The following information, recipes and photography were provided courtesy of local cookbook author and chef, Carla Snyder. Learn more about Carla and discover her recipes at Ravenouskitchen.com.
Olives have been a big part of the human diet for thousands of years before dirty martinis became the rage. Until a few decades ago, the average person knew of only a few varieties, some green, some black, some with pits and the best ones with a little slice of red pepper stuffed inside.
Yet, olives are an essential ingredient in any home cook’s tool kit. Olive’s sweet, sour, bitter and salty flavor adds complexity to dishes, whether simmered in stews, added to sauces, salads and salsas or just popped into a martini. I always have a variety of olives in my refrigerator and I use them whenever I want to add a little spark to a dish. Since olives are the perfect ingredient to make a recipe sing, a little olive history and info is in order.
The History of Olives
Unlike a peach or a cherry, a bite of a beautiful, ripe olive straight from an olive tree is actually horrible.
Raw olive’s bitter taste is meant to protect them from being eaten by seed crunching mammals and microorganisms. Birds bypass the taste by swallowing olives whole. So, how did humans ever find a way to or a desire to eat them?
The answer is olive oil. Olives are composed of roughly 30% oil. Archaeological evidence shows that olive trees were most likely first cultivated on the border between Turkey and Syria. Spreading throughout the Mediterranean, people have been grinding olives for oil for the last 6,000-8,000 years.
Olive oil was used for cooking, cosmetics, medicine and lighting, but over centuries, it was discovered that olives could be de-bittered and thereby eaten by soaking them in brine. A quicker method was later developed in Spain using lye, ushering in a new era for the fruit of the olive tree as not only a source of oil, but as food.
Olives came to the Americas via the Spaniards and though Thomas Jefferson was keen to grow olives at Monticello, the climate in California was proven to be superior. California ultimately became the epicenter of olive production in the states. However, for as large as California is, it grows only about 1% of the olives of the world. Most olive production comes from Spain.
Ripe vs. Unripe Olives
This brings us to Spanish (or Manzanilla) olives, the kind most likely dropped into a dirty martini and routinely found jarred in the grocery store. Spanish, or any green olives, are picked green and unripe, then cured. Tree ripened olives turn purple/black when ripe with the same pigment that gives Concord grapes their color. They are then picked and brined or cured in oil. So, whether un-ripened green and black, brown or purple ripened olives, the olives differ basically only in variety.
What about the canned “black-ripe” pitted olives we all stuck on our fingers as children during the holidays at grandma’s house only to nibble them off? These un-ripened California olives go through a chemical process that turns them from green to black and though inexpensive when compared to their European counterparts, these olives undeniably lack in flavor and intensity (which is probably why kids like them). I seldom if ever use the canned variety, but I do admit that it’s fun to pass them out to the kids and watch them joyously plop from fingers to mouths.
How to Store Olives
Whether purchasing olives jarred or from open olive bins, they should be relatively firm, and never mushy or visibly bruised. Once home, store opened- jarred or bin olives in the fridge in the liquid in which they came for up to a few weeks. If there’s no brine, make your own by adding a teaspoon of salt to a cup and a half of water and pour it over the olives to submerge.
How to Pit and Olive
It’s easy to pit olives. Lay the olive on a cutting board, cover it with the flat side of a chef’s knife and carefully press firmly with your other hand on top of the knife, avoiding the sharp edge. The olive will compress and the pit can be easily removed. The general opinion on whole olives is that they are usually of a higher quality than pitted olives since they haven’t been put through the large-scale pitting process which can beat them up a bit.
Olives get their distinctive qualities from their region, genetics and climate in addition to how they were harvested and cured. This means that there are hundreds of olives on the menu for you to discover. Some of my favorites are:
- Kalamata: The king of Greek olives, Kalamatas are shiny, black, meaty and perfect for adding interest to salads, tapenades and stews. You can find them whole and pitted.
- Castelvetrano: Castelvetrano olives are Sicily’s perfect snack olive. Bright green with a meaty, buttery flesh and a mild flavor, Castelvetrano olives are wonderful in sauces, stews, salads or eating out of hand. You can find them whole and pitted.
- Niçoise: Dainty Niçoise olives are grown in the South of France and are seldom sold pitted. Perfect for salad Niçoise and tapenade, these olives have a strong herbal taste that is surprising for their size.
- Gaeta: Small and purple/brown, these Italian olives can be either dry cured (wrinkled and chewy) or brine cured (juicy and plump). Wonderful in salads, pasta or simply served as a pre-dinner snack, these olives are rarely found pitted.
- Manzanilla: Most often found jarred, this Spanish olive is brine cured and most often stuffed with pimentos. Perfect for a martini or a salad, this ubiquitous olive is crisp and firm and comes in many sizes to suit your preference. They can be found pitted and whole.
Holiday celebrations are the perfect time to feature the big flavor of olives. One of the things I like best about dishes with olives is the simplicity; olives do the heavy work of making delicious happen.
A case is point is Barley Salad with Olives and Lemon. Green Castelvetrano olives, lemon, walnuts and bright herbal notes from mint and cilantro give this chewy barley salad enough moxie to work as a side to any fish, poultry or meaty main dish. You can even substitute farro or brown rice or blend in some quinoa or millet if the mood or pantry dictates.
Next up is a seafood salsa by the name of Campechana. Full of olives, tomato, garlic, shrimp, chilies and avocado, Campechana is a terrific addition to your appetizer repertoire. I’ve been making a version of this salsa for the last 20 years and it’s always a fan favorite. The trick to making this dish is to add just the right amount of salt and lime juice. Tart and salty with corn chips, we could make a meal of this dish at our house when paired with a Margarita.
Winter Italian Chopped Salad with Olives and Pepperoni utilizes olives, roasted vegetables and crispy roasted pepperoni along with crunchy romaine and celery for big flavor and texture. I love the orange in this salad and using some of the orange juice in the dressing makes for a milder, less tart version of vinaigrette that really works with the roasted fennel, chickpeas and artichokes. There’s a lot going on in this salad and it’s easily a meal all by itself, though it would be delicious with a vegetarian main dish like eggplant Parmesan or fried zucchini. Yum!
Last up is Baked Salmon with Olives, Raisins, Capers and Fennel. Baking fish in foil is hands-down the easiest and most delicious method to cook fish. It steams in a package with other delicious ingredients such as olives, fennel, peppers, lemon and golden raisins. Sweet, sour, salty and tart, this meal-in-a-bag is the easiest dinner on the plane. It could be one of the most delicious as well.
Olives are always in abundant supply and there are few ingredients that offer such a distinctive burst of flavor to dishes that employ them. Truly “gold in your refrigerator,” olives are just the ingredient to ramp up the flavor of your holiday and winter menus. Healthy, gluten-free, full of good fats and low in cholesterol, olives just might be the perfect fruit.
Finally, don’t forget how tasty a nibble of briny olive along with a few nuts can be as a prelude to a fine meal. After all, who doesn’t have a jar of olives in their fridge? Use them up in these recipes so you can go out and buy more. Experiment. Cook. Taste. Enjoy.