Olive Me - Recap

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It’s the Fall Food Festival celebrating the largest fruits and vegetables. Alton’s neighbors Chuck and McGregor are discussing large produce when Alton strolls up. His entry is a small olive. Mocked by Chuck and McGregor, Alton contends that “big” doesn’t just refer to size. The olive is big on flavor, big on possibilities, and big in history. It appears in three major religions, is carved on Egyptian tombs and its oil was once used to pay taxes. Even United States currency features olives; they are the branches of peace that complement the arrows of war carried by the eagle.

Alton recommends against canned California ripe olives. These have not been preserved in brine, but by the cooking of the canning process. Exposed to air, they spoil quickly. And their shiny exterior comes from a dip in ferrous gluconate preservative. Grimacing, Alton discards the can and moves onto better quality fruit.

Some markets feature varieties of gourmet olives in jars. Others have the enthusiast’s shrine: an olive bar. Here Alton finds olives prepared in every conceivable way from every growing region. As he pops one in his mouth someone wanders by – Alton’s busted! But the bystander isn’t a store employee. She’s an olive enthusiast who wants Alton to try other olives. He enjoys several before popping the question: How does the “average Joe” ensure quality. Her first tip is to look for smooth and firm skin (except oil cured olives, which are supposed to be wrinkled). Also, visit stores that turn their olive stock over in two ways: they sell a lot of olives and they stir the olives from time to time. Stirring keeps the fruit moist and discourages mold.

Production methods significantly affect flavor and texture. Alton explains that the difference between green and black olives is time. Green olives are harvested when full sized but not ripe. Black olives ripen on the tree before they’re harvested.

Raw green olives are all but inedible; they are rich in a very bitter glucoside called oleuropein. Packers use a lye solution to leech out the oleuropein. Alton shows how to cure olives at home, but advises the home enthusiast to read up on lye first – it’s powerfully corrosive. The olives spend a few days in the lye solution. Then they must be rinsed with several changes of plain water to remove the lye. What happens next depends on the style of olive desired and how much time the cook has to prepare the fruit. A brine solution is prepared and the olives spend anywhere form weeks to months in it.

Ripe olives do not contain oleuropein and so do not need the lye bath or rinsing steps. Packers who dry cure pack the olives in salt for weeks or months. Those who favor wet curing put their fruits in water, oil, or brine.

Brined olives should be stored submerged in brine. Alton dissolves a tablespoon of salt in a pint of water and uses that to top off the brine as necessary. Dry cured olives are best stored in olive oil. How long they last depends on how they’re cured but Alton has kept them for as long as a year. He doesn’t eat them very fast because as everyone knows, they’re not very good for…

The Lady of the Refrigerator appears in cloud of vapor and chime of magic! This mythic figure arrives to correct Alton’s misconceptions about the nutritional value of olives. The oil contains healthy monounsaturated fats and Vitamin E (a powerful anti-oxidant). There’s also flavonids and polyphenols – chemicals that can control inflammation, fight heart disease, and ward off wrinkles. Olives are high in salt but the right cooking approach can reduce the sodium content.

Alton starts by rinsing his olives. Then they go in fresh water for a soak. As little as five minutes will remove some sodium, but longer is certainly better – as long as five hours. Once his olives are soaked he adds garlic, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, the juice and some lemon zest, red pepper flakes, tarragon and curry powder. A good shake coats the fruit. Then he marinates them at room temperature for a day and stores them in the chill chest.

Tapenade, or olive paste, delivers “olive-y goodness” like no other dish. Alton’s recipe mixes flavors and textures by using a variety of olives – and as a bonus, demonstrates how to pit even the firmest fleshed fruit. You don’t need a fancy olive pitter; a simple scraper will do the job. Alton pops an olive into his mouth and >crunch!<

Alton’s dentist Dr. Snell reminds him that olives, like cherries, apricots and peaches, are drupes. Their seeds are protected by extremely hard shells. The dentist tells Alton he should have used a pitter; Alton mumbles “unitasker” around the instruments. The dentist agrees but tells Alton a pitter might have avoided the need for the dentist’s unitasker: a rather large pair of extraction pliers. But the worst is yet to come: Alton is horrified to learn that the dentist’s assistant is none other than his sometime equipment specialist, the redoubtable “W!” And she’s adding drills and gum scissors to his dental distress! While the lidocaine kicks in she talks about olive pitters: you want a deep cup to hold olives of all sizes, a curved “piston” with a sharp, concave tip to push the pit through, and a stop to keep the instrument from crushing the fruit. Lecture complete, she summons the dentist before the lidocaine has quite finished working and we leave Alton to his dental misery…

Traditionalists use a mortar and pestle to prepare tapenade, but Alton suggests a food processor. He starts by rinsing his olives. They’re joined in the processor bin by extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, capers, basil leaves, and anchovy fillets. He processes these ingredients in bursts until they combine into a paste. Tapenade can become salad dressing. It works with vegetables, beef, mashed potatoes or fish. And if you’ve got just a third of a cup left over you can make olive bread!

Alton combines flour and baking powder in the food processor. Then he adds tapenade and mixes with short bursts until it’s just combined. The wet team is kosher salt, olive oil, whole milk, a pair of eggs and a little honey. Alton whisks that together until it’s thoroughly emulsified and then adds rinsed, pitted and chopped olives and the dry team. He mixes just enough to bring it all together. The mix can have some lumps or dry patches. Overmixing will produce a tough loaf so err on the side of too little rather than too much mixing. When the dough is ready Alton fills a parchment lined loaf pan and slides that into the oven. The bread is ready when a skewer comes out clean.

Back at the Food Festival Alton’s olive has won first prize. Flavor trumps size. And the little olive is packed with flavor and nutrition – definitely Good Eats.