Few ingredients bring out the passion, admiration and indulgence of gourmet chefs and gourmands as olive oil. Most chefs, professional or amateur, profess that olive oil is an absolute necessity in the kitchen, one that adds an incomparable aroma and flavor to any dish. Its only drawback is the sheer number of varieties from which to choose: Olive oil or extra-virgin olive oil? Light or extra-light? Tuscan or Provençal? Commercial or boutique?

Today's love affair with olive oil has transcended from the food court to the health arena. Consider that olive oil is a monounsaturated fat that helps increase HDL (good) cholesterol while it lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol. Further, olive oil helps reduce cardiovascular risk, provides vitamin E, has a positive effect on the gallbladder and helps combat osteoporosis.

Cooking with olive oil increases the flavor nuances of whatever dish you're creating. Swirl it into soups, brush it on crusty bread, drizzle it on salads or use it in any type of sauté dish. Its health benefits are as clear as its flavor is abundant.

Lemon Chicken Paillard with Oven-Roasted Tomatoes
Serves 4


For extra flavor, squeeze fresh lemon juice over the paillards before topping with tomatoes.

4 4-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/2 cup olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons
3 cloves garlic, minced
Zest of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
6-8 tomatoes
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt and pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

1. Place each chicken breast between two pieces of heavy-duty plastic wrap. Using meat mallet, pound chicken breast to 1/4 -inch thickness. Mix 1/2 cup olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, salt and pepper in shallow dish and place chicken in marinade. Set aside for 30 minutes.

2. Score and blanch tomatoes and refresh in bowl of ice water. Peel and slice tomatoes in half. Place them cut side up on roasting tray or cookie sheet. Mix 6 tablespoons olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper and drizzle over tomato halves. Scatter with minced garlic and chopped parsley. Roast at 250° for 45 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in large nonstick sauté pan. Sauté chicken paillards over medium-high heat until done, about 3 minutes per side.

4. Top each chicken paillard with 2­3 tomato halves, and serve immediately.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 515
Fat: 39g
% fat calories: 66%
Cholesterol: 63g
Carbohydrate: 17g
Protein: 28g



Oven-Roasted Asparagus with Herbs
Serves 4


A quick, easy side dish that makes a wonderful accompaniment to fish or chicken.

1 1/2 pounds asparagus spears
3 teaspoons olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 400°.

2. Snap off tough ends of asparagus or peel them with vegetable peeler.

3. Place asparagus in 13"x9" baking dish and drizzle with olive oil. Add thinly sliced garlic and sprinkle with salt, thyme, oregano and pepper. Toss well until mixed. Bake for 25 minutes, stirring once or twice.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 73
Fat: 4g
% fat calories: 40%
Cholesterol: 0g
Carbohydrate: 7g
Protein: 5g



White Bean Dip with Pita Crisps
Serves 4


An alternative to hummus, this dip is a fast, easy and tasty hors d'oeuvre.

4 pita bread rounds
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 15-ounce can white beans
2 cloves garlic, diced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 large lemon
1 teaspoon ground cumin

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Place pita bread on baking sheet and brush with olive oil. Sprinkle with oregano, salt and pepper, and bake until crispy and golden, about 10 minutes. Cool and break into pieces.

2. Drain beans and set aside liquid. In food processor, combine drained beans and remaining ingredients. Process until smooth; for smoother texture, add reserved liquid. Serve with pita crisps.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 390
Fat: 12g
% fat calories: 26%
Cholesterol: 0g
Carbohydrate: 59g
Protein: 14g



Marinated Grilled Tuna over Dill Couscous
Serves 4


Herb-enhanced couscous makes a light and healthy partner to meat and fish.

Marinade

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 6-ounce tuna steaks

Couscous

2/3 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup couscous
1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1. Prepare outdoor grill. Rinse tuna and pat dry.

2. Mix marinade ingredients in small bowl. Place fish in shallow dish and pour marinade over it. Cover; refrigerate one hour.

3. Remove fish from marinade and grill over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes per side, depending on desired doneness.

4. Meanwhile, bring water for couscous to boil in small saucepan and add salt. Stir in couscous and cover pan. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, about 5 minutes. Fluff couscous with fork; stir in dill and lemon juice. Add salt and pepper to taste. Place tuna steaks over couscous and serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 460
Fat: 16g
% fat calories: 30%
Cholesterol: 0g
Carbohydrate: 26g
Protein: 55g



Caesar Salad
Serves 6


Use extra-virgin olive oil in this dressing—you'll taste the difference. For added protein, top the salad with sliced chicken breast or grilled shrimp.

2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons anchovy paste
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Juice of 2 lemons
1/2 loaf French bread
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 10-ounce heads romaine lettuce, outer leaves removed
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, for topping

1. Mash garlic, anchovy paste, salt and pepper together to make paste. Slowly drizzle in olive oil, and add cheese and lemon juice. Mix well and set aside.

2. Cut French bread into 1/2-inch cubes and arrange in single layer on baking sheet. Brush tops of bread with 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt. Bake at 350° until crisp, about 10 minutes.

3. Tear romaine lettuce and place in large bowl. Add bread cubes, and toss with dressing. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 234
Fat: 19g
% fat calories: 72%
Cholesterol: 7g
Carbohydrate: 10g
Protein: 7g