Whether it’s kalamata from Greece, niçoise
from the south of France, verdial from
Spain or leccino from Italy, olives are a chef
favorite for elevating the flavor of dishes. W
Jonathan Beatty, corporate chef for Davanti Enoteca in Chicago,
is one chef familiar with olives. “I studied Greco-Roman history
in college, including the history of olives and their power over the
world,” he says.
“Olives are one of those things that can give a dish a wide variance
of flavors with their brininess and meaty texture. I use them to
accentuate meat and game. When I’m looking to add something to a
dish that has a salty aspect and a rich, oily texture, olives are great.”
Beatty mainly uses Italian olives, such as green sicilian, gaeta,
cerignola and leccino, but he also loves picholine from France
and Spanish olives.
Danny Elmaleh, executive chef at Mercato di Vetro in West
Hollywood, Calif., uses olives to salt and flavor dishes. “Olives
are a good way to add saltiness to a dish without adding salt.
I also use the juice from the olive brine when I’m braising
something. You can add a little olive juice for a distinct flavor.”
Kalamata olives are the most popular type of olive used by chefs
and restaurants, according to Gus Bouyoukas, owner of Prima
Foods in Baltimore, a supplier of olives, olive oils, cheeses and
other products from Greece. Greek restaurants use olives in
salads, Italian restaurants use them in penne pasta sauces and as
appetizers, and pizzerias use them on pizzas, he says.
“In recent years, restaurants have been requesting pitted
kalamata olives. There’s been a huge demand for these. They
come packed in oil and vinegar and are able to absorb more of
the flavor from the oil and vinegar because they are pitted.”
Bouyoukas says olives are typically harvested, beginning with
green olives, in October and November. “Black olives need to
ripen on the tree, so they are picked in December and January.”
PHOTO CREDIT: sbe
Regardless of color, all olives are bitter in raw form once
picked, and must soak in a salt solution to take the bitterness
out. There are several methods for curing olives—oil curing, dry
curing and lye curing, or a simple cure of water and seasonings.
LEFT: Moroccan olives and spiced almonds are a menu favorite at Mercato di Vetro.
Beatty says, “It’s much like pickling the olives.” He adds that
the curing process gives olives a myriad of different flavors,
from briny to tart and from sweet to oily. To further enhance
flavor, olives can be roasted, which changes their texture and
flavors, he says.
Laurent Halasz, owner of Fig & Olive, with a flagship
location in West Hollywood, Calif., and four New York
locations, divides olives into three categories: salty, fruity
and sweet. “A salty olive would be a small black olive, like
a niçoise from France. A fruity olive would be a verdial, a
green olive from Spain that is great for baking. And a sweet
olive would be an arbequina from Spain. It’s small, round
and has a delicate note. I call it the merlot of olives.”
Flavor can also be added by stuffing olives with garlic,
pimento or jalapeño, or by seasoning them.
“My favorite olives are ones I’ve seasoned myself,” says
Bouyoukas. “I make a spice mix of oregano, a little garlic
powder and some balsamic vinegar, and let them marinate
overnight. The olives become more mild, and it takes the salt
out. You can use kalamata or green olives. I love them all.”
Antipasti is a popular way to serve olives, such as the roasted
olive antipasti Beatty prepares. It is marinated in a housemade
marinade of orange and lemon zest, fennel seed, rosemary
and bay leaves, then roasted and served in a cast-iron skillet.
Beatty also makes a cold antipasti with leccino olives paired
with anchovies and pecorino cheese.
“Some people think of olive antipasti as an afterthought,
but I think it’s great. In Italy, there are large bowls of olives
everywhere,” Beatty says.
Cultivated for more than 5,000 years, olives are the world’s largest fruit crop,
with more than 25 million acres of olive trees planted worldwide. Spain is the
leading producer, yielding approximately 6 million tons per year, followed by
Italy, then Greece. Here’s a sampling of some olives popular with chefs.
OODLES OF OLIVES
Niçoise (south of France)
Colossal Green Sicilian
Leccino (heel of Italy)