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Simple Pleasures : A Taste As Old As Cold Water : A Report on olives, both the bland and the pungent

Until recently, olives appeared on most American tables only at Thanksgiving and Christmas, nestled amid the celery and radishes. Or in martinis. The true olive eaters in America were people of Mediterranean ancestry, who relied on small mom and pop grocery stores for weekly or monthly supplies of imported olives, scooped out of crocks of salty brine.

The American taste was strictly for “ripe” black olives--pit-free by preference, so the kids could wear them on their fingertips. This variety--exotic by Old World standards--was invented in California and most aficionados of Mediterranean olives find it bland.

But Americans’ olive tastes are broadening. Total consumption is up, too. Dick Vorreyer, spokesperson for Lindsay Olive Growers in Lindsay, California, reports a per year increase of 3% to 5%. "(Americans) used to buy (olives) when there was a barbecue in the back yard,” he says. “Now they are part of a regular menu.”

Michael Roberts, chef/owner of Trumps in Beverly Hills, thinks interest in olives goes hand in hand with the growing fascination with Mediterranean cuisines and what he calls the “minimalist idea” of cooking: less butter and more olive oil, and use of concentrated, robust food flavors.

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“Everybody started talking about Mediterranean cuisine, probably, because there was no cuisine left to talk about,” he says. “Nobody was going to go for the undiscovered cuisine of Afghanistan as a new wave. But it all fit in because of health concerns. Here was a cuisine that offered strong flavors, low calories and low cholesterol. Health and vanity promoted the cuisine.”

Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino in Santa Monica and Primi in West Los Angeles, has witnessed the phenomenal growth of Italian cuisine in Los Angeles since he opened his first restaurant two decades ago. He thinks consumers have learned to appreciate the characteristically strong flavor olives impart to olive bread and hearty dishes such as pasta alla puttanesca. “They find olives more flavorful and distinctive than capers or sun-dried tomatoes. Olives are here to stay,” Selvaggio says.

There are, however, decided regional preferences in the United States. Midwest consumers purchase black and green olives equally, says Barry Gesserman of Vlasic Foods, which produces 40% of the the olives sold in this country. East Coast buyers prefer Spanish olives, and on the West Coast, ripe olives are still by far the most popular, though interest in the pungent Spanish olive is on the rise.

But Ken Frank of La Toque restaurant in Los Angeles says he will take strong, nutty Mediterranean olives over “lame” California ripe olives any time. “Ripe olives are all right if you want to decorate a salad with tiny black doughnuts on top,” he says. “But there is nothing like the strong-flavored Greek olive to give a dish some bite.”

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Michael Roberts concurs. “What good is it to use flavorless ripe olives when a dish cries for the strong personality of fermented olives, such as Nicoise and Kalamata olives?” he says.

So where did those now despised California-style olives come from, anyway?

The California olive industry was founded in the 18th Century when Spanish monks established olive orchards at the California missions. The variety they planted, still grown, is known as the Mission olive. By 1875 other varieties were being raised commercially in California--the Manzanillo (meaning “little apple” in Spanish), the Sevillano, from Seville, and the Ascolano, of Italian origin--and California was the olive capital of the U.S.

Even today, 53% of the olives sold in this country are grown in California. There are seven key producers of the so-called California olive--the large, black (or green), smooth-coated olive that dominates the $300 million U.S. olive industry. The big three are Vlasic, Lindsay Olive Growers and Oberti Olives of Madeira, Calif.

The California olive was originated by Lindsay Olive Growers, founded in the early 1890s as a pickle-making business in Oroville, Calif. Lindsay processed “ripe” olives in a weak lye solution to remove bitterness before canning. Today a Federal marketing order dictates the chemical composition of the pickling solution and requires that the balance of acidity and alkalinity in the resulting olive be neutral.

Californians’ preference for this type of “ripe” olive is historic, says Jerry Sullivan, operations manager for Lindsay Olive Growers. California homemakers, unaccustomed to olive eating to begin with, didn’t like the shriveled look of the tree-ripened olive.

“American homemakers were looking for an olive that was bland and neutrally flavored instead of the fermented type preferred in Europe,” Sullivan says. Pitted olives, more popular in the United States than in Europe, are a matter of convenience, he adds. The majority of ripe olives processed in California are pitted.

However, consumers can expect to see more varieties of olives. “Americans like variety,” says Barry Gesserman of Vlasic. “A growing number of brands now offer flavor variations.” Santa Barbara Olive Co. produces 50 varieties from all around California. Like Vlasic, Santa Barbara also imports Kalamata olives from Greece for packing in California. Still, most of Santa Barbara’s olives are the ripe California type--a low-sodium variety packaged in brine, rather than in lye. “So far we have garlic-flavored olives, Cajun olives, spiced with cayenne pepper,” Vorreyer says. “Many are stuffed with jalapeno chiles.”

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Santa Barbara Olive Co. also makes use of the old Mission California olives, which are picked when ripe. These are softer and smaller than the green olives and have a small pit. Greek sun-dried olives and Barouni, another olive variety, are processed as spiced olives and are also stored in spicy brine. Even foreign companies, such as the Greater Galilee Gourmet, Inc., which also produces olive oil from Israel, have seen a ripe market for promoting gourmet olives in the United States.

One of the reasons for the relatively slow acceptance of olives, Gesserman says, has been a misconception about their calorie count: “Most people don’t know that olives are actually low in calories, only five calories per ripe olive.” About two-thirds of the fat contained in olives is olive oil, a monounsaturated, so-called “good fat,” discovered recently to help reduce buildup of cholesterol.

Green olives contain a lower proportion of fat (about 15%) and a higher proportion of water (75%) than black olives (55% for fat, 3% for water), probably because the ripening process causes loss of moisture. Olives contain small amounts of minerals--calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, sulfur, chlorine, iron, copper and manganese--and vitamins A and E.

So in its way, the olive is a health food. Proof that not everything delicious is bad for you.

Cooking With Olives and Olive Oil

Mediterranean cuisines have incorporated olives in an extraordinary range of dishes.

In Italy, chopped olives are found in pasta sauces, meat dishes, breads and pizzas. In France, the chopped-olive mixture, tapenade , is used to spread on bread or as fillings for many foods, including pissaladiere , a form of pizza. In Morocco, chicken with olives, called meslalla , is a national dish. And almost all Balkan cooks keep olives on hand to serve as breakfast snacks with cheese, or as an appetizer ( meze ) with raw vegetables, feta or other cheeses to accompany drinks before a meal.

Olives are best when eaten right out of the jar. When used in cooked dishes, they are usually only heated through--overcooking tends to soften them and dilute their fresh, pungent flavor.

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Ripe olives are usually stored in brine. At room temperature, unopened cans or jars have a 36- to 48-month shelf life. Once opened, store unused ripe olives in their original brine in the open container and cover with plastic wrap. Do not store ripe olives in airtight containers. If the original brine has been discarded, replace with a solution of one pint water and one teaspoon salt in order to keep the olives wet and free from external odors. Partially used cans or jars of ripe olives may be held in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.

Executive chef Jeffrey Cooper of Savage Court, a small bistro in San Pedro, shared a recipe for chicken made with wild rice pancakes in which Greek Kalamata olives are used with lemon juice and artichoke hearts.

Visconti restaurant in Santa Monica provided us with a recipe for spaghetti sauce using olives with anchovies and tomatoes. Stretching the imagination was no problem for Verdi Ristorante di Musica chef Michele Knight. She turned couscous into a healthful, summery salad filled with Kalamata olives, pine nuts and yellow, red and green peppers.

In another recipe, squab (to which Italian black olives are added) is served in a brandy sauce within a nest of matchstick French-fried potatoes--fried in olive oil, of course.

OLIVE OIL

There is hardly a Mediterranean dish that does not make use of some olive oil. Sometimes olive oil is combined with butter to soften the effect of the oil flavor, while adding a buttery taste to foods.

A Greek salad most always includes olive oil in the dressing. Cold vegetable salads sprinkled generously with olive oil are standard Mediterranean fare. Mediterranean cooks also sprinkle olive oil over fried or cooked vegetable to enhance their flavor. Olive oil is used to marinate vegetables, fish, poultry and meats such as kebabs or leg of lamb.

In a Greek dish, vegetables are cooked slowly in olive oil, allowing the natural juices of the vegetables to meld with the oil. Italians enjoy dipping freshly made bread in fine olive oil as a prelude to a meal. Olive oil also appears in unlikely baked products, including burekas (filled filo dough pastries), and in sweet desserts such as cakes and cookies.

Cooking with olive oil is no different from cooking with other vegetable oils. However, flavor and heat resistance of olive oil may dictate the type of oil used.

Pure olive oil is best for high-heat cooking. Virgin oils have a low smoke point, and their subtle flavor and aroma may be lost at high temperatures.

Stronger, fruitier and slightly bitter extra virgin olive oils are best used with potatoes, stews and pasta or meat sauces, especially with onions and tomatoes.

Virgin oils complement vegetables, poached or broiled fish, salads and salad dressings, omelets and lightly fried foods, such as eggs, sauteed mushrooms and stir-fry dishes. They are also good in cream soups, purees and gravies.

Foods that have starch or albumin content, such as potatoes or eggs, can be fried in olive oil in their natural state. However, meats and fish should be coated in flour or bread crumbs with egg before frying. The caramelized crust on the foods prevents grease from soaking in.

Olive oil will keep up to two years if stored properly in a tightly capped bottle away from heat and light. Under normal conditions, refrigeration is not necessary. However, during hot, humid weather, olive oil should be refrigerated. This will cause clouding, which will not affect either flavor or quality. Bring the olive oil to room temperature to restore clarity before using.

Because olive oil has a low iodine content, it will not become rancid with the change in temperature from cooking, making it reusable. And since it coats food instead of being absorbed, olive oil can be reused four to five times before being discarded.

SAVAGE COURT’S SAUTEED OLIVE CHICKEN WITH WILD RICE PANCAKES

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup whole garlic cloves, unpeeled

8 boneless chicken breast halves

1/2 cup dry white wine

3 cups chicken stock

1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives, halved

2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh rosemary

1/4 cup lemon juice

8 baby artichoke hearts, blanched and halved

Salt, pepper

Wild Rice Pancakes

Heat olive oil in skillet. Add garlic and saute 2 minutes. Add chicken, skin side down, reduce heat to medium and cook until skin browns. Turn chicken and add wine, chicken stock, olives, tomatoes, rosemary, lemon juice and artichoke hearts. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bring to boil, simmer 10 minutes until chicken is just cooked. Remove chicken and keep warm.

Increase heat to high and bring sauce to rolling boil. Reduce liquid to glaze. Place chicken on Wild Rice Pancakes on plate and pour sauce over. Makes 8 servings.

Note: Serve with steamed vegetables.

Wild Rice Pancakes

2 cups cooked wild rice

1/4 cup finely minced shallots or onions

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic, or to taste

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1 teaspoon chopped rosemary

Salt

White pepper

3 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons flour

Soy bean oil

Combine wild rice, shallots, garlic, parsley, rosemary and season to taste with salt and white pepper. Beat eggs with cream and flour and fold into wild rice mixture.

Heat 2 tablespoons soy bean oil in skillet. For each pancake drop about 1/3 cup batter into hot oil, being careful to not overcrowd pan. Cook until pancakes are browned on one side, turn and brown other side. Continue adding oil to pan and cooking pancakes. Makes about 8 pancakes.

VISCONTI’S SPAGHETTI WITH OLIVES

2 large Italian plum tomatoes, peeled or unpeeled and diced

1/2 cup black olives, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon Balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon capers

2 quarts water

1 bay leaf

Juice of 1/2 lime

8 ounces spaghetti

1 (2-ounce) can anchovies, drained and chopped, or to taste

1/4 cup dry Chablis or mineral water

Whole black pitted olives

Basil leaves

Saute tomatoes, olives and garlic in olive oil until coated. Add vinegar and cook until tomatoes are tender and garlic is almost cooked. Add oregano, pepper and capers. Stir 3 minutes. Set aside.

Place water in large saucepan. Add bay leaf and lime juice. Bring to boil. Add spaghetti and cook over boiling water until spaghetti is al dente.

Drain and place in saucepan. Add anchovies and mix. Add wine if too dry. Cook 3 minutes over medium-high heat until sauce is absorbed by spaghetti. Garnish with whole olives and basil leaves. Makes 2 to 4 servings.

CONFETTI COUSCOUS

1/2 green pepper, cut julienne

1/2 sweet yellow pepper, cut julienne

1/2 sweet red pepper, cut julienne

5 tablespoons olive oil

1/3 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

1/4 cup Kalamata olives, sliced

4 basil leaves, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

3/4 cup quick-cooking couscous

2 1/4 cups chicken broth, heated to boiling

Dash white pepper

Saute green, yellow and red peppers in olive oil until tender. Do not overcook. Add pine nuts, olives, basil and garlic. Blend well.

Add couscous and stir, separating grains. Add boiling chicken broth to couscous, cover and simmer 15 minutes until tender and liquid is absorbed. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes, then fluff with fork. Season to taste with white pepper. Makes 8 appetizer or 4 entree servings.

TAPENADE

1 (4-ounce) can anchovies, drained

4 cloves garlic

2 cups pitted black olives

1 (4-ounce) can tuna packed in oil

1 (4-ounce) jar capers, drained

Juice of 2 lemons

1 cup olive oil

Combine anchovies, garlic, olives, tuna with oil, capers and juice of 1 lemon in food processor. Process until pureed. Gradually add olive oil and remaining lemon juice, processing until thick and smooth. Makes about 3 1/2 cups.

Note: Serve as spread for pizza, bread or toast.

VERDI’S PENNE CON OLIVO

1/3 cup olive oil, about

1 pound jumbo shrimp, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

5 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and fileted

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped garlic

Dash crushed red pepper flakes

4 large basil leaves, finely cut

1/4 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and cut into eighths

1/4 cup capers

1 pound penne, cooked

Heat 1/3 cup olive oil in large skillet. Add shrimp and saute until just pink. Remove shrimp from pan and set aside.

Add tomatoes, oregano, garlic, red pepper and basil to skillet. Cook until tomatoes are tender. If too thick, add olive oil. Add olives, capers and shrimp. Heat through. Add to penne and toss. Makes 4 servings.

SQUAB WITH BLACK OLIVES

4 (1-pound) squabs, cleaned

Salt, pepper

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup beef broth

1/4 cup brandy

1/2 cup dry white wine

20 pitted black Italian olives

Olive-Oil Fried Potatoes

Fried Sage

Season squabs inside and out with salt and pepper. Truss securely. Brown squabs on all sides in butter, being careful to avoid burning.

Add 1/4 cup beef broth and bring to simmer. Reduce heat, cover and cook squabs over low heat until tender, about 35 minutes, turning often to cook evenly. Remove squabs and keep warm.

Add brandy to pan and heat 1 minute. Ignite and shake pan until flames die out. Add wine and cook over high heat until liquid is reduced by half.

Add olives and remaining 3/4 cup beef broth. Bring to boil, scraping brown bits from pan. Return squabs to pan and simmer to heat through, basting squabs several times with sauce. Skim off fat. Adjust seasonings.

Serve squabs in nests of Olive-Oil Fried Potatoes. Garnish with Fried Sage. Makes 4 servings.

Olive-Oil Fried Potatoes

2 large Russet potatoes

Olive oil for deep frying

Salt

Peel and cut potatoes into very narrow sticks. Place in ice water to chill. Drain on paper towels.

Heat oil until hot. Add potatoes and fry until golden on all sides, turning often. Time will depend on thickness and size of potatoes.

Drain, season to taste with salt, then use as nests for squabs or turn into bowl. Makes 4 servings.

Fried Sage

Olive oil for deep frying

6 to 8 sage leaves

Heat oil in skillet. Add sage and fry until browned, 1 or 2 seconds. Do not scorch. Remove and drain on paper towels. Set aside.

MOROCCAN CHICKEN WITH OLIVES

1 chicken, cut up

Salt, pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced

1 bunch parsley, leaves only, chopped

Dash powdered saffron

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon mild paprika

1 cup broken and pitted green olives

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Lemon slices

Place chicken pieces in oven-proof casserole. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and drizzle with olive oil, turning to coat on all sides.

Add onion, ginger, garlic, parsley, saffron, cumin and paprika. Bake at 350 degrees 1 1/2 hours, basting frequently with water to keep mixture from drying out, until chicken is tender.

Stir in olives. Return to oven 15 minutes until olives are heated through. Sprinkle with lemon juice and garnish with lemon slices. Makes 4 servings.

MARINATED OLIVES

4 cups cups black or other cured olives

2 to 4 cloves garlic, slivered

2 teaspoons chopped fresh or dried parsley

2 teaspoons fresh or dried thyme

2 teaspoons fresh or dried dill weed

1 bay leaf

1 tablespoon chopped pimiento

4 to 6 slices orange with peel

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon salt

Drain olives, reserving liquid. Combine olives, garlic, parsley, thyme, dill, bay leaf, pimiento, orange slices, oil and salt in jar. Add enough reserved liquid to cover olive mixture. If not enough liquid, bring 2 cups water to boil, cool and add as necessary to jar.

Mix well, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until olives reach desired flavor level, at least overnight. Makes 4 cups olives.

GREEK SALAD

1 head Romaine or other lettuce, torn into pieces

3 or 4 green onions, sliced

1 cucumber, thinly sliced

2 or 3 tomatoes, cut into wedges

2 or 3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

Olive oil

Vinegar

Salt, pepper

Combine lettuce, onions, cucumber slices and tomato wedges in bowl. Sprinkle with cheese. Drizzle with oil and vinegar to taste. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss again. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

FRIED EGGPLANT APPETIZER

1 small eggplant

Salt

Flour

Olive oil

1 clove garlic

1/4 cup olive oil

Vinegar

Pepper

Cut eggplant into finger shapes or slices. Sprinkle with salt and dust with flour.

Heat olive oil to cover bottom of skillet. Add eggplant and fry until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels.

Combine garlic and olive oil. Sprinkle over eggplant. Sprinkle lightly with vinegar and season to taste with pepper. Makes 6 appetizer servings.

ALICE WATERS’ OLIVE OIL AND SAUTERNES CAKE

5 eggs, separated

3/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon mixed grated orange and lemon zest

1 cup sifted flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup Sauternes

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons Extra Virgin olive oil

2 egg whites

Beat egg yolks with 3/4 cup sugar in bowl with whisk 3 to 5 minutes or until light-colored and well beaten. Add orange and lemon zest and set aside.

Combine flour and salt. Add bit by bit to sugar-egg mixture, beating continually until incorporated. Add Sauternes and olive oil in increments.

Beat all 7 egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold into egg-yolk mixture.

Grease 8-inch spring form pan and line with parchment paper. Grease again and pour batter into pan. Bake at 375 degrees 20 minutes, rotating cake if necessary to ensure even cooking.

Reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake 20 minutes longer. Turn off heat, cover cake with round of buttered parchment and leave in closed oven 10 minutes while cake deflates like fallen souffle.

Remove cake from oven and invert onto flat surface. Remove spring form pan and allow to cool completely. Cake may be stored, well sealed, in refrigerator. Makes 1 (8-inch) cake.

Note: Dust cake with powdered sugar, if desired. Serve with fresh peaches and glass of Sauternes.

RELATED STORIES: H20, H21, H30


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