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The secret of using olives in cooking is to exploit not only the complexity of flavors that comes from the character of the individual olive variety itself, but also from the manner in which the olive was cured and seasoned. By adding a few olives to a salad, soup, stew, sauce, or a mound of bread dough, a palette of flavors is achieved that would normally require several different ingredients and techniques. Depending upon the type of olive, the taste of a particular dish can vary in multiple nuances. A tart Kalamata, for example, stirred into a chicken and tomato stew will slightly perk the acidity, but a salt-cured black olive, packed in olive oil, will contribute a mild, buttery character to the same stew. A spread made of green olives is quite different from one made with black olives, and an orange and anchovy salad with fennel-spiced green olives as a component will be a distant cousin of the same salad using black olives seasoned with peppers and garlic. The addition of a single ingredient, the olive, can direct the personality of the finished dish, a feature that makes a powerful pantry resident.
There is a wonderful variation in Mediterranean table olives and consequently awide range of colors, sizes, and tastes. A display at any of the region's open markets will reveal not only olives that are green and black, but also purple, straw colored, burgundy, and brown. Some, like the Sevillano of Spain, are large and somewhat heart shaped, and others, like the Cailletiers of Nice, are as small as the tip of a little finger. Most of them are somewhere in between. They may be resting in brines flavored with fennel, lemon, orange peel, pepper, or bay leaves or other herbs, or they might be glistening with olive oil or salt. In addition to the substantial market selection presented by any respectable vendor, specialty olives, such as those pitted and stuffed with anchovies, almonds, or pimientos, are generally available.
The tremendous range of flavors among table olives is the result of several factors, including the variety itself, when and how they were picked, how they were cured, and if and how they have been further seasoned. Varieties differ from country to country. In Spain and Israel, the Manzanillo is one of the most common table olives, while in France it is more likely to be the picholine or Lucques, in Italy the Ascolano, in Greece the Kalamata, and in Tunisia the plump Meski. Of course, many others are used as well, but these are some of the olives destined for the table that are in the greatest production. Some table olives, like the Manzanillo and picholine, are picked green. The Kalamata, considered a black olive, is harvested when it is burgundy-black, and the Tanche, the buttery olive of Nyons, is picked fully black, when it is perfectly ripe but not yet wrinkled, as is the Gemlik, the most popular olive of Turkey.
The best table olives are taken from the trees by hand. Mechanical picking causes damage that diminishes their eating quality. In Tunisia, olives are harvested with plastic "claws," one on each of three fingers. Before plastic, the pickers outfitted themselves with hollowed-out goat horns. Using the claws, the olives are "raked" off the tree. In Italy and France, short, handheld plastic rakes are employed. Either nets are east beneath the trees to catch the olives as they fall, or if hand-picked, they are put one by one into baskets or buckets.
The curing process is begun as quickly as possible after picking, preferably within twenty-four hours. Olives must be cured before they can be eaten because fresh from the tree they contain a phenolic compound, oleuropein, which makes them bitter.
To remove or diminish the bitterness, olives are processed in a lye treatment, fermented in brine, packed in salt, or rinsed repeatedly in fresh water. Olives treated with lye or water are then packed in brine to preserve them. The brines vary in the herbs, spices, or other ingredients added to them, which accounts for some of the extensive flavor variation among these olives. Salt-cured olives, also called dry-cured or oil-cured olives, are packed in olive oil, with or without aromatics, after the cure is complete.
Both brine fermentation and salt packing also help to preserve the olives, although after the initial treatment they may be packed in fresh brine or salt, in olive oil or in vinegar, and sometimes with seasonings such as herbs, peppers, or citrus. Different regions and individual producers have their local specialties, of course, resulting in even more flavor variations.
Many Mediterranean families still make their own table olives using recipes handed down through generations. Each August when the olives turn from dusty apple green to shiny chartreuse, my neighbors in Haute Provence make olives vertes cassées. They gently crack open the meat of the olive with the back of a wooden spoon or a small mallet, then soak the olives in many rinses of water over many days before packing them in a fennel-flavored brine. These are the first olives of the season, wonderfully crisp and fresh tasting. They keep for only a month or so, but are the more valued because of their seasonality and short life span.
I know of families who live in Calabria, at the tip of Italy's boot, who traditionally pack burlap bags full of ripe black olives and soak them in seawater to cure them before packing them in brine. In other areas, olives that have been left to "sweeten" on the tree, that is, to shrivel until some of the bitterness leaves with the moisture, are considered highly desirable. Once picked, they are packed in jars just on their own, without brine, salt, or oil. They keep for years and may be brought out only for special guests. They are still quite bitter for most tastes, however, mine included.
An increasing number of imported olives are becoming readily available to us in the United States, giving the American consumer the opportunity to keep them in a Mediterranean-style pantry for quick flavoring. Experimenting with different kinds of olives will lead you to your own favorite choices.
In the recipes in this book I have typically indicated either brined green or black olives or salt-cured black olives (which are typically packed in oil) as general categories. Fermented olives such as the readily available Greek Kalamata, Spanish or Seville style, or Moroccan style may be used for brined olives. In almost every instance, you can change the selections, taking into consideration that the finished dish will reflect the character of the olive you choose.
As a rule, brine-cured olives should be rinsed before being used in cooking, as the clinging brine can add too much salt to a dish. There is no need to rinse salt-cured olives.
HOW TO CURE OLIVES
You can easily cure your own olives at home using the lye, water, or salt method. Fermenting olives in brine is more complicated and, due to bacterial formation, is best left to professionals. In all instances, begin with freshly picked, unblemished olives. Whether you pick the olives green or wait until they are black depends upon the method you are using.
I was quite apprehensive about attempting this method until a friend walked me through the steps, and I have found that lye works well and quickly. Use 100 percent pure lye, and keep it far away from children. Select green olives, or those just beginning to show traces of burgundy, and place them in a nonreactive crock or vat, filling it no more than one-half to three-quarters full. In another nonreactive container, make a mixture of 4 ounces of lye for each 1 gallon of water. Stir to dissolve the lye. Pour the lye mixture over the olives, covering them completely. Place a clean towel on top of the olives, and weight them down with a plate topped with a brick. It is important to keep the olives submerged, because if exposed to the air, they will discolor and become mushy.
Every 12 hours, remove the weight, plate, and towel and, with a long-handled wooden or plastic spoon, reach down to the bottom and stir the olives, turning them from top to bottom. This is an important step, as it keeps the lye evenly distributed. Repeat for 4 or 5 days, or until the lye solution has penetrated nearly to the pit. Check the penetration daily by slicing an olive and observing the color change as the lye solution moves through the flesh. If the lye is allowed to penetrate only three-quarters of the way to the pit, the olives will retain a trace of their bitter fruit flavor, a desirable trait in much of the Mediterranean. Once the olives are done, drain and rinse them, then put them in fresh cold water for 6 to 12 hours to remove the lye. Repeat for a total of 5 changes of water.
Drain the olives a final time, place them in clean, dry jars, cover them with cooled brine (page 19), and tighten the lids. Store them in the refrigerator, where they will keep for up to 1 year. They are ready to eat after 1 week.
This method leaves more residual bitterness than the others, but for many Mediterraneans it is the bitter tang, the taste of the fruit itself, that is desirable. The bitterness is softened somewhat once the olives are brined. Choose olives that are green without the slightest hint of blush. Crack the meat with a mallet or the back of a wooden spoon, but don't break the pit. Put the olives in a nonreactive crock or vat and cover them with cold water. Change the water every day for at least 10 days or for up to 25 days, according to your taste. The longer the olives are in the water, the more bitterness they will lose, but they will always retain some. When you deem them to your taste, drain the water and put the olives in a clean, dry jar. Cover them with cooled brine (page 19) and tighten the lid. Store them in the refrigerator, where they will keep for up to 3 months. They are ready to eat after 1 week.
The principle here, a method also referred to as oil curing, is to cover the olives, top and bottom, with a layer of salt. The salt draws out the moisture from the olives and with it the bitterness. People who salt-cure olives regularly have special curing boxes with holes drilled at the end for the runoff, but a variety of devices will work.
Choose very ripe, black olives; even slightly wrinkled ones are acceptable. If you wish to speed up the curing process, pierce them all over with pins that have been pushed through a slice of cork. Line a slatted wooden box with burlap, and cover the burlap with a 2-inch layer of rock salt. Add the olives and cover with more salt. Alternatively, make the layer of salt in the bottom of a burlap bag, add the olives, and cover them thoroughly with more salt. Place the box or bag above a bucket or sink to catch the liquid that will drain. Add more salt as it dissolves and drains away. The olives should be kept covered in salt until there is no longer any drainage. The bitterness will be leached in approximately 20 days, and the olives will not taste of salt, although they may be slightly wrinkled due to the moisture loss.
Once the olives are cured to your satisfaction, rinse and dry them. Put them in a clean, dry jar with a little fresh salt, dried thyme, and perhaps black peppercorns, dried red chiles, and bay leaves, and cover them with olive oil. Store them in the refrigerator, where they will keep for up to 1 year. They are ready to eat after 1 week. Since the oil congeals in the refrigerator, bring them to room temperature before serving.
Once the olives' bitterness has been removed with lye or water, a brine of water and salt, with or without additional flavoring, is used to store the olives. Unless you have a very cold cellar or similar location, however, the brined olives should be stored in the refrigerator. As a rule of thumb, figure on 1/2 cup coarse sea salt or kosher salt for each 4 cups (1 quart) water. If the olives seem too salty for your taste after they have been in the brine, they may be soaked in fresh water for several hours or overnight to remove some of the salt. Keep tasting them until they are satisfactory.
BRINE makes 2 quarts
2 quarts water
1 cup coarse sea salt or kosher salt
3 fresh bay leaves, or 2 dried bay leaves
2 flowering fennel heads, or 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
3 or 4 fresh winter savory sprigs
3 or 4 fresh thyme sprigs
1 piece dried orange peel
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
In a saucepan, combine all the ingredients and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the salt. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool completely before using.