Blog

“Holy Oil”

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This is a time of transition at the Farmer’s Markets. Most of the summer vegetables are still hanging on but more and more fall fruits and vegetables are arriving each week making it difficult to choose between the two seasons. Peppers and chiles of all kinds are at their peak in early fall, most of them displaying riotous shades of red, orange, purple, and yellow. One of my fondest childhood food memories is of my grandmother’s pepper frittata; stemmed and seeded bell peppers cut into rough one inch pieces and fried in olive oil until completely soft, barely held together with beaten eggs and cooked until lightly browned and just set. We ate wedges of this between slices of toasted bread.

With our profusion of southeast Asian and Hispanic farmers there is no shortage of chiles in our local markets. I’m a huge fan of Thai and Vietnamese cooking and always look forward to the Thai bird chiles that often appear this time of year as the entire uprooted plant with it’s bright red chiles still attached like little, incendiary, edible ornaments. I’ve found that these chiles freeze extremely well and will easily keep until next years crop. First, remove the chiles if they’re still attached to the bush. After you give them a rinse and allow them to dry, place them on a cookie sheet and freeze. When the chiles are firm, put them in plastic sandwich bags and return them to the freezer until needed. And while you’re at it, buy yourself several bunches of lemongrass before it, too, leaves the market. You can trim the stalks and freeze them whole or minced, ready to use in stir fries and salads.

A beloved condiment of the southern Italian kitchen is olio santo, or olive oil infused with hot peppers. Perhaps the term, which means sacred oil, is a hold over from a time when the Etruscans, and the Romans who followed, considered olive oil to be sacred. It was not only an important food but fuel for lamps to illuminate homes and the temples of the gods, a soothing rub for aged skin, or a liniment for the aches and pains of athletic endeavors. My grandfather Raymondo used it to spice up a favorite snack of crusty bread and sardines. To make a batch of olio santo, combine a handful of dried red chiles with 2 cups of extra virgin olive oil. Warm the oil over and low flame, then allow the oil to infuse overnight. You can either strain the oil or leave the chiles in for an oil that will get progressively hotter. If you don’t have whole dried chiles, a couple of heaping tablespoons of red chile flakes will also work. Use the oil as a condiment to drizzle on bean soups, pastas, grilled bread, meats, fish, and poultry.