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Eat Oily, Eat Often

August 23, 2000|CHARLES PERRY

Olive oil comes from the flesh around the olive pit, so technically speaking it's a fruit juice. That's right, a fruit juice that just happens to be 99% oil. (You wouldn't want to make a margarita with it.)

All other oils come from seeds, where they are a concentrated food for the plant as it sprouts. People figured this out long ago, so now we get oils from grains (corn oil), legumes (peanut oil), squashes and just about any nut you can name. In the tropics, people use a lot of palms, such as the red palm in Africa and a whole bunch in Latin America, including the gru gru, murumura and babassu palms.

You can get oil out of nearly any seeds, even those of cotton or that first cousin to the rutabaga from which we get canola oil. A traditional Russian oil source was flax seed, a byproduct of making linen. It happens to make a very good oil, light in taste, high in omega-3 oil and with an attractive nutty aroma. We're already familiar with that aroma; flax seed oil is linseed oil, the base of many paints. Big problem with it as an edible oil is that it turns rancid fast and you can't let the food sit around too long or the oil will dry and thicken, just as it does in paint.

That might be why the Russians were so enthusiastic about the sunflower, an American species that has become the main oil seed in Russia. It might be that, and it might be the fantastic productivity of the sunflower in Russia, where the plant's traditional insect pests don't exist. Russian sunflowers don't suffer those little bits of insect damage you nearly always see in American sunflowers.

And how did the Russians thank us? They gave us the tumbleweed (which is edible while green, by the way, if you're really keen on eating a tumbleweed).

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