the latter a flavourless favourite among many chefs. These are all refined oils, unlike unrefined ones which are often referred to as salad oils, which should only ever be used lightly for cooking but be otherwise employed in marinades or salad dressings. Extra virgin olive oil is a perfect example. Your choice of cooking oil may be personal, typifying your style of cuisine. I have a range of oils in my larder but it is olive oil I mostly use, tending to purchase it in 4-litre tins. (I love what Waverley Root says about olive oil in ‘Food’. In reference to the olive he remarks that ‘Its oil is not merely one member of a family of indifferently interchangeable vegetable fats, but is almost unique among them in possessing a decided character irreplaceable by others. The function of most oils is mechanical rather than gastronomic. They moisten salads to make them easier to swallow or they provide a cooking fat to keep foods from sticking to the pan, but they do not alter dishes by adding flavours of their own. Olive oil, on the contrary, contributes both flavour and nutrition to any dish anointed by it or cooked in it, and becomes a full-fledged ingredient on its own.’) But I also have avocado, a novelty oil really although its very faint nuttiness renders it agreeable in salads; vegetable and sesame oils for the rare times I will cook Asian; macadamia nut oil bequeathed by my sister who purchases it from Mid North Coast market stalls. There is almond oil too which I used once in a Middle Eastern recipe; walnut oil for an expensive entree I will probably never repeat.

According to Anthony Michaels from North Coast Cooking Oils, people tend to have bad things to say about all oils, with the exception of sunflower and extra virgin olive oil. ‘They’re the only ones that escape criticism’, he tells me when I go out to visit him at the Byron Arts & Industry Park. ‘I remember’, he says, ‘when canola oil was used to grease tractors!’ Anthony is a man who knows a lot about cooking oils. For the last seven years he has been collecting used ones from restaurants, takeaway outlets and pubs then sending them away to be converted to biodiesel (on which, incidentally, all his business vehicles run). He gives these places ‘a really good price on their new oil and in return they can offload their used cooking oils.’ He and wife Kary supply Australian canola, cottonseed, sunflower and other oils south to Evans Head, north to the Gold Coast and west to Casino. He tells me that they are now ‘moving into olives’, having sourced a supplier in South Australia. (I try one and it is lovely.) The great thing is that Anthony will accept used cooking oils from private individuals as well as from large operations. Most people now know not to pour down the sink old oil but remain at a loss as to how to dispose of it. Just put it in a container and bring it to Anthony at 4/7 Brigantine Street, Byron Bay. You might want to pick yourself up a tin of glorious Minos Extra Virgin Olive Oil while you’re at it – ‘Crete’s finest’.

Anthony Michaels can be contacted on 6680 8827 or 0415 718 876.

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