01 Aug

Once a luxury, now the zesty olive is indispensable

By Judy Schultz,
Photo by Chris Schwarz,

olve on tableWhen I was little, olives were reserved for special occasions. Only New Year’s Eve and visiting priests rated stuffed olives, the queen of all pickles.

The advent of Kraft Theatre on television moved olives down a notch or two on the specialness scale. Suddenly, everybody’s mom was using them. A commercial break was just long enough to slather Cheez Whiz on a plate of Ritz Crackers and top them off with olive faces: olive eyes, olive nose, olive grin.

I still have a weakness for the queen of pickles, and if you show up at my house before dinner on a hot summer night, you’re probably going to be looking at a bowl of mixed olives and almonds, well-salted, with a frosty Corona.

In the place where I hope to spend a lot of winters, we’ve already planted a dozen olive trees — half kalamata, half picholine — with another three dozen or so to go this year.

I love looking at them from my upstairs window. Even when young, they’re graceful trees with a tendency to gnarly bark, and they’re covered with small silvery leaves that tremble in the wind. Their berries range from green to dark purple-blue, a petite beauty among the pickle plants.

People who grow olives recognize two kinds — oil olives and table olives. Either way, it’s a labour of love, as it takes the fruit of an entire tree to produce a single litre of olive oil, and table olives are tricky and time consuming, taking up to a year to cure away their natural bitterness, caused by a nasty-tasting phenolic compound called oleuropein.

Natural curing (used for kalamata, nicoise, amphissa, picholine and gaetas) involves pre-soaking in water, which is changed daily for several weeks, then either bathing in lactic acid or salting lavishly for the remainder of an entire year.

The evil-sounding but benign lye cures are used on most Spanish olives, and many Greek olives are simply dry cured.

A local company, Olive Me, 8613 109th St., produces and/or packs a variety of flavoured olives, available at some farmers markets and the deli at the Italian Centre Shop. Bulk olive bars with several varieties for scooping into plastic containers have become standard fare in supermarkets. (On the other hand, there a couple of local supermarkets that apparently ignore their olive bars, with skimpily filled pans that are messy, scummy, totally off-putting.)

Here are 10 of the best and most versatile olives available in good bulk sections.

  • Amphissa — Tender, earthy and slightly tart, use this olive in tapenade spreads, meaty beef stews and red sauces. The best wine pairing is a Pinot Noir.
  • Black Ripe — The American classic, plump, mild, a big favourite on pizza.
  • Cerignola — Big, green, buttery, this is a great olive to marinate and serve with a variety of appetizers, along with your favourite Sauvignon Blanc.
  • Gaeta — Meaty, oily, intense, the ultimate Italian olive is well suited to slow cooked stews, braised dishes, hearty Zinfandels.
  • Green Ripe — Slightly saltier than black ripe. Absorbs the flavours of other foods. A good addition to chicken or tuna salad. A natural snack if Caesars or gin and tonic are your favourite tipples.
  • Kalamata — A Greek classic, dark and intense; completes a Greek salad.
  • Nicoise — Nutty, fragrant and firm, goes well in fish dishes, with tuna in a salade Nicoise, or as a simple nibbler for aperitifs. Goes well with Pinot Grigio.
  • Picholine — Creamy, nutty and perfectly chewy, this is the ideal choice for savoury snacks and antipasto platters. Serve it with a dry white wine.
  • Spanish — Sour, slightly lemony, ideal for casseroles like Moroccan chicken.
  • Spanish stuffed — Essential for a well-made martini, these are firm, juicy, equally at home on deviled eggs or (yes) crackers with cheese.

TWO QUICK OLIVE TRICKS:

  1. Toss sliced black olives with a fresh tomato sauce for spaghettini; or with crushed garlic, olive oil and a good bash of chopped parsley for pasta aglio olio.
  2. Tapenade: Whiz a cup of ripe olives in the blender with one teaspoon capers, two cloves garlic, the juice and grated rind of half a lemon, pepper to taste and a drizzle of good olive oil. Use as a spread for crackers or bruschetta, or toss with hot pasta and a good bash of freshly chopped parsley.

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