A few nights ago, Ted and I walked over to Foodie's Urban Market in Boston's South End to pick up a few provisions for a quiet night of dinner and a DVD.
We didn't have anything particular in mind; we were following our cravings. Grapes. Cheese. Chips. Chocolate. We wandered up and down the aisles. Just as we passed the artisan breads, my little eye spied a hand-lettered label...
"Venetian olive rolls."
Oh boy! The last time we'd had those was in Venice, when we'd rented an apartment near the Galleria dell'Accademia, around the corner from a bakery. Every morning Ted would buy rolls that were warm and purplish with chunks of Kalamata olives, and we'd get cheese at a market a few doorways down the street. It's the only time I've ever had olives for breakfast, and it was a wonderful way to start each day.
Like hot sauce and sea salt, olives of multiple varieties merit a permanent place in my pantry. Kalamata, which are Nick's favorite. Cracked green, when I'm lucky enough to get to the Syrian Grocery in Boston's South End. Stuffed green, for tapenade. Black ones in the can, because I love them in salad with nectarines and blue cheese, both strong flavors with which cured olives should not compete.
Olives are the fruit of a small evergreen tree; according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the top ten olive-producing countries in 2003 were, in order, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Portugal. So it's no surprise that olives figure prominently in the cuisines of those countries.
I love this passage from John Thorne's Simple Cooking:
Olives. If there is a single flavor whose presence gives shape to the eating of all the Mediterranean, it is theirs. Street markets reek of their acescent aroma, brine-soaked tubs proclaim their gaudy multitude: bruise-purple, glaucous, pure emerald green; some plump to bursting, others withered as any prune. In Provence alone, there are dozens of varieties and hundreds of cures, touching every note in a register of bitter, pungent complexity.
How can we understand this appetite? Olives, their olives, are so hard to like except one by one -- the piquant touch on the hors d'oeuvres tray, some tiny slivers scattered over the salad, pasta, or pizza. And even then, we prefer them at their most suave -- nicoise, Kalamata, Ponentine -- sleek miniatures of what is in truth a coarse and gargantuan hunger.
People are passionate about olives, love 'em or hate 'em. If only as a snack food or garnish (after all, they were good enough for James Bond), olives would find their way into my refrigerator from time to time, but the great joy, and challenge, is to use them as an ingredient in other dishes, such as chicken with feta and olives, or pasta puttanesca, or muffuletta salad.
To prepare olives for cooking, you need to minimize the intensity of the brine, or salt, in which they were preserved. Place the olives in a small pan, and cover with water. Bring to a boil, drain, and return olives to the pan. Cover with water again, bring to the boil, and drain. After two or three repetitions, the olives will have lost the briny quality but will retain all of their fantastic flavor.
Chicken with preserved lemon tagine
If there’s one dish that everyone thinks of as typically Moroccan, it’s this one, often called a tagine, and cooked in a pot of the same name. Usually a whole chicken is cut into serving pieces; in this version, I’ve adapted to use boneless, skinless chicken thighs, which cook much more quickly than using chicken on the bone, but still stay moist. The chicken does need to marinate for a while before cooking, so be sure to leave extra time. Serves 6-8.
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper, or 1 tsp harissa
1/2 tsp turmeric
Pinch of saffron, crushed slightly
2 Tbsp olive oil
10 boneless, skiness chicken thighs, trimmed, cut into large chunks
1 large onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup chicken stock
4 Tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus extra whole leaves for garnish
Kosher salt, to taste
1 whole preserved lemon, or equivalent chunks
18 or more pitted cracked green or kalamata olives, cut in half
1-2 Tbsp lemon juice
Combine garlic and spices, plus 1 tsp olive oil, in a large dish. Add chicken, massage all over with the spice paste, and marinate in a ziploc bag, in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours or overnight.
Place remaining oil and onion in the base of a tagine or Dutch oven, and cook over lowest heat until translucent, 3-4 minutes. Add chicken to the pot along with marinade in the bag, plus the stock, parsley and a little bit of salt. Cover, and cook for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, remove the pith and pulp from the preserved lemon, and rinse the peel. Julienne into thin strips. Place olives in a saucepan with enough water to cover; bring to a boil, then drain. Repeat at least once more, to remove bitterness from the olives.
Add lemon strips and olives to the chicken, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes more, or until the chicken is cooked through. Add lemon juice and adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with fresh parsley leaves. Serve with couscous.
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