Canola Oil

Some crusty bread with cold-pressed canola oil for dipping.Take a midsummer drive away from Edmonton in any direction and soon you will find fields of yellow flowers in radiant bloom.  This is canola, and the oil pressed from its seeds is as common in Albertan pantries as the plants are to Albertan landscapes.

Canola is a Canadian invention.  In fact, its name is an amalgam of the words “Canada oil low acid”.  Canola is a type of rapeseed that has been bred to have a low erucic acid content.

What’s rapeseed, you ask?  It’s a plant with an unfortunate name, ultimately derived from the Latin word for turnip, rapum, to which it is a close relative.

Allow me to expedite this explanation by quoting from the Canadian Encyclopedia:

Rapeseed has been an important source of edible vegetable oil in Asia for almost 4000 years.  It was first grown in Canada during WWII as a source of high-quality lubricant for marine engines.  After the war, Canadian plant-breeding programs, combined with changes in processing techniques, led to a reduction of erucic acid (very high consumption of which has been associated with heart lesions in laboratory animals) and glucosinolates (which cause enlarged thyroids and poor feed conversion in livestock).  As a consequence, canola has become established as a major Canadian and European source of cooking oil[1]

So, frankly, canola is not exactly an ancient tradition here in Canada.  That being said I think it’s important to note that it was developed by applying traditional plant-breeding methods to rape (Brassica napus) and turnip rapeseed (B. campestris).  Canola is not by definition a GMO, although there is now a huge amount of GMO canola being grown all over North America.

Since its recent invention canola has become the most common household cooking oil in our part of the world.  Unfortunately I don’t have a source to confirm that statement, but working in kitchens I’m pretty confident it’s true.  Most of us have a jug of canola oil sitting by the stove at home that we use as a cheap cooking oil.  This style of canola oil is made by heating and pressing canola seeds.  Heating increases the extraction rate, but destroys all of the volatile aromatic compounds, making a very neutral, I daresay flavourless, oil with a high smoke point.  This style of canola oil is good for pan- and deep-frying.

There is, however, also cold-pressed canola oil, which is an entirely different product with low yields but big flavour.  If you haven’t tasted this you’re missing out. Depending on the producer, it can be anywhere from brilliant bronze to hazy green in colour.  Whatever the appearance, it has an aroma uncannily reminiscent of fresh cut lawn.  Seriously: it tastes like grass and raw grain.

Because of its distinctive flavour, cold-pressed canola is very much a finishing oil.  It makes a great garnish on vegetables (sautéed asparagus, for instance), soups, and salads.  I also use it to make vinaigrette, but I usually blend it with a more neutral (and cheaper) canola oil.

Over the past ten years or so there have been a handful of cold-pressed canola oil producers in the province.  Sadly some have folded (I think).  I can’t seem to find Mighty Trio or Vibrant at any shops any more.  Highwood Crossing, a grain farm near High River Alberta, is still making oil, but it seems to have a much smaller distribution than it did a few years ago.  I used to buy it in retail bottles at Planet Organic, but I haven’t seen it there in a while.  At Elm we buy 20 L pails direct from Highwood Crossing, and also bring in their retail bottles to sell at Little Brick.  If anyone out there knows of other Albertan producers and where their oil is available, I’d be grateful to know.

Despite its rather industrial origin, gastronomically cold-pressed canola is Canada’s answer to extra virgin olive oil.  It’s a really, really remarkable product and I’m thrilled to have it in my kitchen.

 

References

  1.  Marsh, James H. The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition. Vol I. ©1988 Hurtig Publishers Ltd. Edmonton, Alberta. Page 365.

Vinaigrettes

There are many compelling reasons to never buy salad dressings from the grocery store:

  • You almost certainly already have the ingredients in your pantry to make a good dressing.
  • A good dressing can be made in less than 90 seconds.  Actually you can make enough dressing for a few weeks in 90 seconds.
  • There are weird things in store-bought dressings, like calcium disodium EDTA and acetylated monoglycerides.  They also usually contain a good deal of sugar or glucose-fructose; not necessarily a bad thing, but a fact of which many people are unaware.

Invest is some quality oil and vinegar, then never buy a Kraft dressing again.

Whisking together a vinaigrette for slaw.

The simplest dressing to make at home is vinaigrette, which is a French diminutive meaning “little vinegar.”  There are two common ratios used by chefs for composing a vinaigrette: 3:1 oil to vinegar, and 2:1 oil to vinegar.  The exact proportions can be tailored to the particular application.  For my money, 3:1 is best for greens, 2:1 for slaw, potato salad, and other preparations using robust ingredients.  Any tart liquid can stand in for vinegar.  Sour fruit juices like raspberry or rhubarb, for instance.

Oil gives the impression of moisture on the tongue.  It is also a conveyance for the vinegar and other flavours you add.  If you plan on using a strongly-flavoured oil, like cold-pressed canola oil, or olive oil, it should probably be cut with a more neutral oil.

If the oil is slowly added to the vinegar while whisking, a temporary emulsion will form.  Some ingredients will stabilize and prolong the emulsion.  Mustard, for instance.

Vinaigrettes are emphatically not just for green salads: they are extremely versatile and go well with steak, fish, sautéed veggies, slaw, and starchy side dishes like macaroni salad.

Below are some simple vinaigrettes that I use at home.

 

Honey Mustard Dressing
my default slaw dressing

This is a punchy, acidic dressing that I use on coleslaw and potato salad.  It’s a bit thick and tart to be used on delicate greens, though it could certainly be thinned out for that purpose.

Master Ratio – 1:1:4:8, honey, mustard, cider vinegar, canola oil

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1 cup canola oil
  • optional but recommended: 1 tsp caraway seeds, 1 tsp mustard seeds, and 1/2 tsp celery seed

Procedure

  1. If using the spices, toast the seeds in a very hot, dry, heavy pan until they are aromatic and starting to crackle, then immediately stir them into the oil.  They should sizzle on contact with the oil.
  2. Whisk the honey, mustard, vinegar, and salt together in a bowl.
  3. Slowly add the oil while whisking.
  4. This dressing can be used immediately, or stored in a jar in the fridge for several weeks.

 

Pumpkinseed Oil Dressing

This is an extremely refined dressing for showcasing the flavour of very fine oil.  I learned it in Austria, where they have superlative pumpkinseed oil.  Water is flavoured with cider vinegar and a bit of salt.  The greens are dressed with the water, then shaken to remove most of the liquid.  The salad is plated, then the oil is drizzled over top.  Instead of an oil-vinegar emulsion coating the leaves of the salad you get the refreshing sensation of the water beading on the leaves.

Put differently, a classic French vinaigrette gives you the texture of the oil and the flavour of the vinegar, while this Austrian variation lets you have the flavour of a fine oil with the refreshing mouthfeel of the water and vinegar.

Master Ratio – 3:1:1, water, vinegar, oil

Ingredients

  • 3 tbsp water
  • 1 tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 tbsp Styrian pumpkinseed oil

Procedure

  1. Combine the water, vinegar, and salt in a bowl and stir until the salt has dissolved.  Toss the greens in the dressing, gently shaking them as you remove them from the bowl.
  2. Plate the salad, then drizzle the oil over top so that each mouthful will have some of the oil.

I serve this dressing on whatever greens are available, usually with a pinch of minced raw onion and other pungent veggies like radish or kohlrabi.

Soft-Boiled Egg as Conveyance for Fine Oils

Steirische Eierspeise (“Styrian egg dish”) is scrambled eggs gently cooked in the mind-blowing pumpkinseed oil of that Austrian province.  Styrian pumpkinseed oil is a deep forest green, and has a powerful aroma of roasted nuts.  I brought back a couple litres of this oil, and started making this dish with soft-boiled eggs still in their shell, instead of the traditional scramble.  As the egg yolk is fatty, it mingles perfectly with the oil.  Basically a simple way of enriching the quality oil, or flavouring the quality yolk, depending on your take.

While I haven’t found any pumpkinseed oils here that begin to approximate the heady aromas of the Styrian version, I have tried this dish with some of the canola, hemp, and flaxseed oils produced in our backyard.

The process.  Cook a whole egg, in the shell, for five minutes in gently simmering water, so the whites have set, but the yolk is still runny.

Crack the shell to expose the top of the egg, then use a spoon to remove the top of the white.  Rest the egg on a bed of coarse salt, and spoon half a tablespoon of flavourful, cold-pressed oil into the yolk.  Add a pinch of salt and enjoy.

 

Soft-boiled egg with pumpkinseed oil