A Mediterranean secret: Just add olives

A Mediterranean secret: Just add olives

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Olives are one of the secret ingredients of Mediterranean cooking. The complexity of flavors comes not only from the character of the individual olive variety, but also from the manner in which the olive was cured and seasoned.

By adding a few olives to a salad, soup, stew, sauce or bread dough, a palette of flavors is achieved that would normally require several different ingredients and techniques.

Depending upon the type of olive, the taste of a particular dish can vary in multiple nuances. A tart Kalamata, for example, stirred into a chicken and tomato stew will slightly perk the acidity, but salt-cured black olives, packed in olive oil, will contribute a mild, buttery character to the same stew. An orange and anchovy salad with brined, fennel-spiced green olives as a component will be a distant cousin of the same salad using black olives seasoned with peppers and garlic.

The addition of this single ingredient, the olive, can direct the personality of the finished dish, a feature that makes olives of all kinds a handy pantry item to keep in stock.

Mixed Citrus Salad with Capers and Green OlivesThe capers and olives deliver a pleasant bite to this combination of grapefruit, oranges, and greens.

1 grapefruit 1 orange 2 cups escarole leaves, tender yellow inner leaves only, torn into bite-size pieces 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained ½ cup pitted brined green olives, halved 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil ½ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

On a cutting board, cut a thick slice off the top and bottom of the grapefruit to reveal the flesh. Stand the grapefruit upright and cut off the peel in wide strips, following the contour of the fruit and removing all the white membrane. Holding the grapefruit in one hand, cut along both sides of each segment to release it. Remove any seeds, then cut the segments into bite-size pieces. Repeat with the orange.

In a salad bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil and parsley. Add the escarole and turn well to coat the leaves. Add the grapefruit and oranges pieces as well as the capers and olives and turn again to mix well.

Serve at once. Serves 4

Provençal Chicken with Olives, Tomatoes and Red Peppers

This is a fine example of using the complex flavor of olives to enhance a simple dish. Oil-cured black olives will contribute mellowness and brined black or green olives will impart a sharper flavor. All are good, but the oil-cured are my favorites, partly because of the way they start out wrinkled, then plump up as they absorb the sauce, altering themselves just as they alter the sauce.

1 fryer chicken, about 3 pounds

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon sea salt

3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup minced yellow onion

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 to 6 large, very ripe tomatoes, chopped or 3 cups chopped canned plum tomatoes and their juice

2 sweet red peppers, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes

2 fresh bay leaves or 1 dried

16 oil-cured black olives

In a skillet large enough to hold all the chicken pieces in a single layer, heat the olive oil and butter over medium-high heat. When the butter has melted, add the chicken pieces. Reduce the heat to medium, and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes until lightly browned.

Turn the pieces over and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes to brown on the other side. Add the onion and garlic and continue to cook for another 1 to 2 minutes, stirring. Sprinkle with the pepper, salt, half the thyme, and half the rosemary. Turn the chicken several times. Pour the tomatoes over the chicken and add the peppers and the bay leaves. Cover tightly. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the chicken is very tender and the meat nearly falls from the bones, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove the cover, increase the heat to medium, add the olives, and cook for another 5 minutes or so to reduce and thicken the sauce. Taste and adjust for salt as desired. Stir in the remaining thyme and rosemary and serve hot. Serves 6

Chicken with Lemon, Green Olives and Fennel

Green olives are the key to creating the unctuous sauce that develops over the slow cooking time. The fennel melts and sweetens, balancing the lemons and the slightly tart green olives. For a different flavor twist, use Spanish green olives stuffed with anchovies. These are mild and complex and the anchovies are another secret ingredient.

1 large fennel bulb or 2 medium

3 lemons, Meyer if possible

1 teaspoon sea salt

6 chicken thighs, with or without skin

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup dry white wine

½ cup water

2 tablespoons lemon zest

¼ cup green olives, pitted or anchovy-stuffed

Trim the stalks from the fennel, reserving the lacy tips of the fronds for garnish. Slice the fennel bulb lengthwise into ¼ inch thick slices. They will look like hands. Slice these lengthwise into 1/2-inch thick slices. Set aside.

Cut the lemons in half, then cut each half into 3 pieces. Discard the seeds. You should have about 1 cup of lemon cubes. Put the lemons in a bowl and sprinkle them with the salt. Add the chicken, oregano, pepper and garlic and turn together. Let stand about 30 minutes.

In a heavy bottomed sauce pan or Dutch oven, heat half of the olive oil over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add the chicken thighs, and lightly brown them, turning several times, about 10 minutes.

Remove the chicken and add the remaining olive oil and the fennel. Reduce the heat to medium and sauté the fennel, stirring, until it is nearly translucent, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the lemons, turning a few times, then add the white wine and water. Scrape up any bits clinging to the pan, then return the chicken to the pan. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the chicken is tender and the fennel can be cut with a spoon, about 45 minutes. During the last 5 minutes of cooking, add the olives.

While the chicken is cooking, mince enough of the fennel fronds to make 2 tablespoons.

Combine this with the lemon zest and set aside.

To serve, remove to a serving bowl or platter and garnish with the fennel fronds and lemon zest.

Serves 4

Braised Greens and Black Olives

The olives, added toward the end of the cooking, add not only flavor but color and texture to elevate this simple dish. Escarole, spinach, kale, chard all are good choices.

I serve these greens to accompany any meat or potato dishes or spoon it over polenta.

6 cups mixed young greens such as spinach, escarole, chard, or kale

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

¼ teaspoon red chili flakes

8-10 pitted oil-cured black olives

Rinse the greens well and remove any coarse or damaged stems. Place the leaves in a bowl of cold water.

In a large, deep skillet, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and red chili flakes and sauté for a minute, just until the garlic begins to turn golden. Remove the dripping greens from the water – do not dry – and pack them into the skillet. They will seem almost not to fit. Place a cover on the skillet and cook, sliding the pan back and forth over the heat. After 1 to 2 minutes, remove the cover and toss the greens. Add the olives. Return the cover and continue to cook, stirring the greens and olives, until the green are thoroughly limp and tender, another 3 to 4 minutes. Taste for salt and adjust if needed.

Serve hot. Serves 3-4 as a side dish.

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