Wednesday, November 17, 2010

ingredient: OLIVES

The olive tree has always been a sacred plant. In the Old Testament, Noah knew the great flood was over when a pigeon brought back a shiny silver olive leaf. I’m sure he would have preferred a bagel, but olive leaves are extremely pretty and admittedly a more appropriate symbol of peace. The Egyptians praised the olive tree as the tree of Isis, and thanked her for teaching them how to cultivate its fruit—a story which I almost believe because uncured olives are so bitter and awful that it’s a wonder anyone ever figured out how to eat them. The Prophet Mohammed also called the olive a blessed tree, and told his followers to massage themselves with its oil (a trick which works till this day- the early Muslims must have had great skin).

But personal predispositions not withstanding, it was obviously the Greeks who best incorporated the wonders of the olive into their mythology: Zeus promised to give the city of Athens to the God who proposed the most useful invention. Athena won with the olive tree. It must have been a landslide. The olive tree produces a hard, beautiful wood, a tasty, useful fruit, and a delicious, nutritious, and flammable oil. Olives are wonder trees which can live for hundreds of years. And they produce wonder fruits that are one of the cornerstones of Mediterranean cooking.

The trick is how to get olives from the tree to your plate. Olive skins have a high concentration of the glycoside oleuropein, which makes them very, very bitter. To make the fruit edible, olives must be cured, usually in water, salt, or brine for two weeks to three months. The brining process can change the appearance of the fruit. In true southern European fashion, they start their lives smooth, taught, and attractive, and then, as if overnight, become old and shriveled. When they cure, some olives even change colors, going from green or blonde to purple or black.

There are a wide variety of olives grown around the Mediterranean and, thanks to Spanish explorers, in California. Kalamata, Nicoise, Picholine, and Moroccan are popular selections. Each type of olive has its own unique flavor and texture. Perhaps because olives are in my Greek-Italian genes, I absolutely adore them all. But not only do I love the salty, briny taste of olives eaten every which way under the hot Aegean sun, I love what they are doing for my body. Olives have this magical combination of monounsaturated fats and vitamin E. The fats alone help protect your cells from inflammation and general damage. But it just so happens (or does it? Isis?) that vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant, meaning that olives are exponentially more healthy because they come in a tasty, fatty package.

In today's culture, olives are a sexy little fruit that go well with a martini and, if you're lucky, a view of the Mediterranean. Religious myths may come and go, but olives will never go out of style.

Panelle with Olive Tapenade

Panelle, or chickpea flour fritters, are a typical Sicilian snack. In Palermo, they are hawked on the street, and you’ll find it’s hard to say no to the freshly fried triangles glistening with hot oil and flaked with salt. Panelle are also served in Italian homes as a warm antipasto because they’re easy to make and immensely rewarding.

I like to serve the fritters with an olive tapenade to make them a little fancier for a party or, alongside a green salad, a little more substantial for dinner. This tapenade recipe makes more than enough for the fritters, a fact which I know but never change, because the next few days will find me tearing off a hunk of bread, sticking my arm into the fridge, scooping up a mound of tapenade, and stuffing it into my mouth. If you’re feeling classy, or you’re throwing a party with limited time or money, put some of this tapenade on toasted bread and serve it as an elegent crostini.

A final note: when I’m making these panelle at home, I don’t deep fry them. I’m not really a believer in the fried-is-better philosophy (and once spit out a deep-fried oreo onto the street at a fair crying “Too much! Too much!”). Instead I pan fry the fritters in a thin layer of oil, and with the chickpea flour (gluten free and a good source of protein) and the olives (health benefits as mentioned above), I can almost believe that these are good for me. A nice feeling, though honestly they’re so good that I wouldn’t really care either way.

Serves 6-8 as an appetizer

For panelle (adapted from Cooking with Italian Grandmothers):

3 ¼ cups water
½ pound chickpea flour
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
2 tbsp minced parsley
1 tbsp minced oregano
olive oil for pan-frying

In a medium sized saucepan, add the water and the chickpea flour.

Whisk the chickpea flour into the water until it is incorporated without lumps

Add the salt and the pepper. Put the saucepan over medium heat. Stir the mixture constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture has thickened—it should start to give resistance to your spoon and become the same consistency as polenta—about 8 minutes. Stir in the herbs.

Take the mixture off the heat. Spread the dough over a large, flat baking sheet. Try to shape it in a rectangle which is about 1/8 to ¼ inch thick. Let the dough cool (feel free to pop it in the fridge if you have room).

*While the dough is cooling, make the tapenade*

When the dough has cooled, cut the dough into long, thin triangles. Heat a good layer of olive oil in a large sauté pan. Fry the triangles in batches, turning them over so that each side is browned. The panelle are done when each side is golden brown and they’ve puffed up.

Top with tapenade and serve HOT.

For tapenade:

1 ¼ cups olives (I used kalamata, as they are my olive of choice. Not all olive types would work here (ex: Moroccan olives are too bitter) but most will, so if you have a mix, or just some green olives, that’s fine too.)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp capers
3 anchovies (you know, from a can)
olive oil, about ¼ cup
zest of one lemon (try to get a normal sized lemon. No GMO giants)
juice of one lemon
½ tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp parsley (optional but nice)

Put the olives, garlic, capers, and anchovies in the food processor. Pulse five or so times, until the olives have become bits.
Add the olive oil and pulse in the processor until the tapenade is chunky but spreadable. NB: Especially because many olives are already packed in oil, you may want to add a little less olive oil to start and see how it comes together.

Put the tapenade in a small bowl. Mix in the lemon juice, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, and parsley.

1 comment:

  1. How did I miss the entry on olives before??? Like I need another excuse to eat olive, though!...