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.
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.)
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.)
Tacolandia 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
General Admission ticket includes:
VIP Admission ticket includes:
Houston Press Tacolandia 2015
All Guests must be 21+, with a Valid I.D.
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.
Lye-cured olives: Curing olives briefly in lye before brining speeds up the process and makes tender olives.
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
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.
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.
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. Thanks 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.
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.
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.
Check out what Austin Chronicle Editor, Louis Black had to say about the event 5 years ago, when it turned 20:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.