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DIY Olives: Who Ate the First Olive?

How to Cure Olives:

Galveston olives from my backyard tree

Galveston olives from my backyard tree

Our new house in Galveston has a small, and very old, olive tree near the back porch. I haven’t figured out the cultivar–my iPhone plant app says they are “African olives.”

When I noticed that these olives were starting to get ripe, I decided to pick them–and come up with a plan for how to use them. I went with a simple brine fermentation. IMG_7342So, now in the months that it takes to cure these olives, I will share my trials and errors and few thoughts about the ancient foodstuff.

Back in the 1980s, I rented a house in Lafayette, California on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel from Oakland and Berkeley. The house had three olive trees and they produced lots of olives. Curiosity drove me to try a black olive right off the tree. The glucosides in uncured olives make them taste like soap–strong nasty soap. I didn’t just spit it out–I had to go brush my teeth.

The internet was not a research option at the time, and the information I could find at the library informed me that industrial olive producers in California pick green olives, turn them black with chemicals, cure them with lye, pit them and can them in a mild brine. This didn’t encourage me to try curing the olives in my backyard. The black olives we Americans eat from cans are a sorry version of the ancient foodstuff.

Olive trees were cultivated in Crete over 5000 years ago. You have to wonder who started eating these bitter little fruits? Perhaps an olive tree growing near salt water somewhere dropped a few fruits in a tidal brine pool? According to Greek mythology, Athena gave the olive tree to the people of Athens. I learned more about European and Middle Eastern olives in the blossoming Berkeley food scene of the 1980s. I learned that there are dozens of different olive varieties and lots of ways to cure olives.

Today, olives are such a big part of the American food scene that you can find kalamata olives and Greek olives in supermarkets all over the country. Even my local Galveston Kroger has an large olive bar display. I have studied the different curing techniques with great interest. Here’s the results of my taste test with examples from the Central Market Olive Bar.

Dry-Cured Olives: Dry salt cures are among the oldest ways to make olives palatable.

Black Beldi: Morocco (Marrakech, Fez): Leathery, wrinkled skin, dense velvety texture, deep meaty flavor. The black Beldi is rolled in salt and sun-dried.IMG_7422

Green Halkidikis (Greece) An ancient olive sometimes cured in dry salt then marinated in oil. This is a classic Greek olive with bold flavor.IMG_7426

Lye-cured olives: Curing olives briefly in lye before brining speeds up the process and makes tender olives.

Picholines: France (Provence): One of the world’s definitive green olives, crisp, tender, salty. Often picked green and cured in lye before brining. Also picked black for olive oil production. IMG_7424

Green Cerignola Italy (Puglia) Huge, glossy skin, chewy and mild. La Bella di Cerignola olives are cured in lye for 10 hours, then brined in a 9% saline solution and sometimes treated with food colors IMG_7421

Brined olives: The little olives from my Galveston tree resemble the tiny Arbequina olives of Spain. And since I love the flavor of these Spanish mini-olives, I followed the same brining technique used to cure them.

Arbequina: Spain (Catalonia): Tiny and firm with a delicate herbal flavor, Spanish argequinas are cured in a 9% saline brine for 1 to 2 months. IMG_7420

Avenue O Olives: United States (Galveston, Texas): Tiny to medium-sized, green black and somewhere in between, these olives all came from the same tree. Cured in 3.5% brine for 11 days and 9% brine for 7 days (so far).
IMG_7430

Marinades and Mixes: Mixing olives with other ingredients in a marinade is a favorite way of serving olives in Europe and the Middle East.

Basque Olive Mix France/Spain (Basque region) Three different olives harvested on both sides of the border in a marinade with sweet peppers, Espelette peppers and herbs make a brightly flavored blend.
IMG_7427

DIY Olives: Pimientos or Anchovies?

How to Cure Olives:

Galveston olives from my backyard tree

Galveston olives from my backyard tree

Our new house in Galveston has a small, and very old, olive tree near the back porch. I haven’t figured out the cultivar–my iPhone plant app says they are “African olives.”

When I noticed that these olives were starting to get ripe, I decided to pick them–and come up with a plan for how to use them. I went with a simple brine fermentation. IMG_7342So, now in the months that it takes to cure these olives, I will share my trials and errors and few thoughts about the ancient foodstuff.

When Americans think of olives, they think of green ones with red peppers inside–the kind you get at the bar. We can thank Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the Rat Pack for making the pimiento-stuffed green olive famous as a garnish for the iconic martini cocktail. imgresThanks to our thirst for martinis, the United States has become the largest importer of Spanish aceitunas rellenas, or stuffed olives. The U.S. accounts for nearly a quarter of all Spanish table olive exports, some 685 million pounds.

Queen Olives stuffed with pimiento (Spain)

Queen Olives stuffed with pimiento (Spain)

Stuffed olives are also the most popular olives in Spain, though the locals prefer different stuffings. (And the traditional drink with olives is sherry, not gin.) Anchovy-filled green olives account for around 40% of all table olives consumed in Spain. But there are some 90 varieties of stuffed olives on the market in Spain, with new ones being invented all the time. At the Andalucía Sabor trade fair, 36 different kinds of stuffed olives were displayed.

Popular fillings include: lemon, lobster, roasted red peppers, spicy chorizo, almonds, blue cheese, jalapeño, smoked salmon, garlic, pearl onions, tuna, orange and Spanish ham, among others. While the U.S. likes pimiento-stuffed olives (usually mispronounced “pimento”), Mexican like jalapeño-stuffed olives and Eastern Europeans like them stuffed with blue cheese.

Olives stuffed with almonds (Spain) pair well with Spanish sherry.

Olives stuffed with almonds (Spain) pair well with Spanish sherry.

Spanish olive producers have sponsored competitions among American chefs to come up with new olive stuffing (and cooking) ideas. Chicago chef Michael Kornick offered Chorizo-stuffed olives, and Florida chef Giorgio Rapicavoli made Grilled olives stuffed with Manchego cheese.

I won’t be stuffing my olives–or cooking with them anytime soon. The recipe I am using called for an initial two weeks of brining, with a daily change of salt water. I used the standard pickle brine formula for a 4% saline solution. That was my first mistake. Most of the olive producers in the world use a 9% saline solution.

Tomorrow, I will make a batch of saltier brine.

25 Years of Hot Sauce!

Hard to believe I have been at the helm of the big hot sauce contest in Austin for a quarter century. I have never missed a year. It’s one of my favorite days of the year. logo-2015

Check out what Austin Chronicle Editor, Louis Black had to say about the event 5 years ago, when it turned 20:

Festival Welcome and 20-Year Retrospective

The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival has had a considerable affect on the culinary culture of Austin and the state of Texas. It has shaped careers, created business opportunities, promoted restaurants, inspired food art, and enhanced Austin’s reputation as a city with an active food scene, all the while generating thousands of pounds of food for the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas.

Twenty years ago, American regional cuisines were not a hot topic of nationwide conversation, Austin wasn’t even a blip on the national culinary radar, and hot sauce had yet to replace ketchup as America’s condiment of choice. But it was an emblematic component of any authentic Tex-Mex meal. Cities across Texas were (and still are) justifiably proud of their hometown restaurants’ representations of an authentic American regional cuisine. No two cities were prouder or more renowned for their Mexican restaurants than Austin and San Antonio. In 1991, Austin Chronicle Food Editor Robb Walsh challenged San Antonio to a hot sauce cook-off competition in a festival setting at the Travis County Farmers’ Market. Austin was ultimately declared the winner, and that event grew into the party thousands will enjoy this Sunday.

Robb Walsh’s fascination with chile peppers and Tex-Mex food grew exponentially. This led him to a stint as editor of Chile Pepper magazine, provided source material for several books on different aspects of Tex-Mex cuisine, and established him as a regional foods authority. Although now based in Houston, Walsh invites a group of celebrity chefs to help him judge the contest in Austin every August. Festival organizer Elizabeth Derczo helped create the original festival as an employee of the Chronicle’s marketing department. Her yearly success at putting on the festival would eventually become one of the building blocks of her own event production company, Austintatious Events. In addition to putting on a successful hot sauce festival every year, Derczo is also the official institutional memory of the event, and we have her to thank for the historical timeline featured in this supplement.

As noted in this week’s “Bringing the Heat,” several local people have parlayed their participation in the annual festival into careers as bottlers of their own brands of hot sauce. Austin now actively supports a thriving cottage industry of artisan condiment producers, and some of those companies use the festival as a proving ground for new additions to their product lines. Winning or placing in the hot sauce contest is a point of pride for area restaurants, as well. The homegrown Trudy’s chain, famous for homestyle Southern cooking and Tex-Mex specialties, had a mortal lock on the restaurant category for years until it retired to the Hall of Flame (see the list). Small independent restaurants such as Curra’s Grill, Iguana Grill, El Caribe, Sazón, and the sorely missed Evita’s Botanitas used contest appearances to broaden their customer base and wins to enhance their marketing plans. The yearly festival T-shirts have become collectors’ items, valued as much for their whimsical food art as for mementos of a great party. The exquisite Renaissance Glass-designed plaques awarded to the winners are prized for both their beauty and status. The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival was one of the first local food events to attract production crews from the Food Network and the Travel Channel to the Texas capital. Austin being featured in segments on both those networks helped focus a spotlight on our evolving culinary scene; these days, we’re unlikely to go a month without some Central Texas chef, restaurant, barbecue joint, artisan food producer, or food trailer showing up in the national media.

As you can tell, we’re extremely proud of this annual party, and we couldn’t be happier that you’re here to participate in our ongoing cultural phenomenon. We encourage you to enjoy the music, eat plenty of hot sauce, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate to survive in the sun!

Blue Bell Returns: But Have We Moved On?

Blue Bell is selling ice cream again, according to today’s news reports. I wrote all about the famous Blue Bell Ice Cream Factory in Brenham for the dessert chapter of my cookbook Texas Eats. Little did I suspect that Blue Bell would be pulled off the market after a listerosis outbreak. I wonder how many Texans regard the return of Blue Bell with the sort of mixed feelings you might have for a spouse that has just been released from jail.

“We’re glad you are back, but sorry, we have moved on.”

Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla tastes great on saltines.

Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla and saltines.

The Blue Bell void at my house has been filled this summer by Hey Mikey’s Ice Cream–a local Galveston ice cream maker with a parlor on Postoffice street downtown.

Hey Mikey’s ice cream is rich, creamy, freshly-made and otherwise amazing. Chocolate-chipotle is a shocker, and Sweet Barbecue Sauce gets a prize for originality.

My kids like Mikey’s cookie batter and Irish Car Bomb–but mostly I go for the usual pistachio, chocolate or vanilla.. 14343558

If you hang around supermarkets (and I do), you can’t help but notice that for the last several months, the once expansive Blue Bell section at the typical Texas grocery store ice cream case has been occupied by Blue Bell competitors–old and new.

Alongside the familiar Blue Bunny, HEB house brand and Dreyer’s, some premium ice creams that I had never seen before appeared.
phin

I wasn’t tempted by gelatos like Trentino’s or Fiorello’s, because if I am going to eat gelato, I would prefer it be freshly made and served in a restaurant or gelato stand. And I don’t find such convoluted flavors as honey-whiskey or apple Betty very appealing so I didn’t bother with some of the weird old-fashioned brands. lick

I sampled several flavors from Lick, an ice cream maker in Austin. The salty caramel flavor was my favorite, the Texas sheet cake chocolate flavor was uninspiring. There are several Brooklyn ice creams that I have not gotten around to trying yet. I already knew organic brands like Julie’s–I am not a big fan. I skipped frozen yogurts and health food brands like Artic Zero, a lactose-free frozen dessert.

The clear winner so far in the Blue Bell understudy contest is McConnell’s Ice Cream–an old Santa Barbara, California brand. The Turkish Coffee flavor tastes like strong cold-brewed coffee and the Summer Fruit Cobbler flavor was the best fruit ice cream I’ve had since Blue Bell Peaches and Cream. Their salty caramel flavor was good too–even if all of these salty caramel ice creams are starting to taste alike. mcconnell

My wife wouldn’t let me buy the newly introduced Adam’s Ice Cream, because she thinks it contains some artificial as well as natural vanilla. She insists artificial vanilla is made with beaver anal secretions, a contention I can’t entirely refute.

McConnell’s Vanilla Bean is a good substitute for Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla beside a warm slice of pie. The ice cream company claims to use an exclusive hybrid French pot process to make their ice cream. My wife likes McConnell’s all natural flavor policy.

It will be interesting to see how quickly consumers embrace the return of the creamery from Brenham, now that we have all broken the Blue Bell habit. I suspect we may be eating Hey Mikey’s and McConnell’s ice creams at my house for quite awhile.

But if Blue Bell tries very hard, they just might win us back. At least for a fling.

2015: 5th Anniversary of Foodways Texas

BBQ-O-Rama

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American Fish Wines

IMG_7204 Gravitas from Boony Doon is a California tribute to the white wines of the French Graves region. Made with lots of Semillion to smooth out the Sauvignon Blanc, I like this wine a lot better than many of the “flinty” Graves whites I have sampled. The crisp clean citrus flavors and aroma derived from the unusual addition of Orange Muscat make it a stunning choice with Gulf Seafood. At $16 a bottle it won’t break the bank.

Ever the iconoclast, Randall Graham at Bonny Doon is bucking the trend in American wine making to ignore the role of a wine as part of a meal. A great many Americans wine drinkers think of a wine as a cocktail substitute. As a result, most American vintners specialize in wines that taste good at Happy Hour, but lack the acidity and substance to shine at Dinner Time. This leaves food lovers in a bit of a quandry.

Let’s say you live on the coast and eat a lot of seafood. And you want a nice tart white or a crisp rosé to complement broiled red snapper, a plate of oysters or a crab stew. Oaky, buttery, low-acid Chardonnay is California’s most famous white, but it is exactly what you DON’T want with a plate of fish. So where do you turn? French Muscadet and other tart Loire Valley whites are the usual suspects. Flinty Sauvignon blancs from Graves are a good bet. But the prices are getting ridiculous.

Now consider the recent vintages of white and pink wine from Randall Graham at Bonny Doon, particularly the Cigare Volant whites.

In a blog post at Houstonia’s Gastronaut website (Faux Chateauneuf du Pape) I wrote about Bonny Doon’s Le Cigare Volante:

Le Cigare Volant is the same sort of bargain—it’s a California take on the Chateauneuf-du-Pape style from the famous Bonny Doon Vineyards. The label just celebrated its 25th anniversary. The name, which means “flying cigar” in French, is a joke about an ordinance passed in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine region that forbids flying saucers from landing there. Hence the hilarious artwork on the label. The wine first came out in the 1980s, when Randall Graham of Bonny Doon Vineyards founded a renegade group of California wine makers who called themselves “the Rhone Rangers.”

The Rhone Rangers to the Rescue!
IMG_7196 Boony Doon once led the ABC movement (anything but Chardonnay/Cabernet) and still excels in making wines that depart from the beaten path. Le Cigare Blanc is Bonny Doon’s take on the famous white wines of the Rhone and a stunning choice with seafood. The rich flavor might remind you of ripe pears. $28 a bottle, is a nice price on a big deal white.IMG_7187

Bonny Doon’s Vin Gris de Cigare is a rosé lovers dream come true. I shared a bottle of this tart, complex pink wine with rosé collector Bryan Davis, the manager of the Ocean Grille on the Seawall. I think it’s fair to say he was blown away by the faux Chateauneuf rosé. At around $18 a bottle this is a screaming bargain.

For more ideas on American wines that pair well with seafood, check out the winners of Taylor Shellfish Farms 2014 Oyster Wine Competition winners.

Taylor Shellfish Farms Congratulates the 2014 “Oyster Award” winners:

Listed alphabetically:
*Acrobat 2012 Pinot Gris (OR)
**Chateau Ste. Michele 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (WA)
**Foris 2012 Pinot Blanc (OR)
**Geyser Peak Winery 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)
**Kenwood 2012 Pinot Gris (CA)
**Kenwood 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)
Lost River 2013 Pinot Gris (WA)
Revolution Wines 2013 Chenin Blanc (CA)
Sebastiani 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)
**Van Duzer 2013 Pinot Gris (OR)

*Prior Oyster Award **Multiple Prior Oyster Awards

Lemongrass Z’herbes Bourride Gumbo

IMG_7186
or Green Fish Soup

Makes 8 cups or 4 large bowls

When I buy a fish at Katie’s Seafood, the spectacular seafood store on the Galveston waterfront, I tend to have it filleted—and I ask for the bones and head in a separate bag. There were three such bags of fish frames along with a frozen whiting in my freezer when I looked this morning.

I fileted the whiting and threw all the fish bones in a pot with some water (filtered) to start a seafood soup. I bought some vegetables and a pound of shrimp at Kroger. I threw the vegetable trimmings and shrimp shells in the pot too.

At first, I thought I was making a fishy version of the green soup called gumbo z’herbes, but I have a healthy lemongrass bush in the yard, so I added some to the pot thinking about a Jamaican fish soup with callallo—fevergrass is a favorite island flavor.

Then I remembered I had a bunch of leeks I needed to use before we left on vacation. In Normandy, they start some fish soups by cooking down chopped leeks in butter until they are tender and then add fish stock.

When it came time to serve it, I floated some toast squares spread with garlic mayo in each bowl—just like a Provencal bourride. I know, I know, lemongrass, leeks, greens, aioli and red snapper makes for a muddle of a soup–but such is life on the multicultural Gulf Coast.

1 pound of shrimp
4 or 5 fish frames and heads (red snapper, flounder, and speckled trout are all good choices)
½ pound panfish (such as whiting or croaker), in ¼ inch dice
¼ cup of butter
1 tablespoon olive oil.
2 onions, chopped
1 bunch leeks, cleaned and chopped
1 teaspoon white pepper
3 tablespoons flour
Salt and black pepper to taste
Cayenne red pepper powder to taste
2 stalks lemongrass, crushed and chopped
1 bunch parsley, cleaned and chopped
1 bunch (5 ounces) greens (chard, kale, collard, calallo, spinach or mixed) chopped
4 medium potatoes
2 slices toasted French bread, cut into 8 quarters (for serving)
½ cup garlic mayonnaise (for serving)

Clean the shrimp, put the meat in a dish and the shells and heads in a soup pot. Cover the shrimp and reserve in the refrigerator. Add the fish frames and heads to the pot. Put the onion tops, parsley stalks and other vegetable trimmings in the pot as you work. Cover the fish frames and trimmings with filtered water, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for a 30 minutes to an hour or until the stock is milky-colored and nicely flavored. Strain, reserving the liquid and discarding the solids.

Over medium heat in a large pan, melt the butter and add the oil. Sautee the onions and leeks until very soft, about 25 minutes. Sprinkle the mixture with flour, salt and pepper and white and red pepper. Turn the heat to medium high and cook stirring often to scrape up the browned flour from the bottom of the pan. Add the strained stock to the leeks and onions, stirring well. Stir until well blended. Add the parsley and lemongrass and simmer for five minutes. Add the chopped greens and potatoes and cook for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are soft and the greens are cooked.

Just before serving, add the shrimp and cook until they start to curl, three to five minutes, depending on the size. Ladle some soup into each serving bowl. Spread the toast quarters with garlic mayo and float one on top of each cup or two in each bowl.

June 2015 Recap

Recap: The Texas Mexican Table: 2015 Foodways Texas Symposium