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Olives from Spain

The shockingly delicious combo of giant Spanish Queen olives stuffed with goat cheese and tossed with olive oil, honey and chopped apples will make you reconsider your preconceptions about how to eat olives. And the brightly tart combination of black pitted olives in a minced orange marinade will likely show up on my Thanksgiving table. (Although I may tweak the recipe to use up all the ripe fruit from my kumquat tree.) I used to be an olive snob who only served olives with pits–to the chagrin of my younger children. But lately, my olive horizons have widened.

Who knew you could take grocery store canned olives and turn them into a sexy appetizer with ingredients you probably already have in your fridge? The goat cheese-stuffed olives and another app of black olives with citrus were two of three sample dishes at the Olives from Spain booth at a recent Spanish food and wine showcase called Spain’s Great Match at Silver Street Studios in Houston. In past years, the Spanish olive producers have asked American chefs to come up with exciting restaurant dishes with olives. This year, their goal was to show American home cooks how easy it is to create cool olive dishes at home.

It was Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the “Rat Pack” that made the martini garnished with a green olive stuffed with pimiento an American classic. Sales of the stuffed Spanish olives took off and the U.S. has been the largest export market for Spanish olives ever since.

Olives from Spain is the name of the Spanish olive producers association, look for their logo in the olive section of the grocery store. (That’s not much of a challenge since Spain produces the majority of olives consumed in the U.S. including 95% of the pimiento-stuffed olives.)
Spain has a rich tradition of olive production and olive cookery, olive trees have been growing there since the first century.Today the highly modernized Spanish olive industry leads the world in quality and food safety standards. Spain also boasts the widest range of flavors in a staggering variety of olive types including top sellers like Manzanilla, Hojiblanca, Gordal and Cacereña, specialty olives like Carrasqueña, Aloreña,Verdial, Cuquillo, Lechín and Empeltre, and my favorite, the itty-bitty Arbequina.

Like olive oil, olives are good for you, they contain monounsaturated fat (the good kind).

If you’re using the Mediterranean diet as a model, olives are great in pizzas, salads, pastas, rice, meat dishes, fish dishes, and stews, and as a table snack with an endless variety of stuffings including anchovy and blue cheese. Mexican and Californian cooking traditions reflect the Spanish introduction of olives to the New World centuries ago. Black olives have become a familiar part of Americanized Mexican food—especially Cal-Mex. Huachinango (Red Snapper) Veracruzano is one of my favorite Mexican seafood dishes—and it’s loaded with olives. Modern Mexicans prefer their cocktail olives to be stuffed with jalapeños!

Logo Olives From Spain

Full disclosure: The Olives from Spain folks hired me to spread the word about Spanish olives this month. It was my recent blog series about curing my own olives at home (my new house in Galveston has an olive tree) that caught the attention of the Spanish olive gang. Along with the descriptions of olives from around the world, I wrote one blog post about the amazing combination of Spanish green arbequina olives, Marcona almonds, and Fina sherry. I first sampled that combo at the bar of the now-shuttered Catalan restaurant—and I’ve thought about it ever since.

A variation on that ancient Spanish triumvarate turned up the third olive dish served at the Olives from Spain booth–it was a giant bowl of Spanish green olives and marcona almonds, mixed with chopped, slightly piquante, piquillo peppers, olive oil, sherry vinegar, honey, thyme and big chunks of cabrales, the distinctive Spanish blue cheese. It was a real show stopper.

259A6606 When my pal Pete Mitchell, the owner of Under the Volcano bar, came by the olive booth, I handed him a sample bowl of the Spanish olive and marcona almond mélange and walked him down to a Spanish winemaker’s booth where they were pouring samples of Fina Sherry. Pete was blown away by the uncanny combination of flavors. Don’t be surprised if Spanish olives, almonds and sherry shows up on the menu at Under the Volcano soon. What a great appetizer to kick off a Monday steak night!

Check out the recipes at the Olives from Spain website.

The Making of… Chili

When was the last time you had a steaming bowl?

DIY Olives: Home Curing Recipe

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.

IMG_7436 We had a dinner party last week and I served Spanish arbequnia olives, olive oil-fried marcona almonds and sherry as the first course. We had our olives and sherry on the porch. It turned out that our guests were familiar with the tradition from their time in Spain–and they were delighted.

The sherry was La Guita, a manzanilla, and I served it chilled. Manzanilla is nearly the same as Fino sherry but produced around Sanlúcar de Barrameda, closer to the sea than Jerez. Marcona almonds are a Spanish variety of almond that are gaining in popularity recently–they are often served roasted or fried. The olives were tiny arbequina olives–their flavor is the model I am shooting for in my own olive curing.

For the last three weeks, I have been soaking the olives I picked from my tree in a brine solution, changing the water every day. (Okay, almost every day–I forgot a few times.) I tasted the olives every couple of days to see what was happening. The olives started out very bitter–like laundry soap. After the soaking, they got softer and less objectionable. Then I put them in another brine with vinegar for a longer malolactic fermentation. Three months is the suggested curing time, but every few days, the olives get a little tastier. I may take them out early.

When do cured olives start tasting good? That’s an interesting question–and entirely a matter of personal taste.

Years ago, the California olive industry concluded that Americans like their olives without any bitterness whatsoever. And so we got the American industrial black olive–picked green, chemically turned black and treated with lye until all of the native olive bitter flavors were gone. As American food lovers began to discover the wonderful flavors of Middle Eastern and European olives, they started to prefer olives with a little of that native bitterness left in. If you taste a lot of olives side by side, you can determine just how much “olive flavor” you prefer.

Green French picholines are treated with lye, then brined so they are pretty mild. Tiny green Spanish arbequina olives from the Catalon region are brined, but not treated with lye. They have lots of herbal flavors and some of that natural bitterness. That’s the flavor I am going for. Here’s a recipe I adapted from several sources:

Robb’s Olive Curing Recipe:

For: 2 cups raw olives
Soak olives in a 7 to 9% brine, change the water everyday for two weeks.

Transfer olives to a jar with lid.

Dissolve 4 tablespooons of salt in
2 cups of water and add
4 tablespoons of sherry vinegar
Pour the solution over the olives to cover.
Place a slice of onion in the top of the jar to keep the olives submerged. Then pour 4 tablespoons of olive oil on top as an oxygen barrier.
Soak 3 to 6 months, testing often.
(Replace the onion slice if it starts to get funky.)
Prepare for serving by placing the finished olives in a marinade of olive oil, garlic and herbs, etc.
You can add lemon peel, peppers, or other flavorings if you like.

Got Tacos?

Tacolandia taqueros in LA

Tacolandia taqueros in LA

Join me, Paul Galvani, Mando Rayo and the the best taqueros in town on Saturday, October 24, 2015 from 4PM – 7PM at The Water Works at Buffalo Bayou Park as we celebrate the Inaugural Houston Press Tacolandia. (The event is already a tradition at our sister newspaper in Los Angeles.)

thumbnail-1Tacolandia is an outdoor Taco-sampling event and festival that will feature Houston’s best tacos, ranging from urban contemporary to authentic street style. Complete with live music, cash bars with beer and cocktails as well as awards for best tacos in various categories.

Doors open at 3:00 for VIP and 4:00 for General Admission.

General Admission Tickets: $25 – $40
VIP Admission Tickets: $65 – $80

General Admission ticket includes:
• Entry into the event
• Unlimited food samples from Tacolandia vendors
• Beer & Cocktails available to purchase

VIP Admission ticket includes:
• Entry into the event 1 hour earlier than general admission (entry at 3pm).
• Unlimited food samples from Tacolandia vendors
• Access to VIP lounge with its own VIP Private Bar with complimentary Beer and Cocktail Samples
• Access to VIP Restrooms

Houston Press Tacolandia 2015
Saturday, October 24, 2015 4PM – 7PM
105 Sabine St., Houston, TX 77007

All Guests must be 21+, with a Valid I.D.

TheWaterWorksThe Waterworks at Buffalo Bayou Park is an urban wonderland–no really!


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).

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.

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.

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.