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On my first visit to the French Riviera, the beautiful beaches were not what interested me the most; rather, it was the outdoor market at Cours Saleya in old Nice. There, I found the greatest array of olives I had ever seen. Since then, I gained new respect for the fruit of the olive tree, and the small, wrinkled black oil-cured ones usually labeled Nicoise olives remain my favorites.
But you don't have to travel to Provence to find a good selection of olives. In Jerusalem, even at the small supermarket near my mother's home, I was always impressed by the olive display. There were usually nine or 10 types, from cracked green Souri olives to pitted Greek style black olives to spicy marinated olives; the market even provided little tasting cups to make it easier for shoppers to choose.
A colorful salad that my friend Valerie Alon prepared recently as a Friday night dinner appetizer reminded me how perfect olives are in simple dishes. She halved large green olives and cherry tomatoes and mixed them with diced red peppers, chopped onions and balsamic vinegar. The green and red salad was as delicious as it was pretty.
Its components reminded me of a Moroccan cooked green olive dish that another friend of mine, Perla Abergel, prepared as a standard side dish for her Shabbat dinners. Her specialty requires prolonged simmering; when the weather is hot, Valerie's salad might have more appeal.
Around the Mediterranean, people have loved this biblical fruit since ancient times, and have discovered that olives are particularly useful for adding zest to summertime salads and sandwiches. The same trio - tomatoes, olives and peppers - appears, along with anchovies, in pan bagnat, a popular southern French sandwich. According to Anissa Helou, author of Mediterranean Street Food, it was originally a specialty of Nice.
Southern French cooks found that rice salad also benefits from the combination of olives, tomatoes and peppers. In The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence, author Georgeanne Brennan noted that in this salad, which is made from the previous night's rice and served at midday, "the olives give their deep flavor to the otherwise bland rice." The customary dressing is olive oil and wine vinegar accented with onion and parsley.
Lending a pleasing touch of pungency to plain food mixtures is the role that olives often play. Guy Gedda noted in Le grand livre de la cuisine provencale that cooks in Provence use a medley of olives and tomatoes to perk up potato and beef salad and, of course, to enhance the famous salad nicoise with green beans, potatoes and tuna.
In the eastern Mediterranean, olives are one of the most important staples in the kitchen pantry. On a drive in the countryside near Gaziantep in southeast Turkey, we noticed that the olive groves were as prominent as the region's famed pistachio trees. Turkish cooks use black olives to add punch to salads of single vegetables dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, from cooked cauliflower florets to grated raw turnips to shredded cabbage. They use the trio of olives, tomatoes and sweet peppers to add color and flavor to white bean salads, according to Ayla Esen Algar, author of The Complete Book of Turkish Cooking.
In Israeli and American markets, we often see olives from Greece, and in that country cooks combine olives creatively with lentils and other legumes. Rosemary Barron, author of Flavors of Greece, puts black olives in a salad of fresh fava beans with red onions and fennel leaves. Like the Turks, Greek cooks use olives and tomatoes in white bean salads, along with watercress and thyme for a note of freshness.
In California's Mediterranean-influenced cuisine, olives are a favorite not only in salads, but in sandwiches. Brian Jacobs of Tumaro's Gourmet Tortillas in Santa Monica makes a Caesar salad wrap from a mixture of chopped black olives, tomatoes, grated mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses and romaine lettuce moistened with Italian dressing, then rolls the salad in a tortilla for a refreshing "laffa" type sandwich.
Olives also star in a famous Louisiana sandwich - the muffuletta, made of Italian cold cuts and cheeses and enriched with an olive and roasted pepper salad with garlic. It turns out that the sandwich's origin is Sicilian - not surprising, since on that island olives are used with exuberance.
Clarissa Hyman, author of Cucina Siciliana, writes that cooks marinate large green olives with roasted red peppers, red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and hot red pepper; this recipe could have easily been the inspiration for the Louisiana sandwich.
Olives are a good source of healthful monounsaturated fat, vitamin E and iron. Some nutritionists claim that olives are even more healthful than olive oil because they contain fiber as well. Remember them when your salads or sandwiches need a touch of piquancy. A few good quality olives can make the difference between a dull salad and an appealing one.
ISRAELI OLIVE AND TOMATO SALAD
Serve this salad on its own as an appetizer or mixed with cooked fish, beans or rice as an entree salad. Be sure to use good quality olives. Experiment with different ones to vary the flavor. Leave the pitted olives whole or cut them in half, or, for a sandwich filling, in smaller pieces. Add the parsley close to serving time so it will stay bright green. You can add diced sweet red pepper as well. For a richer salad, add 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil.
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1â„4 tsp. hot red pepper flakes, or to taste
1â„2 tsp. dried thyme
1 cup black olives, pitted
1 cup green olives, pitted
450 gr. ripe tomatoes, finely diced
1â„4 cup chopped green onion
1â„4 cup chopped Italian parsley
freshly ground black pepper
In a serving bowl combine lemon juice, pepper flakes and thyme. Add olives, tomatoes, green onion and parsley. Season to taste with pepper. Refrigerate in a covered container until ready to serve.
Makes 4 to 6 servings as an appetizer or 8 servings as an accompaniment.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.