Olives add bold flavor to meatless dishes

Wednesday, August 7, 2002

CONCORD, N.H. -- A proper appreciation of olives begins early and fixates more on the fingers than mouth.

It usually starts with the pedestrian but quite serviceable canned black olives that toddlers -- and perhaps even this adult when no one is looking -- delight in shoving on their fingers and delicately nibbling off.

From those fingertip munchies grew a love affair with olives, their oils and anything that can be made with either, from tangy Kalamata tapenade spread to Spanish olives stuffed with almonds to crisp crostini bathed in the golden, peppery oil.

Olives are an easy way to add bold flavors (and a bit of good fat) to vegetarian dishes. The oil adds a savory touch to soups and spreads, while the fruits add a meatiness to pasta and rice dishes.

Thanks to food writer Ford Rogers, there is a cookbook dedicated to the numerous varieties of olives and their oils -- "Olives: Cooking with Olives and Their Oils" (Ten Speed Press, 2002, $17.95).

Rogers' lusciously illustrated book is like a well-balanced meal. It offers just the right amount of history and tips for selecting, cooking, storing and pitting, before moving on to the main course -- 50 recipes for everything olive.

Among his suggestions:

Because all olives are cured with some amount of salt, be sure to taste before adding additional salt to a dish. Particularly salty olives can be toned down by simmering in water for 10 minutes, or rinsing before using.

Olives should always be kept moist, either in the brine they were packed in, plain water or drizzled with olive oil. They can be kept at a cool room temperature for two weeks in olive oil, but should be refrigerated for longer storage.

Olives that come in brine should be rinsed before eating or cooking.

There is no one method of pitting. For olives about the size of cherries, such as Kalamata, a metal cherry pitter works best. For other sizes, try cutting them around the center and pulling apart the sides, or smashing them like garlic.

Avoid buying olive oil in plastic containers, because the oil can absorb some of the compounds in the plastic and develop an off taste.

Olive oil can be stored up to two years in a cool cupboard away from light and heat.

Because olive oil has a low smoke point and its flavors break down at temperatures above 140 F, expensive oils are wasted in frying and baking. Keep those for drizzling over salads and bread, and buy cheaper oil for cooking.

For olive dishes with a difference, try these recipes for tomato soup with red wine and Kalamata olives, and lentils with Alphonso olive rouille. If you can't find Alphonso olives, Rogers suggests using any ripe green olive.

Lentils with Alphonso Olive Rouille

(Preparation 45 minutes)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup finely chopped shallots

1/2 cup finely chopped celery

1/2 cup finely chopped carrots

2 cups dried lentils, rinsed and drained

4 cup vegetable broth

A bouquet garni of 1 bay leaf and 3 sprigs each of fresh oregano and parsley, tied together

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2/3 cup soft fresh bread crumbs

2 cloves garlic, whacked and peeled

1/2 cup Alphonso olives (or other green olives)

2 hot red peppers, seeded and chopped, or 2 teaspoons hot pepper sauce

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over a medium-high flame. Saute the shallots, celery and carrots until the shallots are soft and translucent, about 2-3 minutes.

Add the lentils, broth and bouquet garni and bring to a boil. Cover, lower heat and simmer 15-25 minutes, or until the lentils are tender but still hold their shape. Time will depend on variety of lentils.

Meanwhile, combine the vinegar, bread crumbs, garlic, olives and peppers in a food processor or blender. Pulse until mixture is finely chopped. Scrape down the sides as needed.

With the machine running, pour in the extra-virgin olive oil until the mixture is smooth.

Discard the bouquet garni from the lentils and season with salt and pepper to taste. To serve, place a dollop of rouille on each bowl of lentils.

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