Food & Drink

Olives can add flavor to drinks, buffets at New Year's parties

A champagne toast ushers in the New Year, but revelers often begin the celebration with a martini.

It's the olive sitting in the liquor that defines the party drink. When other garnishes are used, it becomes an entirely different beverage. Garnish it with a cocktail onion, and it becomes a Gibson.

The typical cocktail olive is usually the garnish of choice, but gourmet olives stuffed with garlic, blue cheese, onion or almonds can give a more distinctive flavor to the drink.

Specialty stores and supermarkets have olive bars that offer an array of olives that will jazz up a party drink. But olives also are great additions to pasta dishes and appetizers.

Buying olives in bulk will allow you to experiment with many types and to buy only as many as you need at one time. Make sure the store has a good turnover and keeps the olives immersed in brine for freshness and to retain moistness. Olives will keep best if stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

According to Cook's Illustrated, types of olives include brine-cured green, which are bright, acidic and mild in flavor; brine-cured black, which are robust, brash and fruity; and salt-cured black (often mislabeled "oil-cured"), which are very strong, bitter and salty. Salt-cured olives aren't recommend for cooking unless a recipe specifies them.

Curing is the process that removes the bitter compound oleuropein from olives to make them suitable for consumption. Brine-cured olives are soaked in a salt solution; salt-cured olives are packed in salt until nearly all their liquid has been extracted, then they are covered in oil to be replumped. Both processes traditionally take weeks or even months. To quickly leach the oleuropein out of canned California olives, producers use lye, which "ripens" olives artificially in a matter of days, then they further process the olives to turn their green flesh black.

Often labeled "Spanish" olives, green olives are picked before fully ripened and add a bright, acidic dimension to food. Picked when mature, black olives lend a more robust taste.

Cook's Illustrated evaluated pitted and unpitted olives to find out whether there are any differences in flavor or texture. The testers selected green and black brine-cured olives from deli sections at supermarkets, and olives packed in plastic and glass containers.

After tasters tried many samples, they found that the pitted olives suffered on two counts: They tasted saltier and their flesh was mushier. They also lacked the complex, fruity flavors of the unpitted kind. Here's why: Before being packed for sale, fresh-picked olives are soaked in brine for as long as a year to remove bitterness and develop flavor. Once pitted, the olives are returned to the brine for packing, which can penetrate the inside of the olive and turn it mushy and pasty, and increase the absorption of salt. That saltier taste can mask subtler flavors. If you have the time, it makes sense to buy unpitted olives and pit them yourself.

Here's how to pit olives in brine: Place the olive on a work surface and hold the flat edge of a large chef's knife over the olive. Hit the blade with your fist to smash the olive. Separate the pit from the olive meat with your fingers. Another method is to place a funnel upside down on the work surface. Stand one end of the olive on the spout and press down, allowing the pit to fall through the funnel. Oil-cured olives can be seeded simply by squeezing the olive to pop out the pit.

Olives contain a variety of beneficial active phytonutrient compounds, including polyphenols and flavonoids, which also seem to have significant anti- inflammatory properties. They also are good sources of iron, vitamin E and dietary fiber.

Here are some quick ideas for serving olives at your New Year's Eve party.

■ Olive tapenade is an easy-to-make spread that you can use as a dip, sandwich spread or topping for fish and poultry. To make it, put pitted olives in a food processor with olive oil, garlic and your favorite seasonings.

■ Toss pasta with chopped olives, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and fresh herbs of your choice.

■ Marinate olives in olive oil, lemon zest, coriander seeds and cumin seeds.

■ Add chopped olives to your favorite chicken salad recipe.

■ Set out a small plate of different size olives on the buffet table along with some vegetable crudités.

■ Combine 6 cups mixed olives, such as Niçoise, Spanish, picholine and Greek, with 5 sprigs fresh rosemary and 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes in the center of 1 or 2 large sheets of aluminum foil. Fold the foil to enclose the olives in a pouch. (This recipe can made to this point 1 day ahead. Refrigerate.) Heat oven to 400 degrees and bake for 30 minutes. Serve warm.

■ In a medium bowl, combine 2 cups grape tomatoes, 1 cup black olives, 1 cup kalamata olives, 1 cup garlic-stuffed green olives, 1 tablespoon herbs de Provence, 8 cloves peeled garlic, 1/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Mix well and transfer to a jelly roll pan. Bake 15 to 20 minutes at 425 degrees. When cooled, transfer to a shallow bowl and serve with toasted baguette slices or crackers.

■ Place 2 cups oil-cured black olives and 1 tablespoon grated orange zest in a serving bowl and toss. Set aside at room temperature for at least 1 hour.

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