Above all things pickled, the olive
BY Amy Atkins
Green: the color of re-birth, freedom, celebration and … pickled items. Pickling is done when a raw food is put in an acid (vinegar) or a citrus juice or soaked in brine solution. Years ago, pickling was used to keep foods from spoiling during long sea voyages. If pickled, beef and pork could be kept for months, and eggs and vegetables would stay, if not delicious, at least edible. However, with the advent of refrigerators, freezers and Seal-a-meals, pickling is no longer used for preservation as often as it is to add tangy flavor (and one we love) to some otherwise bland vegetables.
And, when a caterer walks around a party with a tray of finger foods, among the crab cakes, crudites, cheeses and crackers, one expects to find a selection of pickled vegetables: green beans, asparagus, peppers and, of course, sweet and sour pickles themselves. It wouldn’t be complete, though, without the most piquant pickled greens: olives.
Green olives, which may turn red when ripened, are water, brine or lye (yes, lye) cured. For water curing, the olives are slightly split and soaked in cold water for approximately one month. Brine curing involves soaking split olives in a salt water solution for four to six weeks. Lye curing is commonly used by commercial olive producers as it is a much faster process than brine curing. Salt or dry curing is when olives are covered in salt for several weeks and then covered in oil–lye leaches the glucosides (these give raw olives their bitter taste) out of olives. It is a faster method of curing, but can often leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Regardless of how olives are cured, the versatility of the little round condiment makes them an extremely popular food item. So popular that they are shipped into the United States by the ton.
According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, olives are only grown domestically in California. Most olives sold in the United States are imported from Italy, Spain, Greece, Morocco and Turkey with Italy supplying most of the olives that have come into this country since 1990. In 1989, olive imports totaled roughly $298 million. In 2002, the total was over $644 million. Now, that’s a whole lot of olives. And once here, we have hundreds of flavors to choose from.
Green olives are some of the most versatile. A favorite in vodka and gin drinks or on an appetizer plate, they are often stuffed with tasty tidbits: blue cheese, pimientos, jalapeno peppers, garlic, almonds and more. They are also used hundreds of ways in hundreds of recipes. They are delicious in pasta dishes, on pizza, in salads or just eaten by the handful. The added bonus is that they are full of iron, vitamin E and fiber. They’re not only delicious, but healthful, too. So, the next time a tray of appetizers comes your way, make sure to grab some of the tangy tasties and enjoy.