Transform the simplest meals with flavored oils.
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Photography by Patricia Lyons • Prop styling by Tyler Darden • Recipes and food styling by J Frank
Plate presentation—delicately seasoned meat and vegetables arranged just so, an artful drizzle of bright something-or-other swirled in the margin on elegant china—is the province of the high-end restaurant. Diners go there for cuisine, not food. And the experience may be sublime, with flavors all hitting their distinct notes on the palate, punctuated by the “zing” of the liquid garnish where it’s touched the edge of a bite. Food can be artful in so many ways.
But it seems a little precious to bring such flourishes into the home kitchen, where cooking is often a chore, even a frantic one. The very idea of tenting the beans in a pleasing arrangement, positioning the fish deliberately and adding swirls and dots of color around the plate—at home—would be out of context.
And what are those squiggles, anyway?
They’re a deceptively simple tool, a key to beautiful meals, and worth bringing home: infused oils. Beyond the visual impact, they also serve to draw flavors together in new, surprising ways: A mild white fish pan-fried and seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper (bor-ing) becomes something more, even exotic, when paired with, say, a beet juice reduction and ginger-infused oil.
The intensity of infused oil’s flavor makes it an efficient substitute for other kinds of sauces—and a little bit packs a wallop. A drizzle of red pepper oil, for example, lights up the most simply prepared chicken, adding an eyebrow-raising burst of tart sweetness followed by a smoky, strange pepper after-kick. And doodling it directly on the plate is merely practical: Just try pouring the stuff onto a hot entrée and see where it ends up.
One of oil’s qualities is its capacity to extract and carry the flavors of herbs, spices and other seasonings. There are two ways to infuse oils—cold infusion and heat infusion, and there are many variations on both. The cold method may be as simple as pushing a handful of assorted fresh herbs into a cruet, and then filling it with oil and letting it sit for days or even weeks. The heat method is just as easy but extracts the flavors almost immediately: Heat fresh basil in olive oil, just to a simmer, then take it off the stove and let it cool. Voilá; basil oil.
Olive oil works well with Mediterranean flavors such as basil, rosemary, oregano and the like, but it may overpower (or scramble) others. Walnut, peanut and sunflower oils are more neutral, and canola and grapeseed are the mildest of all. All have well-documented health benefits. A caveat: The air-free environment in oils can aid bacterial growth, so wash all fresh herbs and vegetables; some chefs even recommend sterilizing bottles as if for canning.
Infusing oils may seem like a lot of extra work, but a little forethought—and the odd few minutes stolen in advance in the kitchen—can put in anyone’s hands the ability to create a little culinary magic.
But skip the ornate china—food gets lost on busy plates. Make it pretty. Nourish multiple senses.
Beet-ginger Halibut with Chickpeas
(Note: Make the ginger oil at least two days in advance.)
1 cup chickpeas
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon olive oil
Soak the chickpeas overnight, then cook with bay leaf in enough fresh water to cover the peas by an inch. Cook until tender, 30-45 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Strain, reserving some of the liquid, then puree in a Cuisinart while adding back a little liquid.
Heat oil in a skillet, and set cookie cutters or other molds in the skillet and fill with chickpea paste. Cook over medium heat for 6-8 minutes, 4-5 on second side.
1 pound halibut steak
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper the fish, then slice into 4-ounce steaks. Fry in olive oil over medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes on one side and for 1 minute on the other.
1 tablespoon ginger
2 cups grapeseed oil
2 cups beet juice
Combine ginger with enough water to make a paste. Combine paste with grapeseed oil, seal in a jar and leave it on a shelf for three days. A couple times a day, shake the jar vigorously. Strain before using. Discard sediment.
Reduce 2 cups beet juice to 1/2 cup, then strain; reduce again to 1/4 cup; flavor with 2 or 3 drops of sherry vinegar.
Arrange fish and chickpea cakes on plates, and drizzle the plates with ginger oil and beet juice. Serve.
Scallop-new potato salad
1/2 pound haricots verts
1/2 pound wax beans
1/2 pound new or fingerling potatoes
1 pound scallops
2 tablespoons coriander oil
Cook potatoes in salted water (bring to rolling boil for 5-8 minutes, then cover, remove from heat and allow to cool completely). When cool, slice into half-inch rounds. Blanch beans in boiling water to desired tenderness, then shock in an ice bath. Set aside. Slice scallops about 1/2 inch thick, lay out on a surface and sprinkle with salt and fresh-ground pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons coriander oil in a skillet, add scallops and sautée 30 seconds on each side (maybe a little less on the second—beware, they cook quickly). Toss with vegetables and pan juices, and serve.
1 cup coriander berries
3 cups olive oil
Over medium heat, bring the oil with berries just to a simmer, then allow to cool. Strain oil and bottle it, with or without berries. Use when cool.
(Both are great for dipping crusty bread, or seasoning lamb or chicken.)
Green Herb Oil
4 cups various herbs (basil, chives, chervil,
Cilantro, parsley, oregano, mint)
2 cups olive oil
Blanch herbs in boiling water for 10 seconds, drain and immerse immediately in an ice bath. Squeeze out all excess water. Puree with 2 cups olive oil. Strain. Refrigerate.
Whole Herb-infused oil
5 or 6 bay leaves
1 sprig of rosemary
2 cloves garlic
2 sprigs oregano
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Place all in a saucepan, bring to a simmer over medium heat, and remove from heat. When cool, place all in a jar or bottle. Use as soon as cool. Store in refrigerator.
(Note: Make the Indian oil at least two days in advance.)
1/2 cup each red, white and black lentils
Indian dry spice oil
Cook the three types of lentils separately in salted water until tender, and allow to cool.
Arrange on plate, and drizzle with Indian dry spice oil.
Indian dry-spice oil
8 pods cardamom
1 tablespoon whole coriander
1 tablespoon cumin seed
1 two-inch cinnamon stick,
1 teaspoon peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
2 cups grapeseed oil or canola
Dry-roast the whole spices in a dry pan over medium heat, agitating all the while, just until they start to smoke. Grind when cool. Combine with turmeric, and add enough water to make a paste. Mix with 2 cups grapeseed oil, and seal in a jar. Leave it on a shelf for two or three days, shaking vigorously a couple times each day. Strain through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth.
Red, Green or Yellow Pepper Chicken
4 chicken breasts
Salt and pepper
Red, Green or Yellow Pepper Oil
Salt and pepper the chicken breasts, then fry in olive oil over medium heat, 6 to 8 minutes on the first side, 4 to 5 minutes on the second. When done, cut into 1/2-inch slices, arrange on a bed of mixed baby greens, and garnish plate with a drizzle of red, green or yellow pepper oil (or two of them—or all three).
Red, Green or Yellow Pepper Oil
8 or 9 good-sized red, green or
4 - 5 tablespoons olive oil
Juice the peppers. Over medium heat, reduce 2 cups of pepper juice to about 1/2 cup; strain through mesh strainer, then reduce further to 1/4 cup. When cool, mix with olive oil. Refrigerate. Shake before using.
Works well with grilled tuna or other fish or chicken.