BY CAROLE KOTKIN MIAMI HERALD
Olives have come a long way from being an accompaniment to your martini or an adornment to the relish tray.
They impart pungent flavor and color when you toss some into a pasta or rice dish, salad or stew. Green and black olives are not different types of olives but indicate degrees of ripeness. As they ripen on the tree, olives turn from pale green to reddish brown, and then to black.
The darker the olive, the higher the oil content. High oil content means a richer flavor. Olives are packed with nutritional value – vitamins E and A, and calcium and potassium.
Some varieties are best picked green, like the Spanish Manzanilla and the French Picholine. Dark black olives like Greek Kalamata or French Nicoise develop their buttery taste when picked ripe. Black olives are usually sold whole, while many of the green olives are pitted and stuffed with pimento, almonds, anchovies or tiny onions.
Olives are so bitter they can’t be eaten right off the tree. The final flavor depends on how ripe the fruit is when picked and the processing methods used.
Brine-cured olives are soaked in salty water for about six months and can be recognized by their smooth, shiny skin. Dry-cured olives are rubbed with salt to leach out their bitterness before they are washed and rubbed with oil. These olives appear dry and shriveled. Lye-cured olives are soaked in lye, then fermented in brine for almost a year before being bottled in a weak brine. Many Spanish and domestic olives are produced in this way.
Most high-quality olives are sold with their pits because removing pits also removes flavor. A bowl of meaty green and black olives marinated in a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, strips of orange and lemon zest, smashed garlic cloves, chopped flat-leaf parsley and a bit of crushed red pepper flakes makes a wonderful, simple appetizer when served with bread for dunking. Just warn your guests the olives have pits.
I love to make a salad using cubes of watermelon, feta cheese and olives tossed together with a vinaigrette. And one of the simplest things you can do is add some garlic, basil and sun-dried tomatoes to cooked and drained pasta, and toss it with a handful of olives and olive oil, and you essentially have a meal that is easy to cook, healthy and elegant.
If you want to use olives in tapenades (olive paste), stews or other dishes, the pit needs to be removed. Use a cherry pitter or place them on a work surface, cover with a kitchen towel (so they don’t fly all over the place) and smack them with the side of a chef’s knife. Unopened olives can be stored at room temperature for up to two years, but once they’re opened they should be refrigerated in their own liquid for several weeks.