There are a handful of ingredients that not only strengthen the flavor of a dish, but also stand strong as an appetizer-like snack on their own. My favorite one is small, it’s oily, it’s a fruit, and it’s harvested for its meat and oil. It is the quintessential olive.
There are dozens of olive varieties encompassing both size and flavor. Similar to the different nuances in grapes and the wines that grapes become, olives grown in different regions will pick up the fine distinctions of those areas. The leading growers of olives are the Mediterranean countries ~ Spain, Greece, Italy and Israel where there are groves with some fruit bearing trees dating back thousands of years. The United States can also claim rights to this delicacy with much younger groves in the Southwestern states.
Not only is the olive’s unique taste affected by its birthplace, but the final flavor of the fruit also depends on how ripe it is when picked, as well as the processing it goes through. Interestingly, all freshly picked olives are bitter.
Although we are most familiar with the multitude of black olives, there are many that are offered in shades of green. The green olives are under-ripe when picked. As they ripen, olives change from green to straw-colored to red. They are black at full ripeness. Spanish olives are picked young and fermented in brine for six to twelve months. When bottled, they’re packed in a light brine and sold in a variety of forms including pitted, whole, or stuffed with an array of delicacies such as pimientos, almonds, onions, carrots, blue cheese and cloves of garlic. Olives picked in a riper state contain more oil and are a deeper green color. The common black olive, or Mission olive, is a ripe green olive that obtains its characteristic color and flavor through processing. Greek Kalamata and the French Niçoise olives are two of the more popular imported ripe olives. Dry-cured olives have been packed in salt. The salt removes most of the moisture and creates dry, wrinkled fruit. These are sometimes rubbed with olive oil and packed with herbs. Both domestic and imported olives are available bottled, canned and in bulk year-round.
Next time you’ve got a few extra minutes at the grocery store, I recommend a culinary field trip straight to the olive bar. This is a great alternative to buying olives in a can ~ devoid of flavorful brine and packed with too much processing. My refrigerator is never big enough when I bring home all those plastic containers filled with a colossal amount of olives.
Olives are not just for nibbling one at a time. With the ready availability of pitted olives, they are nearly indispensable as an ingredient. Mediterranean dishes often call for the addition of olives as a flavor enhancer as well as a visual accompaniment. The variety of olives to choose from can be overwhelming when a dish cries out for them. One way to help me through this daunting chore is to pair up the type of olive with a dish from its indigenous background. For instance, when I prepare a French dish such as Sea Bass Niçoise, it’s an easy call to use the olive with the same name. An authentic Greek dish of orzo, tomato and feta would easily call for a Kalamata olive. An Israeli Meze display would be incomplete without a selection of locally harvested and cured olives.
And speaking of the Mediterranean, the Spanish Tapenade delicacy of finely ground black olives, sun dried tomatoes, capers and extra virgin olive oil is a terrific foundation ingredient ~ great on its own, but even better when utilized within other dishes. A tray of crackers or small toast points placed to the side will coach any newcomer to this basic chopped olive spread. The Tapenade does double duty when spread over salmon fillet and baked to a glistening crust in Salmon Olivida ~ one of our award winning recipes from years ago. Or, turn your Friday night chicken on its thigh by inserting your hand under the skin and spreading the Tapenade between the flesh and skin. The skin will be succulent and flavorful; the meat will be tender and juicy.
By themselves, an assortment of olives in the middle of your table is always welcome. This delicacy is even healthy for you, filled with the good kind of poly- and mono-unsaturated fats. Olives are naturally salty, and even more so after being flavored in a brine. So keep in mind, not too much salt necessary when olives are incorporated into your cooking. Stick a Post-It onto pages 189 and 208 in my cookbook, Jeff Nathan’s Family Suppers. There are several wonderful recipes utilizing olives including Black Olive Pesto and Sun Dried Tomato and Olive Butter.
While you’re adding the finishing touches to this olive recipe, knock back a martini with an olive, not a twist!