Olives at the market in Nice.
Papardelle with Black Olives, Lemon, and Cream
I sometimes take naps on Saturday afternoons, and when I wake up from one I always seem to have a food craving. In the warm weather months I want something sweet, like a caramel or a swig of maple syrup; in winter months, I crave black olives. There is a black olive cold weather association in my mind. I haven’t been able to get to the bottom of it (it may have something to do with my mother always putting out a Thanksgiving day bowl of black olives with raw fennel, but I’m really not sure), but I’m grateful for it nonetheless. I’ll have my olives after a winter nap, but I’ll also cook with them much more than I do in the summer, scattering them over antipasto platters and stirring them into stews and pastas, making olivata (olive paste) in the food processor and smearing it on bread and folding some into omelettes (the best, especially if I include a slice of mozzarella). Black olives are a beautiful thing, something delicious for me to want and love in the cold months, my winter fruit of choice, warm and ripe.
Strangely, I know several very little kids, five and six years old, who love black olives. That says a lot about the fruits’ deliciousness. They won’t eat broccoli, but they love olives, and kids understand about the pits. They enjoy spitting them out.
From the short list of black olives available in this country, I’d have to say the little Niçoise ones are my favorites, although a pain if you need to pit a whole lot of them. The giant, bland bella di Cerignolas from Puglia, which are almost impossible to pit, have a taste that’s just a notch above that of California canned olives, but they have their place. I often put a bowl of them out, along with mozzarella, roasted peppers, and salami, for a classic Italian-American-style antipasto. People can never quite believe how huge they are. They’re not much of a challenge to the palate, but maybe that’s why I sometimes want them.
While visiting Puglia for my book on Southern Italian cooking, I sampled at least ten different varieties of black table olives; Corotina and Cima di Melfi are names I recall (those big Cerignola things seem to be more popular here than there). I wish I could find some of those rich tasting Puglian olives that always showed up along with platters of salumi in restaurants. I buy oil-cured, wrinkled Moroccan olives that occasionally have a curious undertone of single-malt scotch (why would that be?). I really love them, but they’re harder to cook with, since their lush intensity floats all over a dish. When I do include them in cooking, it’s usually only to scatter them over the top of a finished dish. Halkadiki is a Moroccan-style oil cured in oil that’s less wrinkly and a little fruitier than most. Sometimes these are just the thing. Most of the wrinkly types I buy from Kalustyan’s, an excellent Middle Eastern shop in Manhattan (and you can mail order from www.kalustyans.com). My favorite winter antipasto incorporates rich, wrinkled black olives, raw fennel, and slices of a spicy coppa, excellent with a deep pink Italian rosato wine, Believe me, this little grouping of flavors will make you very happy.
Gaetas are another excellent black olive choice. The ones I find here seem less nuanced then the Gaetas I’ve eaten in Southern and Central Italy, but they’re fine, or better than fine, a great olive to enhance stewed rabbit or to stir into a lamb ragù. When I get myself down to Despana, an excellent Spanish food shop in SoHo (at 408 Broome Street, if you’re in the neighborhood), I always check out their olives first (although their cured Spanish sausages and hams are the best I’ve found in the city). I very much like the brownish Arbequina olives and the fully ripe, black, mellow Empeltre variety, since they both blend seamlessly with most of my Southern Italian cooking. I recently made a chicken cacciatore with tomatoes, marjoram, and Arbequinas, which was pretty good on a cool, windy night, with a bottle of dolcetto. Black olives need to be washed down with wine, although I’ve seen kids take them with milk or orange juice, which is fine, as long as they take them.
Papardelle with Black Olives, Lemon, and Cream
This is definitely a first-course pasta, like any pasta with cream in it, but its lemon and olive flavors set up your palate to follow it with something lean but vibrant, maybe with more lemon, something like a whole roasted fish stuffed with lemon and rosemary, or chicken with lemon and garlic.
(Serves 5 as a first course)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 garlic clove, minced
The grated zest from 2 large lemons
A few gratings of nutmeg
1 cup black olives (Gaetas are a good choice), pitted and hand-minced (you can mince them in a food processor, but stop pulsing before they turn into a paste)
1/4 cup cognac or brandy
1 cup heavy cream
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
8 large sprigs flat-leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped
Salt, if needed
1 pound homemade or fresh store-bought pappardelle pasta
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water and bring it to a boil.
In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the garlic, lemon zest, and nutmeg, and sauté to release their flavors, about a minute. Add the olives, and sauté about a minute longer. Add the cognac or brandy, and let it bubble away. Add the cream. Turn off the heat, give the sauce a stir, and let it sit while you cook the pasta.
Add a generous amount of salt to the pasta water and drop in the pappardelle. When tender, drain and add the pappardelle to the skillet, saving about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Toss briefly, just to coat the pasta well, and pour into a large serving bowl. Add the Parmigiano and the parsley. Toss gently. Taste for seasoning, adding salt if needed (if your olives are salty, you probably won’t need it). If the pasta has become too dry, add a drizzle of pasta cooking water and toss again. Serve right away.