A large box arrived last week from Sonoma, California. I wasn't expecting anything so I was curious to read the note from my old friend: "Here's a little project we can do together when I come visit next week. Can't wait to see you. Love, Elisa."
Project? Elisa is known to spend long hours cutting paper into beautiful little homemade books and folding Japanese paper into complicated origami boxes. The words "arts and crafts" sends chills down my spine. These are just not skills I excel in. I don't sew and I don't knit. The only "craft" I am really good at is making food.
I opened the box gingerly, slipping a finger inside the thick cardboard to get a feel for its contents. It was definitely not paper - Japanese or otherwise. I felt something hard and oval. The box was brimming with raw green olives streaked with a magnificent midnight blue/black color. I fondled them lovingly. Unripe, fresh-from-California olives right here in my Maine kitchen. I could feel something resembling joy spread through my body.
About ten years ago Elisa planted several dozen olive trees in the orchard in front of her house. I like to consider myself a balanced, healthy person, but when those trees were dropped into the ground I found myself filled with deep jealousy. The sight of those silvery-green leaves shimmering in the bright northern California light was like some kind of Mediterranean dream come true. Elisa promised me that in about ten years, when the olives were mature enough to press into oil or cure for homemade olives, we would make olives together.
The New York Times recently ran a story about curing olives that described a method offered by an Egyptian cook who layers unripe olives in glass jars with a brine solution, lemons, chile peppers and celery. A search on the Web revealed all kinds of methods for curing olives - ranging from smashing them with a hammer and layering them in a woven basket sprinkled heavily with sea salt to rinsing them in water and changing the water every four hours for four straight days (when were you supposed to sleep?). Other recipes require the olives to soak in vinegar and then wine and then olive oil. Clearly there was no "right" way to do this, so we decided it was time to start experimenting.
The first step was to make a brine solution. We mixed Kosher salt and water in a large bowl. The Times instructed us that the way to test the strength of the brine is to place an uncooked egg in it (in its shell) and see if it floats to the top of the bowl. If the egg sinks it means there isn't enough salinity. I ever-so-gently dropped an egg into the brine and it sunk directly to the bottom of the bowl. I added more salt. It bottomed out again. More salt and the egg kind of wobbled in the middle of the bowl trying to garner enough strength to actually rise. Even more salt. Finally the egg floated and we had our brine.
Next we washed the olives and removed the leaves and any dirt and put them in glass Mason jars. We made one batch Egyptian-style, much like the Times recipe instructed, layering the olives with garlic, chile peppers, and wedges of lemon, and filled the jar with brine, fresh lemon juice, and white vinegar. We topped the olives with small pieces of fresh celery which we hoped would push the olives down, submerging them in the brine. Next we tried a Provencal-style version mixing the olives with fresh rosemary, thyme, basil, and oregano, whole garlic cloves, and bay leaves. And finally we concocted a Middle-Eastern variation seasoned with ground cumin, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, chile peppers, and lemon wedges.
We sealed the jars and took pictures of the olives glistening in the herbs and spices and brine. We placed the jars on a tray (to catch any juices that may ooze out) and placed the jars in my cool, dark basement (ideal conditions for curing olives). The next step, which is where we are now, is to wait. Wait and wait. According to most recipes it takes six long months for olives to cure. Sometime next spring I will bring the jars up from the basement. I fear mold and olives coated with nasty basement-like things. But come May, if all goes well, I will be enjoying my own cured olives. It's the closest I can get to northern California where the dry land smells of wine grapes and sweet lavender and olive trees -sensual, earthy odors.
Orange and Herb-Marinated Olives
There are few foods I love more than olives - black, green, spicy, sweet, herb-infused, stuffed with garlic or peppers, with pits and without. I add them to salads, cheese platters, chop them finely to make tapenade, and use them as a topping for fish, chicken, or beef. In the late afternoon there is no better snack. Olives have the salty satisfaction of a potato chip without the guilt.
This recipe is a great way to make cured store-bought olives taste homemade. Look for good quality black and green olives to use in this simple recipe. Serve them as an appetizer with drinks or anytime people stop by. You can also place them in glass jars, seal them up, tie the lid with ribbons, and give them as a holiday gift.
1 cup brined cured olives, drained
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup olive oil
About 8 strips of orange peel, cut into thin julienne strips
2 cloves garlic, very thinly sliced
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
About 1/2 (half) teaspoon crushed red pepper
Freshly ground black pepper and a touch of sea salt
In a medium bowl combine the olives with the remaining ingredients. Cover and refrigerate overnight. The olives will keep for about 4 to 5 days. Keep refrigerated. Makes about 1 cup.
You can also add any of the following:
" 1 teaspoon whole or crushed fennel, coriander or cumin seeds
" 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh thyme, oregano, or sage
" Lemon juice and lemon peel instead of orange