Gourmet Galley: Olives and tapenades

Ripe olives are one of the most versatile foods in your pantry. With a can of black or green ripe olives, you can come up with a quick tapenade appetizer.

Tapenade originated in Provençe, France, as a simple mixture of chopped olives mixed with the area’s native herbs and spices. The seasoned mixture is used as a spread on crackers or as a condiment.

Today, there are many variations and recipes for tapenade and most use green or black ripe olives. In about 10 minutes, you can have flavors that span the globe from Mexico to California or Asia with the easy recipes .

A bowl of olive tapenade makes a good party food for spreading on crackers or veggies. No one guesses it’s as easy as putting a few olives in a food processor, adding herbs or simple seasonings and whizzing the machine on and off for a few seconds.

Having just returned from Portugal where I saw olive groves and tasted delicious olives, I was curious about the color of olives and wondered if they were all ripe olives even though some were green.

The more I read the more interesting I thought the olive is; so I’m passing along these interesting olive tidbits I found at http://calolive.org (California Olive Commission) and from http://lindsayolives.com (Lindsay Olives):

The olive tree has been in existence for almost 8,000 years and is one of the world’s oldest cultivated trees.

The olive is a fruit that develops from a small white flower. You cannot eat raw olives from the tree because they’re extremely bitter; they have to be cured first to mellow their flavor.

Olives for oil are harvested when they’re fully ripe, black or dark brown. Table olives, either green or black, are harvested before they’re ripe. Each large olive has only 6 calories and since they are fruits, they have no cholesterol.

California is responsible for producing 99 percent of all American olives. New Mexico, Arizona and Texas also grow some. The United States production makes up only .5 to 1 percent of the olives grown worldwide. The main varieties grown in the U.S. are Manzanillo, Ascolano, Sevillano and Mission.

Olive farming in California is believed to have begun in the late 18th century when Spanish Jesuits brought in olive cuttings from their missions in Mexico. California’s climate, with its sunny days and cool nights, was perfect for olive farming, which flourished at the 21 missions between San Diego and Sonoma.

In the 1800s, Californians began planting acres of olive trees in response to a high demand for olive oil, but prices dropped when the market became saturated. Farmers needed a new plan for their olives. That’s when a housewife, Freda Ehmann, after consulting with a Berkeley professor, invented the ripe olive process.

Ehmann started with 280 gallons of olives in barrels on her back porch and within a few years built a factory in Oroville — the beginning of the California olive industry. Her same process for preparing ripe olives is followed today.

The multiday process of preparing olives starts by putting the olives into a lye-curing solution to leach the bitterness out. Next comes multiple cold-water rinses to remove every trace of curing solution.

Throughout the curing process, pure air is constantly bubbled through the olives to create the natural, rich dark color of black ripe olives. Green ripe olives go through a nearly identical curing process, but their tanks are not injected with air so they retain their green color. The olives are then pitted and canned.

Besides serving tapenade on crackers or with cheese, you can also:

Mix a little with sour cream for a tasty dip.

Use it as a spread on sandwiches.

Use it on tacos with lettuce, tomatoes and cheese.

Stuff it into chicken breasts for a flavorful kick.

Spread it on pizza dough topped with cheese and veggies.

Corinne Cook is a columnist for The Advocate. Reach her at food@theadvocate.com.