An Oil For Every Occasion

SUNDAY GOURMET

September 29, 1991|By GAIL FORMAN

A salad is only as good as its dressing. And a salad dressing is only as good as the oil used to make it.

Conflicting studies about the health benefits of polyunsaturated vs. monosaturated oils and the variety of oils in the supermarkets make choosing one a game of roulette. Recent studies favor monosaturated oils such as olive oil but with the data still inconclusive, why not let taste -- and quality -- be your guide?

Though the array of oils may be confusing at first, remembering that each oil has its own character, taste and suitable culinary function makes the choice easier. A well-stocked oil shelf may have no less than 15 oils: almond, avocado, canola, coconut, corn, cottonseed, olive, palm, peanut, poppy seed, safflower, sesame seed, soybean, sunflower and walnut. And ethnic groceries sell others.

Peanut oil, made from groundnuts native to South America, is light and a good choice for salads. Corn oil, a product of the sweet corn, has been a favorite for a long time. It is still one of the most popular oils for salad dressings even though some people find it too heavy.

Unlike other dark oils that have been bleached, olive oil retains its appealing yellow or green color. "Virgin" olive oil, cold-pressed from the pulp of fresh ripe olives, is pale yellow, while "pure" olive oil, pressed under heat from kernels and leftover pulp from the first pressing, is green. Most of it is imported from Italy, Spain, France and Greece, but the California olive industry is starting to produce some high-quality oil, too.

If the old familiar oils make salads low on your list of good things to eat, try an exotic variety. Relatively new on the market is avocado oil, made from the Hass avocados that grow along the coastal ranges of Southern California. Processed without chemicals and containing no preservatives, this monosaturated oil has a buttery, nutty flavor and a light texture.

Avocado oil works well in recipes calling for butter. And its high smoking point makes it a good oil for stir-frying and deep-frying. The manufacturers suggest soaking popcorn kernels in avocado oil for a few days for a buttery flavor without butter.

Another exotic oil -- although one that was known in the ancient world -- is almond oil. Cleopatra is believed to have used it to moisturize her skin, and she probably liked it on her vegetables, too, for its taste is delicate, its aroma mild and its texture silken. Cold-pressed, it is lower in saturated fats than corn or peanut oil, and, like avocado oil, has a high smoking point.

To give your taste buds a treat, toss your next salad with homemade dressing prepared with a fresh and tasty oil.

POPPY SEED DRESSING

1/2 cup poppy seed or almond oil

1/4 cup tarragon white wine vinegar

1/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon poppy seeds

Combine all ingredients and shake well in a jar or blend in a food processor. Pour into a bottle or jar and keep refrigerated.

NUTTY GINGER DRESSING

1/2 cup almond oil

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger

2 tablespoons chopped toasted almonds

Combine all ingredients and shake well in a jar or blend in a food processor. Pour into a bottle or jar and keep refrigerated.

LEMONY SALAD DRESSING

1/2 cup avocado, walnut or olive oil

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

pinch thyme

Combine all ingredients and shake well in a jar or blend in a food processor. Pour into a bottle or jar and keep refrigerated.

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