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It seems as though olives have been around since the beginning of time. Grown throughout most of the world, the Mediterranean area is home to almost 90 percent of the world’s olive trees.
From the beginning, the calming and healing properties of olive oil has been recognized, which may account for the olive branch having long been used as a symbol of peace.
Many civilizations in the Mideast still believe olive oil is the cure to every illness except death. To this day, many still drink a small cup of olive oil before breakfast to keep all their systems well lubricated.
Ever wonder why olives are different colors? The reason is that same basic olive is just picked at different stages of ripeness and then cured in different ways.
Fresh-picked olives are bitter and tough, no matter if they are black, green, red or purple. They are separated according to color and size and cured in either dry salt, a salt brine or oil. Once cured, olives can be packed in either oil or vinegar along with any herbs, spices or other flavorings.
Many varieties of olives
Many varieties of olives can be found in our area markets. Italian olives include Arbequina, Cerignola, Gaeta and Ligurian Black; olives from the regions of Southern France include Lucques, Nicoise and Picholine types. My favorites are Greek olives like Kalamata and Hondroelia.
Dry-cured olives, sometimes labeled as salt-cured or oil-cured, are wrinkled ripe olives cured by layering them in salt. Since they have a rather salty taste, they do well immersed in olive oil or a marinade.
Sicilian cracked green olives are perfect for seasoning. These large, crunchy, bitter, salty olives are cracked to absorb the flavor of seasonings, like hot pepper, garlic and herbs. Green Tunisian olives are usually seasoned with lemon and a red pepper paste and are spicy.
Seasoning and serving olives
To season your own olives, buy unseasoned varieties, if possible. If you can’t find them at the local market, just rinse off any oil or seasonings and then pat them dry. For the fullest flavor, season your olives several hours or even a day or so ahead, as some marinades require almost a week to infuse.
Keep opened jar olives refrigerated but never serve them cold, as olives really taste best when they are served at room temperature. Take them out of the refrigerator a few hours before serving or warm them in a skillet over low heat.
Respect the flavor of the olive when you are adding seasoning. You just want to enhance its flavor, not camouflage it. Don’t try to over think this. A few subtle flavor enhancements are all you need.
For those of you who enjoy an occasional martini, or even for those who do not, I have found that olives are locally available stuffed with jalapenos, almonds, garlic cloves, anchovies and my personal favorite…blue cheese.
Green Olive Salad
1/4 pound firm green olives, such as Picholine or Lucques
1/3 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1 small piquillo pepper, finely diced (see Note)
1 small inner rib celery, finely diced
2-1/2 Tbsp. chopped Italian parsley
1 Tbsp. chopped cilantro
1 small garlic clove, minced
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon, or to taste
Pit the olives and cut into neat small dice. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Stir well, taste and adjust the seasoning. Makes about 1-1/2 cups. Serve with crisp baguette toasts or toasted pita. This relish-like salad is best soon after it’s made.
Note: Piquillo peppers are roasted and peeled red peppers from Spain. They are slightly spicy. Substitute half of a roasted and peeled red bell pepper, if you prefer.
Marinated Olives with Wild Fennel Seeds
3/4 tsp. fennel seed
2 cups mixed olives, green and black of varied size and texture
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Pinch hot red pepper flakes
Toast the fennel seed in a skillet over low heat until fragrant. Pound coarsely in a mortar. While the fennel is warm, combine it with the olives and the oil. Grate the zest from half the orange directly into the olives. Add the pepper flakes and toss. Let stand for at least one hour, stirring occasionally, then serve. Makes 8 servings.
Olives Baked In Red Wine
Black olives absorb the flavor of red wine and fennel in this warm appetizer.
1 cup unpitted Kalamata olives or other brine-cured black olives
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/4 ts. fennel seeds, coarsely crushed
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 tsp. olive oil
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Combine olives, wine, fennel seeds, sliced garlic and olive oil in small baking dish. Bake uncovered until olives are heated through, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly. Serve olives warm.
Tapenade of Green and Black Olives
1-1/2 cup pitted green olives
1-1/2 cup pitted black olives
1 small orange’s zest
1 small lemon’s zest
2 anchovy filets
2 garlic cloves, minced
6 sprigs Italian parsley
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Fresh rosemary or thyme (optional)
Chop the olives finely and put in a bowl. Chop the zest and add to olives. In a mortar and pestle, mash the anchovy filets and garlic and add to olives. Add the parsley and olive oil. Allow mixture to sit for 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Makes about 2 cups.