Cooking with this adored Mediterranean fruit
It’s difficult to describe the tastes and flavors of foods. Olives are an especially hard case. Nothing tastes remotely like them, so it’s impossible to compare them to any other food.
Novelist Lawrence Durrell did the best job of evoking them when he wrote, “The whole Mediterranean, the sculpture, the palms, the gold beads, the bearded heroes . . . all of it seems to rise in the sour, pungent smell of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water.”
Cultivation of the olive is certainly ancient. The gnarly trees, their green-and-silver leaves trembling in any breeze, are native to the Mediterranean. In Israel, there’s evidence of olive oil production in 6000 BC, and on the Greek island of Naxos, archeologists have discovered remains of olive oil in a jug dating to 4,000 BC.
Indeed, the olive tree was so vital to the Greeks that they embedded it in their myth of Athena. When she struck the Acropolis with her spear, the first olive tree sprang forth. This magic underwhelmed the witnesses, who grumbled that the sea-god Poseidon would have given them a better gift. But after Athena taught them how to cultivate the tree and process its products for food, light and timber, they realized its many virtues and named their city Athens in her honor.
Greece remains a major grower, producing 11 percent of the world’s olives and consuming 23 liters of olive oil per person per year. (Americans consume about one liter.)
Spain is the world’s largest olive grower with 39 percent of the world’s production. Most of this comes from the southern province of Andalucía, where it’s possible to travel scores of miles without seeing any other crop, nor any buildings or indeed anything except olive trees.
Italy, though a net importer of olive oil, produces 16 percent of the world’s supply. Smaller amounts come from North Africa, South America and Australia. California — where the first olive cuttings were planted at the San Diego Mission in 1769 — produces just half of one percent of the world’s olives.
In all, it is estimated that Earth has 865 million olive trees. Though each tree can produce a crop for literally hundreds of years, more are being planted because the use of olive oil has spread to northern countries, where its health benefits and its evident culinary excellence are edging out other cooking oils and fats.
While olive oil has basked in the limelight in recent decades, whole olives generally fly beneath the radar of attention. But when you start considering the green olives that rest in martinis and the black olives that polka-dot a pizza, questions arise. Why are some olives green and others black? Why don’t we ever see fresh olives in the supermarket, just processed ones on olive bars or in jars and cans? Are these whole olives the same sort that give us olive oil?
The answer to the last question is that all olives can be used for oil, but some of the 2,000 varieties of olive contain more oil than others. Kristin Daley, vice president of the Musco Family Olive Company in California, explains: “It’s more efficient to use the higher-oil-content olives to get a better yield for oil, and the lower-oil-content olives make for tastier table olives.”
As for their color, black olives are ripe and green olives are not. Both come from the same trees, and just like other fruit-bearing plants, a tree may have ripe and unripe olives at the same time. Unlike other fruits, however, we never see fresh olives for sale because they are too bitter to eat as is.
“They have to be de-bittered through a multi-day process that starts by putting the olives into a lye curing solution to leach the natural bitterness out. This is followed by a series of cold-water rinses, which remove every trace of curing solution,” Daley said.
We consume most of these processed olives as party finger food. Yet they can also team up with olive oil to play a dramatic role in cooking. Olive-growing countries have some classic dishes that feature them. They are essential to both Greek salad and the French salad nicoise. In Spain, they appear in sauces, and in Italy and Provence, France, in breads. Provence is home to tapenade, a tasty dip or paste made from olives and capers.
The Italian region of Romagna has a dish of lamb braised with rosemary and black olives, and the French have poultry dishes such as Chicken Marengo with Black Olives, and Duck with Olives — always with the green ones. The French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who loved cooking for his friends, made a similar dish with ring doves. He liked it so much that he would never make it for people he disliked, saying, “They are not worthy of Ring Doves with Olives. They will never have any and they will never know what it is.”
For those worthy of a dish that includes olives, here are some recipes that use them for something other than nibbles or garnishes.
Olives with Citrus and Cumin
Herbed olives are a much-appreciated hors d’oeuvres. Here is a Spanish variation that combines black and green olives, and gets its jazz from orange and lemon zest and its flavor notes from cumin and cinnamon.
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 medium navel or Valencia orange
1 cup Kalamata or other black olives
¼ cup green olives
Small pinch cinnamon
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 mint leaves cut in thin strips
Put the cumin seeds in a small frying pan over moderate heat and stir them for 30-60 seconds or until they turn one shade darker and smell fragrant. Set aside. Finely grate 2 teaspoons of zest from the orange and 2 more from the lemon. In a bowl, mix the Kalamata and green olives. Add the cumin seeds, the orange and lemon zest, and a pinch of cinnamon. Toss well to mix thoroughly. Squeeze 2 tablespoons of juice from the orange and the same from the lemon into another bowl. Add olive oil and whisk together. Add the mint and whisk again. Pour this dressing over the olives and toss them well in it. Let them stand for a couple of hours before serving with cocktail sticks. Store leftovers in a covered box in the fridge.
Olive and Red Pepper Bruschetta
Italian in inspiration, this dish was devised in California to showcase the state’s black olives. If you like you can make the olive mixture ahead and refrigerate for a couple of days before making the bruschetta. This recipe makes about 10 pieces. .
4 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves fresh garlic, pressed or minced
½ yellow onion, minced
2 small cans (3.8 ounces each, about 1½ cups) California chopped olives
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
½ cup pine nuts
1 baguette, cut into ½-inch thick slices
2 tablespoons olive oil for brushing, in a small bowl
1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced (optional)
8 ounces cream cheese
½ cup sliced roasted red peppers, drained
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, lightly brush one side of each bread slice with olive oil. Arrange on the baking sheet and bake until golden and crispy (6-10 minutes).
While the bread is crisping, combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, with the garlic, onion and chopped olives in a large sauté pan. Cook over medium heat until fragrant and soft. Stir in the balsamic vinegar, simmer a few more minutes. Stir in the pine nuts. Set aside.
Remove bread from the oven, and let cool until easy to handle. Spread a layer of cream cheese on each slice, then spoon olive mixture on top. Top with a minced basil and a few pepper strips.
Marathon Pastawith Olives and Bay
This dish was invented a few miles from Marathonas, the Greek town that gave its name to marathon races. When the Greeks beat Persian invaders near Marathonas in 490 BC, Pheidippides sped 26 miles to Athens with the news of the victory. Thinking of this run led to thoughts of the runners now preparing for the Boston marathon by eating pasta to load up with the carbohydrates that keep them going. In turn, this recalled memories of the wreaths of olive or bay leaves that crowned victors in ancient Greek sports.
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
8 small to medium size bay leaves plus more for garnish
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt to taste
24 pitted Kalamata olives
8-10 green olives (pimiento or almond-stuffed if you like)
2 teaspoons oregano, preferably the Greek sort called rigani
1 teaspoon salt
¾ pound pasta
1 cup grated Parmesan
For the sauce, heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and soften for 4-5 minutes, then stir in the garlic and cook for another minute or two. Add the tomatoes, bay leaves, thyme and salt; simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in the black and green olives and the oregano, and cook for 5 minutes more or until the olives are heated through.
Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pan. Add 1 teaspoon salt (or more to taste) and cook the pasta until al dente. The cooking time varies depending on the type of pasta, so consult the package directions. Toss the pasta with half the sauce and a couple of tablespoons of the Parmesan. Serve the rest of the sauce and Parmesan at the table for topping the pasta.
Spanish Olive Sauce
This sauce could be used as a pasta topping though in Spain, its homeland, it is served with grilled meat or fish.
4 ounces pitted green or black olives plus extra for garnish
1 cup fresh or canned peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic finely minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon drained capers
¼ cup white wine or dry sherry
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Whole olives for garnish
Reserve 4-5 olives and chop the remainder. In a bowl, mix them with the chopped tomatoes and onions, and the minced garlic. Use a pestle or the back of a big spoon to mash everything together, though without making a puree of it. Mix in the thyme and capers and then the olive oil and flour. Turn this mixture into a saucepan, add a little salt and pepper and cook over a moderate flame for 8-10 minutes stirring from time to time to blend. Meanwhile, slice or very coarsely chop the reserved olives. Before serving taste and adjust the seasoning and stir in the sliced or chopped olives. If using as a pasta sauce, garnish each serving with 2-4 whole olives.
Olive and Rosemary Bread
This bread is a perfect companion to both salads and cookouts, and good for sandwiches, too.
4-5 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour
1 big stem of rosemary
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
1½ cups water plus more as needed
1 tablespoon yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil plus extra for greasing
½ cup pitted Kalamata or other black olives, chopped
4-6 pitted green olives, chopped (optional)
Heat the oven to 200 degrees. Put 4 cups of flour in your mixing bowl and put it in the oven to warm. (Using warm flour helps speed up rising.)
Strip the leaves off the rosemary stem. You should have ¼ cup loosely packed. Coarsely chop them and put them in a small bowl. Add a teaspoon of the salt plus a cup of hot water. Set aside.
In another small bowl, mix the yeast and sugar with half a cup of lukewarm — not hot — water. Set aside until the surface is frothy — about 10 minutes. Stir the yeast mixture into the flour and then add the rosemary mixture and the olive oil. Mix well then add the chopped olives and continue mixing to form a rough dough. Knead it — either by hand or with an electric mixer — making sure the olives are well distributed. When the dough feels satiny and sticks neither to your hands or to a bowl or board — this takes about 20 minutes by hand or 8-10 minutes with a mixer — shape it into a ball.
Grease a large bowl with olive oil, roll the dough ball around in it, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a plastic bag and set aside in a draft-free place to rise until doubled in bulk, which takes about an hour and a half. When it is ready, punch it down and place on a board or counter lightly greased with olive oil.
Knead the dough on this (rather than a floured surface) a few times to flatten it. Shape it either into a large ball or a thick sausage shape and place on a baking tray lined with parchment. Cover with either plastic or a large bowl, making sure that the dough won’t touch the covering as it rises. It should double in bulk again, this time taking about 45-60 minutes. It’s ready when it springs back if you poke it.
While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Just before putting the dough in the oven, brush the surface lightly with olive oil and sprinkle the remaining kosher salt on it. If you like, you can slash across the center with a very sharp knife. Bake for 20 minutes then lower the temperature to 375 degrees and continue baking for a further 10-15 minutes or until the surface is golden and the loaf sounds hollow when rapped on the bottom. Cool on a wire rack.