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Thursday, May 23

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Editor's note: This column originally ran on January 20, 2004.

Olives. Possibly one of the oldest prepared foods still consumed. The first reference to olives was made by the Egyptians in the 17th century B.C. The ancient Greeks believed their gods and goddesses ate them when they came to Earth. There are also many references to this lovely fruit in the Bible.

But there are so many varieties that it can be overwhelming if you're interested in branching out from the black olives in a can, or the green olives often found stuffed and used in martinis.

Green olives are unripe olives, brownish or grayish olives are partially ripe, and black or purple olives are fully ripe. Once they're picked, they can be oil-cured, water-cured, brine-cured, dry-cured, and/or lye-cured. Green olives have to be soaked in a lye solution before they can be cured, but black olives can jump straight to the brining process. The longer the olive is brined (soaked in a solution of a liquid, salt and sometimes sugar) the less bitter and more intricate the flavor.

Black olives are classified according to size in a variety of sizes from small (3.2 to 3.3 grams each) to super-colossal (14.2 to 16.2 grams each). The longer olives are ripened the more oil they contain. They can go bad or rancid. It is recommended that you keep unopened cans or jars of olives at room temperature for no more than two years and opened jars (no metal, please) of olives can be kept for several weeks in the refrigerator.

With that basic understanding of what is involved in olive preparation and preservation out of the way, I'll list some of the more popular varieties.

Manzanilla: the Spanish green olive, can be found unpitted or stuffed. These are lightly lye-cured and then packed in salt and lactic acid brine.

Picholine: the French green olive. These are cured in a salt brine and have a subtle and lightly salty flavor. They're often packed with citric acid as a preservative in the U.S.

Kalamata: the Greek black olive. These are fully ripe when harvested and often look deep purple. They're almond shaped, cured in brine and have a rich and fruity flavor.

Niçoise: the French black olive. Also harvested when ripe, but are small and nutty flavored. The pit is also small, giving you more meat than you'd expect, and they're often packed with herbs and with the stems on.

Liguria: the Italian black olive. Cured in a salt brine with a very vibrant, almost pungent flavor. Occasionally packed with the stems on.

Ponentine: another Italian black olive. Cured in a salt brine and then packed in vinegar but have a very mild flavor.

Gaeta: another Italian black olive. Dry-cured in salt, rubbed with oil, very wrinkly, very mild flavor, and usually packed with rosemary and other herbs.

Lugano: yet another Italian black olive. These are very, very salty and usually packed with olive leaves.

Sevillano: the California black olive. Cured in a salt-brine and preserved with lactic acid. Very crisp and firm olives. Often what you find in cans at the grocery store.

Here are more varieties.

Occasionally at Italian grocers with a great produce section you'll find unbrined olives. I've never cured my own, but here are some recipes if you'd like to try it.

We've all heard that olive oil is a very healthy oil for cooking and eating. But olives can also be very healthy. They provide a great deal of flavor without adding many calories, fats, or sugars. This makes them a great flavor addition for diabetics and others on a low-sugar, low-fat diet. They are salty, so they may be a bad choice for people with high blood pressure.

You've maybe gone to a wine-tasting, or a cheese tasting. Why not buy a 1/4 pound of several varieties of olives and have an olive tasting for you and your friends. Not surprisingly, wine and cheese can go great with olives and take a party up a notch or two.

But what can you do with them beside putting them in an antipasto plate or in a martini? There are too many options to mention here, so I'll give you two of my favorite recipes: Pasta Puttanesca and Olive Bread.

Vegetarians may recognize Pasta Puttanesca as one of the few vegetarian options available on many menus. It literally translates from Italian to mean "pasta for whores." Yep, puttana means whore in many Italian dialects. It is rumored to have been a pasta dish that was cheap and therefore popular among prostitutes in Naples. Other stories say prostitutes would boil this sauce to attract customers, and others claim it was made quickly because the women didn't have time for a more involved dish. Which is true? We'll never know, but it's a great name and a fantastic dish.

Pasta Puttanesca
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of finely chopped garlic (a garlic press is okay)
2 anchovies sliced finely
1/4 cup of olives that have been pitted or sliced
2-3 tablespoons of capers
1 handful of chopped parsley (if you don't have fresh, about 2 tablespoons of dried)
1 pinch of dried hot pepper
1 large can of peeled tomatoes
salt to taste
1/4 pound dry pasta per serving added to a large pot of boiling water

Heat the oil in a small sauce pan over very low heat and add the garlic. Cook the garlic for a minute or two, but you don't want it to brown. Add the anchovies in the pan and cook for a few minutes until the anchovy dissolves. Now add the olives, capers, parsley, and the hot peppers. Cook for just a few minutes before adding the tomatoes. If there isn't much liquid in your can, you might want to add a quarter- to a half-cup of water to keep the mixture from burning. I usually cook the tomato mixture for about 15 minutes, which is about how long it takes for the water to finish boiling and the pasta to cook. But the longer you cook the sauce, the richer and more condensed the flavor becomes. Add salt as necessary. The olives may be salty enough that you don't need it so put the shaker on the table.

If you have leftover sauce, you can warm it up and use it as a dipping sauce or spread for this Olive Bread. Creamy goat cheese also tastes great spread on this bread.

Olive Bread
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole-wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon dried rosemary or thyme
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup pitted and coarsely chopped olives

Make sure your oven rack is in the lower third of the oven and preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 6-cup loaf pan (8 1/2 long x 4 1/2 inches wide). Whisk both flours, the baking powder, salt, and the dried herbs together in a bowl. I recommend either grinding the herbs with a mortar and pestle or at least putting it in the palm of your hand and rubbing your palms vigorously together to release the oils and make the herb easier to chew. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, milk, and olive oil together until the yolks are completely incorporated. Add the flour mixture and the olives into the liquid mixture and fold together until the dry ingredients are barely moistened. The goal is to stir as little as possible to make the bread lighter and fluffier. This very stiff batter should then be scraped into the pan and spread evenly with a spatula. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until a toothpick poked into the center is removed clean. Let the pan cool for 5-10 minutes before turning onto a board and slicing. Serve warm or cold.

If you find yourself returning to those cans of pre-pitted black olives in the grocery store because cutting the pit out of an olive is too hard, here is a tip. Using a wide-mouthed bowl or plate with a rim (to catch the juices), hold an olive with the tips of your fingers and place it on end. Press down with your fingertips. If it is a soft olive, the pit should poke through the top of the olive and be fairly easy to remove from the meat. If it is hard, it may loosen slightly and you'll have to apply some force to peel the meat off the pit. Depending on the size, about 20 olives will give you the 1/4 cup of pitted and chopped olive meat.

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Michelle / August 20, 2007 7:02 PM

Another easy way to pit olives is to use a funnel. Find one that the opening is just a little bigger than an olive pit. Put the funnel upside down on a plate. Push the olive through the funnel from the top. The pit will go inside.


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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