Fried olives are an intricate and exotic treat. They’re worth the bit of effort they take to prepare. I first came across them in Rome decades ago, made by a chef named Maria Romani at her fish restaurant, Il Pellicano. She was originally from the Le Marche region, where fried stuffed olives are a tradition, usually filled with pork. Signora Romani’s olives contained some type of seafood, shrimp maybe (it was a long time ago), and were breaded, fried, and served as one of the earlier courses in a multi-course meal. Everything was wonderful, but the olives were a mind blower. Such flavor, such labor. A strange feature of the restaurant was that dishes were brought out one after another, ten, twelve of them, until you told the waiter you couldn’t eat another bite. After you’d given the word, out would come a lemon sorbetto, and that was that. The restaurant hasn’t existed in years. I wonder what happened to Signora Romani? I’m going to give her an Internet search right now. . . . Well, I didn’t come up with anything. If anyone knows if she’s still cooking, or even still walks this earth, please tell me.
I love most fried foods, but olives have an agro-dolce-ness that plays extra well against the crispy, oiliness of a fried crust. Mild green olives, in my opinion, work the best. The Ascolana olives of Le Marche, which have a mild but bright flavor, are what inspired that region’s fried olive recipes, I believe. I can’t imagine frying a strong, wrinkled black Moroccan olive, no matter how much I love them. They don’t have enough juice or quiet acidity. Green Cerignolas from Puglia also have the right qualities for frying.
People worry that fried food is bad for you. Please don’t worry. Southern Italy perfected fried food, and the Mezzogiorno was included in the big 1960s Mediterranean diet study because it had an extremely healthy lifestyle. They fry things that are good for you, such as cauliflower, or sardines, not Milky Ways (well, zeppole, but just for le feste). Also the food is usually just dusted with a little flour or breadcrumbs, not a thick batter that becomes a grease-hogging encasement. Often they use olive oil and fry quickly so the oil doesn’t break down. And, maybe most important, fried food in Southern Italy is served as an antipasto, not a main course. Plus, you don’t need a gallon of oil. I fried these olives in about 2 inches of olive oil. That’s all they require. This is really a lovely salad. Give it a try. And since I’ve included cheese and sausage in this salad, I didn’t bother to stuff them, so the prep is minimal. The olives are also good on their own, maybe served with some young pecorino, a few slices of prosciutto, and a glass of Grillo wine.
Escarole Salad with Fried Olives, Capocollo, and Asiago
For the salad:
2 big handfuls of young summer escarole or frisée (any green that is not a big wilter will work)
About 8 big shavings of aged Asiago
6 slices capocollo, cut into thin strips
2 very thin slices red onion
A small handful of tiny basil leaves
The leaves from a few large sprigs of marjoram
1 summer garlic clove, crushed
1 teaspoon Spanish sherry vinegar
A pinch of salt
About 1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
For the olives:
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 Cerignola or Ascolana green olives, pitted (or any large green olive, as long as they’re not too salty. You can rinse ones that seem briny)
½ cup regular white flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¾ cup homemade dry breadcrumbs
6 or so large thyme sprigs, the leaves well chopped
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground fennel seed
1 tablespoon grated aged Asiago cheese
¼ teaspoon Aleppo pepper, or a pinch of cayenne
A few big grindings of black pepper
Place the lettuce in a nice looking salad bowl. Scatter on the Asiago, capocollo, onion, and the herbs.
Whisk the garlic, vinegar, salt, black pepper, and olive oil together, and set aside.
Pour the oil for the olives into a medium saucepan, and get it hot over high heat. You’ll want about 2 inches or so of oil.
While the oil is heating, place the breadcrumbs on a plate, and add the thyme, allspice, fennel, tablespoon of Asiago, Aleppo, and black pepper. Mix well.
Dry the olives, and coat them lightly in flour. Now dip them in the egg, shaking off excess.
Roll the olives in the breadcrumb mixture, coating them well all over. Stick them in the refrigerator while the oil is heating. This will help their coatings adhere.
When the oil is hot (test by flicking in a few drops of water; it should immediately sizzle), add the olives, and fry until golden all around (do this in two batches if they’re crowded). Lift them from the oil onto paper towels with a slotted spoon.
Toss the salad with the vinaigrette, and then scatter the hot olives on top. Serve right away.