Olives have come a long way from being an accompaniment to your martini or an adornment to the holiday relish tray.
They impart pungent flavor and color when you toss some into a pasta or rice dish, salad, or stew. Green and black olives are not different types of olives but indicate degrees of ripeness. As they ripen on the tree, olives turn from pale green to reddish brown, and then to black.
The darker the olive, the higher the oil content. High oil content means a richer flavor. Olives are packed with nutritional value — vitamins E and A, and calcium and potassium.
Some varieties are best picked green, like the Spanish Manzanilla and the French Picholine. Dark black olives like Greek Kalamata or French Niçoise develop their buttery taste when picked ripe. Black olives are usually sold whole, while many of the green olives are pitted and stuffed with pimento, almonds, anchovies or tiny onions.
Olives are so bitter they can’t be eaten right off the tree. The final flavor depends on how ripe the fruit is when picked and the processing methods used.
Brine-cured olives are soaked in salty water for about 6 months and can be recognized by their smooth, shiny skin. Dry-cured olives are rubbed with salt to leach out their bitterness before they are washed and rubbed with oil. These olives appear dry and shriveled. Lye-cured olives are soaked in lye, then fermented in brine for almost a year before being bottled in a weak brine. Many Spanish and domestic olives are produced in this way.
Most high-quality olives are sold with their pits because removing pits also removes flavor. A bowl of meaty green and black olives marinated in a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, strips of orange and lemon zest, smashed garlic cloves, chopped flat-leaf parsley and a bit of crushed red pepper flakes makes a wonderful, simple appetizer when served with bread for dunking. Just warn your guests the olives have pits.
I love to make a salad using cubes of watermelon, feta cheese and olives tossed together with a vinaigrette. And one of the simplest things you can do is add some garlic, basil and sun-dried tomatoes to cooked and drained pasta, and toss it with a handful of olives and olive oil, and you essentially have a meal that is easy to cook, healthy and elegant.
If you want to use olives in tapenades (olive paste), stews, or other dishes the pit needs to be removed. Use either a cherry pitter or place them on a work surface, cover with a kitchen towel (so they don’t fly all over the place) and smack them with the side of a chef’s knife. Unopened olives can be stored at room temperature for up to two years, but once they’re opened they should be refrigerated in their own liquid for several weeks.
Braised Chicken with Salami and Olives
Serve this dish with rice or potatoes, and you’ve got a complete meal the whole family will love. A Simonnet-Febvre Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons 2011 ($28) opens the senses to the mixture of herbs, olives and salami in this recipe.
1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chicken, cut into 10 pieces
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 (8-inch) rosemary branch
1 1/4 cups diced salami
1 cup green olives, pitted and cut in half
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 1/4 cups chicken broth
4 bay leaves
Juice of 1 lemon
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Season the chicken with the salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and sear the chicken in 2 batches until golden brown, about 7 minutes per side. Transfer the cooked chicken to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
Add the onion to the skillet and cook in the rendered chicken fat, stirring, until brown, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, fennel, rosemary, salami, olives, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Pour in the wine and simmer to reduce, scraping the bottom of the pan. Add the tomato paste and cook for 5 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring to incorporate, for another 2 minutes.
Pour in the chicken broth in batches and stir to incorporate. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook until slightly thickened, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the bay leaves and lemon juice. Pour the sauce over the chicken in the baking dish and roast in the oven, basting every 30 minutes, until the chicken is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Discard the bay leaves. Serve the chicken warm, with plenty of the sauce. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Per serving: 604 calories (64 percent from fat), 42.3 g fat (11.4 g saturated, 19.9 g monounsaturated), 160 cholesterol, 40.5 g protein, 10.9 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 1787 mg sodium.
Source: Adapted from “Down South: Bourbon, Pork, Gulf Shrimp & Second Helpings of Everything” by Donald Link with Paula Disbrowe (Clarkson-Potter, $35).