Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

May 2004
© 2004 by Bret S. Beall


I love olives! As a child in California, my mother thought it was appropriate to expose me to as many different foods, and olives were a regular part of my childhood diet. Of course, those were primarily the canned variety; the vast diversity of olives now imported into the United States had not yet made to my neighborhood, or, perhaps they had just not made it into our home (I think the former; if my mother had discovered a new type of olive, it would have been in our home, pronto!).

I love olives chopped on salads, I love them in a variety of pasta sauces, and I love them just on their own. In fact, my very first olive epiphany was the first time I dined at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, that temple of all things good created by legendary chef and activist, Alice Waters, one of my true culinary heroes (am I gushing or what?). The very first dish served to me that evening was a small dish of what appeared to be marinated olives. “Nice,” I thought, but at that time, I was really looking for something to document that Ms. Waters did not deserve her reputation. Well, being civilized, I took a fork, scooped several olives onto my plate, and then put one in my mouth, and … WOW! It was warm! I had never had warm olives before! I cannot impress upon you the flavor enhancements of heating the marinated olives (and these were enhanced with some citrus peel). Since then, I have made and served heated olives, sometimes enhanced with citrus, sometimes gilded with herbs, sometimes warmed on the stove and sometimes nuked in the microwave … but regardless, they are always an unexpected hit!

I’m a little surprised with myself that I’m writing about an ingredient this month that is available year ‘round rather than something seasonal. Well, this gives me a chance to give you some insight into using olives in your regular cooking, as a flavoring agent for some of the seasonal ingredients you are currently encountering. When you think of olives, what flavors do you encounter? Most of the time, you are dealing with saltiness and bitterness, sometimes with a bit of sourness and savory. So, use olives to add those components to a dish featuring seasonal spring ingredients. Sprinkle chopped olives over roasted or steamed asparagus. Add chopped olives to some simmering fava beans (and garlic and mint, if desired), mash everything together, and toss with al dente pasta; top with grated cheese. Olives are a great addition to spring peas. Treat olives as a component in a salad of baby lettuces. Sauté olives with young arugula to use as a pasta sauce, or a topping for fish, meat or poultry. Roast some scallions and treat them as a vegetable course with the addition of olives, capers and lemon juice. The possibilities are endless, and the results will be spectacular as long as you keep the flavor components of olives at the forefront of your thoughts!

Alternatively, you can make any of the following tapenades, which are year-round treats (and easily frozen in tablespoon portions in ice trays), and use them to enhance seasonal ingredients during every season.


I’ve adapted this recipe from many sources, resulting in a combination I’m really happy with. This recipe (including the variations below) is a topping for bruschetta, crostini, pasta, rice, potatoes, crackers, and a dip for crudités. I also like to mix it with pesto for a quick and easy “Salsa Genovese” (see below). Or you can go even simpler and create an olivada (recipe also below). I must confess, though my culinary idol Alice Waters insists tapenade should be made in a mortar and pestle, that I prefer using a food processor simply for convenience.

In a blender, food processor or mortar and pestle, combine all ingredients and process/blend/crush until a paste is formed. Serve chilled with good bread, crackers and/or crudités of your choice. Tapenade freezes very well; I spoon it by tablespoonfuls into plastic ice cube trays, freeze it, and then bag and label the cubes of tapenade for quick and easy meals in the future.


Topping for Pasta/Potatoes/Rice: For one serving, loosen 2 T of any variation of tapenade per ¼ lb freshly cooked pasta, or 1 c hot white rice, or 1 c (about ½ lb) steamed potatoes loosened with pasta water. Grate some good hard cheese on top (parmesan, pecorino, or similar).

Topping for poached, grilled or pan-seared fish: After poaching, grilling or pan-searing your favorite fish, top with up to 2 T of the tapenade.


Olivada: For you detail-oriented types, an olivada is usually just a simpler version of a tapenade (of course, tapenades are from Provence, and olivadas are from Italy … just a political border separating them!). But, to make Olivada, follow the recipe for Tapenade, but omit the garlic, anchovies, capers, mustard/vinegar and zest, and add 1 T of your favorite nuts (almonds particularly, but also walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, whatever you like! Toasted or not!). Some will argue that the olives must be green (AND cured, not merely immature), but I do think that dichotomy is arbitrary.

Roasted Red Pepper Tapenade: Follow recipe for Tapenade, but add about ¼ c roasted red bell pepper (about 1 small bell pepper). The red flecks of the pepper are attractive in any version of the Tapenade, but look especially festive if using green olives.

Sun-Dried Tomato Tapenade: Follow recipe for Tapenade, but add between ¼ c and ½ c of sun-dried tomatoes (dry pack, rehydrated) with their soaking liquid. As with the Roasted Red Pepper Tapenade, the red flecks of tomato are attractive in any version of the Tapenade, but look especially festive if using green olives.

Roasted Tomato Tapenade: Follow recipe for Tapenade, but add between ¼ c and ½ c of roasted tomatoes (freshly roasted, or from the freezer). As with the Roasted Red Pepper Tapenade and the Sun-Dried Tomato Tapenade, the red flecks of tomato are attractive in any version of the Tapenade, but look especially festive if using green olives.

Olive-Walnut Spread: Replace the anchovies and capers with ½ c toasted walnuts (or your favorite toasted nuts, especially pine nuts, almonds or hazelnuts/filberts), or merely add the nuts to the original mixture for a richer, more mellow flavor. If using walnuts, you will need to add up to ¼ c water to loosen the mixture. Optionally, you can also add ¼ c roasted red bell pepper (about 1 small bell pepper) to this tapenade. Use the spread as is, chilled, with good bread, crackers, or your favorite crudités. As with the tapenade, this olive-walnut spread is easy to freeze in 1 T portions in a plastic ice cube tray; after the portions are frozen, bag and label them for future use.

Salsa Genovese: there are two main recipes that bear this name. One involves braising beef and vegetables, especially onions. The other one is essentially an olive-basil mixture, and my version is presented here. The easiest way to make Salsa Genovese is, for one portion, to combine 1 T of any version of the tapenade with 1 T of either version of basil pesto (see me for a pesto recipe, or wait until August or September when I unveil my basil pestos). The second easiest way to make Salsa Genovese is, for one portion, to combine 1 T of any version of the olive-walnut spread with 1 T of pesto. Thirdly, combine 1 T of any version of the tapenade with ¼ c fresh basil, finely minced and about 10 toasted pine nuts (or your favorite nuts), finely chopped. Serve with crusty bread, crackers or crudités of your choice.

Go forth and spread the word of olives in every day cooking … let olives unite us all as the olive branch is meant to. Contact me if you need a little handholding or more in-depth assistance (773.508.9208 or email me).