Olive you.

by | Aug 3, 2007

Welcome, class, to today’s Fresh Pick: OLIVES & OLIVE OIL

The olive branch has long been a symbol of peace, and the silvery-leaved olive tree has been considered sacred at least as far back as the 17th century b.c. Native to the Mediterranean area, the olive is a small, oily fruit that contains a pit and is grown both for its fruit and its oil in subtropical zones including the United States (Arizona, California and New Mexico), Latin America, and throughout the Mediterranean.

Olive varieties number in the dozens and vary in size and flavor. All fresh olives are bitter and the final flavor of the fruit greatly depends on how ripe it is when picked and the processing it receives. Underripe olives are always green, whereas ripe olives may be either green or black. Spanish olives are picked young, soaked in lye, then fermented in brine for 6 to 12 months. When bottled, they’re packed in a weak brine and sold in a variety of forms including pitted, unpitted or stuffed with foods such as pimientos, almonds, onions, and jalapeños. Olives picked in a riper state contain more oil and are a deeper green color. The common black olive or Mission olive is a ripe green olive that obtains its characteristic color and flavor from lye curing and oxygenation. Olives that are tree ripened turn dark brown or black naturally. The majority of these olives are used for oil but the rest are brine or salt-cured and are usually packed in olive oil or a vinegar solution. The Greek kalamata and the French niçoise olives are two of the more popular imported ripe olives. Dry-cured olives have been packed in salt, which removes most of their moisture and creates dry, wrinkled fruit.

Both domestic and imported olives are available bottled, canned and in bulk year-round in a variety of forms including whole (pitted, unpitted and stuffed), sliced and chopped. Unopened olives can be stored at room temperature for up to two years. Once opened they can be refrigerated in their own liquid (in a nonmetal container) for several weeks.

Olives are a smart snacking alternative. When reaching for chips or nachos, you might want to consider olives as a tasty change of pace from the run of the mill snack items. With only seven calories per extra large olive and 2.5 grams of fat per serving, not only are olives a low fat food, but they are an excellent source of the good fats that help lower the bad cholesterol.

The oil from the olive was one of the very first products manufactured by mankind. It offered light itself when ancient cultures used to fill the continuously burning lamps in their sanctuaries because it burned so slowly and emitted little smoke.

Olive oil became the base for the most highly prized soaps and perfumes, and was indispensable for dressing wool before spinning. The versatile liquid was used as a salve on chapped skin as a shield against bacteria on wounds, and was an effective remedy for an upset stomach. Most importantly, those first olive crops provided endless culinary possibilities for enriching food with the marvelous oil they yielded.

Cold-pressed, extra virgin is the best you can buy, but olive oils of that type vary greatly in taste. The nuances of flavor can only be determined by sampling a number of extra virgin oils from different countries. Olive oil is like wine in that it derives its flavor from the environment in which the trees are grown. Just as in ancient times, this wonderful commodity is now practically indispensable in our diet.

Olive oil is earthy, it is complex, and a superb culinary partner for countless foods and shouldn’t be taken for granted. After all, if it was the crowning touch for kings, it has to be something special.

For some great recipes, click here or here or try this simple vinaigrette:

2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp Dijon mustard
Pinch Kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly gound pepper
1/4 tsp brown sugar
1/4 c extra virgin olive oil

In a small bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients except the olive oil. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while continuing to whisk, until fully combined. Spoon over your favorite mixed greens, pasta salad, or serve as a dip for crudités.


I’m Dina R. D’Alessandro, MS, RDN, CDN. I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist based in New York City, and I provide nutrition counseling to women.

Recent Posts