Culinary Stars: Olives and Olive Oil
Whether you drizzle it over salad greens or sizzle it for a sauté, olive oil is a magical ingredient. And just as delicious straight from the barrel or sliced into a flavorful dish, olives are the star ingredients in today’s cooking. Olive oil and olives have earned a central place in our cuisine and celebrate the very essence of California cooking.
Visit my kitchen and you’ll find two cans and seventeen bottles of various olive oils in the pantry and three or four more bottles on the countertop. Seven varieties of cured olives in jars and cans line the shelves of my refrigerator. Like the ever-present salt and pepper, olive oil and olives are staples in my kitchen.
For centuries, the native Mediterranean olive tree has been considered sacred. Its branch has long been a symbol of peace and its fruit, producing its liquid gold, has been used throughout the ages in religious and royal ceremonies symbolizing strength and longevity. Even for such a noble fruit, its culinary uses are countless.
All over the world, the olive has played an important and influential culinary role. Only in recent years has the American culinary culture embraced the fruit and its oil as superb ingredients. Sonoma Valley’s Mediterranean-like climate is perfectly suitable for cultivating the olive and with a tremendous surge in the interest of growing the hearty olive tree and producing oil from its fruit, there is an abundance of product available to the food lover.
Olives and olive oil, much like wine, get their unique characteristics and nuances from the environment in which the trees grow. The flavor, fragrance, and color can vary greatly depending on the microclimate location, the character of the soil, the health and condition of the crop, and the care in which the fruit was handled and pressed.
Several varieties of olives exist, each producing a different kind of fruit that varies in its size and flavor. Most olive oil producers blend the varieties to capture the distinct characteristics of the olives thereby creating a distinctive flavor. Ranging from sharp, pungent, and peppery to mellow, sweet, and buttery, the oily fruit produces distinctive and complex flavors suitable for any cuisine and pleasing to anyone’s palate.
Like grapes, there are olives for making oil and olives for eating. Fresh from the tree, the fruit is extremely bitter and, in their natural form, are inedible. Newly harvested olives must be cured before eaten. Numerous processes abound for curing olives, somewhat labor intensive and time consuming. Fortunately, many gourmet food stores and specialty markets stock dozens of varieties of olives ready to spice up a pasta dish, provide a mouth-popping appetizer, or garnish the perfect martini. The last-minute host can create an “olive sampler” for an easy-to-do appetizer. Choose from a variety of nibblers including the rich Kalamata from Greece, the green Spanish Mantequilla, France’s tiny Nicoise, the slightly bitter Italian Gaeta, and the California green olive—the perfect addition to the martini.
A few guidelines should be observed before purchasing and cooking with olive oil. The explosion of the olive oil market has necessitated the establishment of standards for grading the oils. All olive oils are graded in accordance with the degree of acidity they contain. Extra-virgin olive oil, the finest grade, is a result of the first cold-pressing of the olives and measures less than one per cent acidity. Virgin olive oil is also a first cold-press oil with acidity levels between one and three per cent. “Pure” olive oil is the result of subsequent pressings often using heat and chemicals to extract the oil and may contain a blending of oils to revive the flavor and aroma. “Lite” olive oil refers to light-tasting and light in color oils that contain little amounts of virgin olive oil. Marketers would have us believe we’re using an oil lighter in calories or fat when, in fact, lite oils have 125 calories per tablespoon—just like all oils and fats.
The characteristics of color can vary from bright green to pale yellow and much depends on when the fruit was harvested, either underripe or very much so. In general, the deeper the color, the more intense the olive flavor. And unlike most wines, olive oil does not improve with age. When freshest, it may taste sharp or bitter but mellows pleasurably with time. The oils should be consumed within a year or so and stored at room temperature in a cool, dark place. Oils should not be refrigerated as this can cause condensation and rancidity. For the more health-conscious consumer, the oil is prized for its nutritional value and, unlike animal fat, is monounsaturated which helps alleviate “bad” cholesterol without reducing the “good.” Some experts believe it wards off certain cancers and may slow down the aging process.
The stars of California cooking will not be leaving center stage any time soon. The versatility, fantastic flavor, and golden richness of olives and olive oil have earned them the status of star.
Tapenade is the Provence region’s answer to butter. Uniquely flavored, this unconventional version using green olives instead black makes for a more interesting appetizer. I prefer the French Picholine green olive in this dish.
Green Olive and Walnut Tapenade on Crostini
Makes about 1 ½ cups
2 ounces walnuts, toasted
6 ounces green olives, pitted
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 anchovy filet, chopped
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large baguette, sliced on the diagonal in ¼-inch slices
1. In a food processor, combine the walnuts, olives, garlic, and anchovy and process until combined. With the motor running, slowly add the ¼ cup oil and process until the mixture is smooth. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
2. In a small saucepan, combine the butter and 3 tablespoons oil and heat until the butter is melted. Brush both sides of the sliced bread with the butter and oil mixture. Preheat the broiler; arrange the bread slices on a baking sheet and toast until golden brown, approximately 1 minute on each side. Serve crostini with the tapenade.
Traditionally braised on the stovetop, this version is simple to prepare and so delicious—perfect for buffet-style entertaining. Make sure to serve potatoes or a simple rice along side to capture the bold, flavorful juices. Soft polenta would make a nice side, too.
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
6 cloves garlic, minced
1tablespoon dried thyme
1 ½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup kalamata olives, pitted
12 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
3 tablespoons capers, drained and rinsed
6 boneless chicken breasts, skinned
½ cup dry white wine
1cup bread crumbs
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, garlic, thyme, salt, and pepper. Whisk in the oil and stir in the olives, tomatoes, and capers. Place the chicken in a single layer in a shallow baking dish and pour the mixture over the chicken. Turn the chicken to coat well. Let stand for 1 hour. Pour the wine over the chicken and bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 30 minutes.
2. In small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs and cheese. Remove the chicken from the oven and evenly sprinkle the mixture on top. Return the dish to the oven and continue to bake until browned and the chicken is cooked through, approximately 15 minutes more.