- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Those of us who grew up in California,where olive trees thrive, thought the best thing to do with olives was to throw them at other children, so they would be in hot water when their moms saw the stains on their shirts.

Better yet, we offered the fruit, straight from the tree, to the new kids in town and then fell over laughing when the overbearing bitterness screwed their faces into hideous monsters.

The bitter taste comes from the phenolic compound oleuropein. So how did anyone ever think to eat an olive? Probably fruit that had fallen into a tide pool along a coast in antiquity and lingered there long enough to have the wretched oleuropein leached by the water, was plucked up by a passerby who dared to do a taste test.

Olives are now cured by constant rinsing with water in a lye solution, in oil or dry cured with salt. They are then preserved either in a salt brine, oil or vinegar, often flavored with herbs, garlic, citrus or other ingredients and stuffed with just about anything, even chilies and capers.

Olives came to California during the 18th century, brought by Junipero Serra and his Franciscan brethren who trekked up the coast from Mexico.

However, as children we didn’t care about that. Almost as much fun as olive wars was to wiggle our finger-tips into the pitted, cured fruits that our moms dumped out of cans.

In those days, a relish tray that included carrot and celery sticks, radishes, scallions and shiny black Mission olives started almost all meals from backyard barbecues to Thanksgiving feasts.

Whatever the event, it was occasion for us to stud all 10 digits with the mealy black globes and wave them around like monster fingers.

I can’t remember if we ate them, but I know we never went near the green, pimento-stuffed morsels that were the other olive produced in our state. Well, not until we discovered they improved after a soaking in gin or vodka.

Times have changed. The finger fun is mostly gone for our children, even though we have so many types of olives to choose from.

An appetizer tray today could contain a dozen different types of olives, most still with pits and leaving no room for fingers, but all of them tastier than the bland pitted product California has been successfully canning for so long. Most California olives, I have been told, end up on pizzas or as salad bar condiments.

While supermarkets carry several types of canned olives, including, happily, pitted Kalamata and Nicoise, many upscale markets have olive bars with ever-changing displays of imported and sometimes even domestically produced olives.

Interest in table olives has followed interest in imported olive oil. California started producing quality oils, not necessarily from the trees first planted here by missionaries, but often from trees imported from Mediterranean countries. (Italy alone is represented by more than 350 cultivars.) Now we’re seeing Mediterranean-style table olives everywhere.

A recent visit to a Whole Foods Market turned up buttery, crunchy Luques from France and brilliant green but mild picholines, France’s most famous olive, that’s good either for snacking or cooking; six or seven varieties of Greek olives, including pitted Kalamatas and the wrinkly, fruity, fleshy Halkidiki; spicy and oily cassis de beaux, a rarity; and huge Cerignola olives from Italy, both black and green. Outside their origins, wine-cured olives from Chile, sweet and salty licorice-flavored olives from China and the bitter, cracked Kura olives from the Middle East are more difficult but not impossible to find.

In recent years, a trend for olive decor on plates, candlesticks, lamps, table linens, casseroles, martini glasses and pasta bowls reflects their popularity.

So do special dishes for serving olives, whether they are compartmentalized into separate olive varieties or extruded into long, thin troughs no wider than a single fat olive.

Several cookbooks have been published focusing on curing, flavoring and cooking with olives.

Mort Rosenblum’s intelligent tome, “Olives, the Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit” (North Point Press), earned a James Beard Award, although it reveals Mr. Rosenblum to be more an olive-oil than table-olive maniac.

In the kitchen, there is certainly more to do with olives than artfully arrange them in one of those trendy serving dishes. The complexities of the particular olive will bring its own nuances to the finished recipe.

If cooked too long or reheated after sitting overnight, olives can become bitter, so add them during the last few minutes of cooking and eat them all the first time around.

You can grate citrus zest over plain-spoken olives and serve with roasted garlic seasoned with garden herbs such as rosemary, oregano or thyme. Cascade tiny Nicoise or a burst of hot-hot spiced Tunisian olives over a log of goat cheese. Scatter a handful of buttery oil-cured black olives over chicken pieces during the last 15 minutes of roasting.

Toss some pitted Nicoise into a potato salad, Kalamatas over bowls of tomato soup. Garnish a meaty ragout with a few picholines or other briny green olives or salt-cured black olives.

Turn tapenade into a pasta sauce. Spread olive paste on a tuna sandwich. If you can find the oily prune-like Halkidiki olives, serve them as part of an assortment of fruits, nuts and cheeses, either as an opening or ending to a special meal.

Most of the recipes that follow feature olives as a primary ingredient so their flavors are more at the forefront of the dishes. They include a sandwich; a salad; olives roasted with garlic; a spread, and a succulent chicken and potato dish.

To pit olives for cooking, flatten them with the palm of your hand or with the side of a knife as you would a garlic clove, then pull out the pit with your fingers.

If you add olives to a recipe without pitting them first, be sure to warn your guests. And if children are coming, go ahead, open a can of colossal California pitted olives. It will keep them busy while the adults peacefully learn the joys of grown-up olives. Some may even have grown up and been cured in California.

Umbrian black olive panini

This recipe was adapted from “Panini, Bruschetta, Crostini,” by Viana La Place (Hearst Books). Plain and plump oil-cured black olives are a good choice here.

4- to 5-inch squares cut from ciabata bread

Several garlic cloves, halved

Olive oil

1 lemon, halved

About 32 oil-cured black olives, pitted and halved

Grated zest of 1 large orange

Slice ciabata squares in half horizontally. Pull out some of the soft inside of the bread to form shallow hollows. Brush inside surfaces with cut garlic. Generously drizzle bread with oil. Then lightly squeeze lemon juice over oil. Nestle olives into bottom half of each sandwich and sprinkle with orange zest. Cover with top halves of bread. Makes 4 servings.

Fennel, olive and citrus salad

This recipe was adapted from “Lidia’s Italian Table,” by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich (William Morrow). You can find Gaeta olives at Italian markets and some specialty grocery stores. Or you can substitute Kalamatas.

2 cups pitted oil-cured Gaeta olives

1 lemon, cut into 1/8-inch cubes, seeded but including peel

2 cups diced or thinly sliced fennel, tender inner layers only

2 tablespoons olive oil

Lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Green fennel tops

In a bowl, combine olives, cut lemon, fennel and olive oil. Season to taste with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Serve lightly sprinkled with fennel tops. Makes 6 servings.

Roasted black and green olives with whole garlic

“To tear at a beautiful, newborn bread and eat it with fat, salty olives, a potent red wine sipped between them, is a meal everlasting in its innocence and sensuality,” Marlena De Blasi says of this recipe from her book, “Regional Foods of Southern Italy.” She’s right, of course.

4 heads garlic

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling over bread

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

Freshly cracked pepper

24 ounces mixed Sicilian, Greek or Spanish black and green olives, with pits

1 loaf crusty, coarse-textured bread

1/2 cup dry Marsala wine

1/2 cup mint leaves

Cut through heads of garlic at root ends and separate cloves, leaving skins intact. Place in a ceramic or terra-cotta casserole, add 1/4 cup olive oil and toss to coat well. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Roast in preheated 325-degree oven 20 minutes. Stir in olives. Continue to roast about 20 minutes longer.

Meanwhile, tear bread into uneven chunks and place on baking sheet. Drizzle with oil.

When garlic has softened and olives are plump, add Marsala and raise oven temperature to 400 degrees. Roast 5 minutes longer along with the bread.

Remove olives and bread from oven and serve olives sprinkled with mint, with the toasted bread on the side, allowing guests to squeeze garlic from skins as desired. Makes 4 to 6 servings

Olive butter

Use leftover olives and garlic from the preceding recipe or choose any pungent olive, such a Kalamata, to fortify this spread. It’s wonderful not just spread on a hot crusty hunk of bread, but melted over veggies or a grilled chicken breast or fish fillet.

1/2 cup butter, room temperature

2 teaspoons grated orange peel

2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary

1/2 teaspoon fennel seed

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 cup chopped Kalamata or other pungent olives

In bowl, blend butter, orange peel, rosemary, fennel seed and garlic. Stir in olives. Transfer to individual souffle dish or ramekin and chill until ready to serve. Or roll into a log about 11/2 inches in diameter, wrap in waxed paper and chill. Slice into rounds to serve. Makes about 3/4 cup.

Country-style chicken and olives and potatoes

This recipe was adapted from “Lidia’s Italian Table.”

4 pounds bone-in chicken thighs or breasts with skin

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

11/2 pounds baby red potatoes, halved

3 Italian cipolle or other small onions (about 6 ounces), peeled and quartered (see note)

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

20 pitted Kalamata olives

1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley or thinly sliced basil, kale or other greens

In a large bowl, toss chicken pieces with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste and toss again.

Heat two large, nonstick skillets over medium heat. Add chicken pieces, skin side down. Cover and cook, turning once, until golden brown on both sides, 5 to 7 minutes.

Move chicken pieces to one side. Add potato halves, cut side down, to the cleared areas of the skillets and cook over medium heat 15 minutes, turning them and the chicken pieces often, until evenly browned and crisp.

Reduce heat to medium-low. Divide cipolle or other onions, rosemary, olives and red pepper flakes between the skillets and cook, covered, until onions have softened and flavors have blended and chicken is cooked through, about 15 minutes, stirring several times. Drain oil from skillets. Serve chicken sprinkled with parsley, basil, kale or other greens. Makes 6 servings.

Note:Many markets carry the flat little Italian cipolle onions in net bags in the produce section, but you can substitute shallots for cipolle onions in this recipe, if desired.

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