- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Ah, the olive. Put out a dish of mixed marinated olives, and certain people will wax euphoric.

This is the best way to smoke out the bona fide foodies (established or potential) in your midst, because (and here is an undisputed fact): You can’t be a foodie and not love olives. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.

Olive trees have been held in the highest esteem for millenniums. Biblical lore has it that the angel Gabriel brought an olive tree to Adam, telling him to “plant it, then pick the fruit and press out its oil. It will cure your pain and all sickness.”

Classical manuscripts describe olive oil as the essence of goodness, to be burned as a sacrament, with the tree itself (most notably the branches) symbolizing peace. This is not an empty symbolism, but rather a reflection of the calming and healing properties of olives and their oil.

Olives have been cultivated since prehistoric times in Asia Minor. From there, they spread all over the world. Today they are commercially produced in Turkey, Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Tunisia, Morocco, Portugal, China, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Angola, South Africa, Uruguay, Afghanistan, Australia, New Zealand, and California.

Olive trees are evergreens and can live for hundreds of years. When the fruit is first harvested, it is inedible, hard and bitter. The olives need to be cured in dry or wet salt (brine) or in oil, and then packed. Green olives are those that are picked and treated before they are ripe, and darker olives are harvested at a more advanced stage of development.

The three best-known types of olives available in the United States are:

• Kalamata: purple and brine-cured

• Nicoise: red-brown, sour and lightly salted

• Picholine: tiny, pointed with a tangy fruit flavor, from Southern France.

We think of olives as a snack or an hors d’oeuvre, but olives are also a wonderful ingredient in other dishes. One of my favorite uses of olives is the classic olive paste called tapenade.

I like to make a version with fresh basil and parsley so it tastes kind of like an olivy pesto. This tastes especially wonderful on hot cooked linguine. Try this rich, aromatic paste featuring basil, garlic and Kalamata olives, which interact beautifully with hot pasta, coating each strand with potent flavor.

Tapenade keeps at least a week in the refrigerator and longer in the freezer. So make the entire batch, even if you intend to serve fewer than the 4 or 5 portions this recipe accommodates. You can just spoon out however much you need onto freshly cooked pasta and put the rest away for later.

Cold tapenade can be gently heated ? on the stovetop or in a microwave, so it won’t cool down the hot pasta. Serve this dish with a simple tomato soup for a lovely early spring supper.

Tapenade has many uses. It can be a dip for vegetables or crackers, a sandwich filling (wonderful in combination with cream cheese) or a pizza toping.

Try spreading it on a split piece of ciabatta bread, sprinkling some cheese on top and broiling it for an elegant lunch or light supper.

Basil tapenade

You can streamline the preparation time by putting the pasta water up to boil first and preparing the tapenade while the water heats.

1 cup packed fresh basil leaves

1 cup packed flat-leaf parsley

1 cup pitted Kalamata olives

2 medium cloves garlic

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 pound linguine

3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Put up a large pot of lightly salted water to boil. Clean and dry the basil leaves and parsley, and run them through a food processor until pulverized. Add olives and garlic; puree until smooth. Transfer to a large bowl.

Cook pasta in boiling water until al dente. Drain and add to the bowl of tapenade. Immediately drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with a generous amount of cheese.

Use tongs or two long-handled forks to combine pasta with sauce. It helps to do this with a gentle lifting motion, bringing up the tapenade from the bottom of the bowl and working quickly so the pasta stays hot. Serve immediately, preferably on heated plates. Makes 4 to 5 generous servings.

Mollie Katzen is the author of the “Moosewood Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press) and “Sunlight Cafe” (Hyperion).


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