“I come bearing an olive branch in one hand, and the freedom fighter’s gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” -Yasser Arafat
Olives are worthy of headlining at any table. They invoke dramatic imagery of ancient cultures and rituals. In the community of food, they are the elders, the wise ones. Olives have not received their due respect in American culture, particularly when drowning at the bottom of a martini glass, or lost in a sea of tomatoes. This dish is retribution for the olive. It places it where it belongs – as the main attraction.
Olive trees are one of the oldest cultivated trees known to man, tracing back to 3000 BC. The olive trees on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem are estimated to be over 2,000 years old. The olive tree is significant in the Bible, the Quran, and the Book of Mormon. It is the olive leaf the dove brought back to Noah to assure him the flood was over. The Prophet Mohamed refers to it as ‘blessed,’ instructing his people to massage their bodies with it. Ancient myths use olives as symbolic gestures for good throughout history. Olive oil has long been considered sacred, used in ancient Greece and Israel to anoint kings and athletes. It burns as the eternal flame of the Olympic games, and winning athletes are adorned with its leaves. The olive tree has consistently been the symbol of peace, purity, wisdom, glory, power and fertility since before history as we know it.
If you like olives and garlic, I think you’ll love this. Being in New York City this year has had some advantages. One is well-stocked olive bars in every grocery store. This recipe intrigued me but I didn’t have high hopes. It aroused my curiosity just enough to take a stab at it. It is one of my favorite meals this year. I don’t know if it was the element of surprise, or it’s simply that good. The recipe below is adapted from Mario Batali’s cookbook, Simple Family Meals. So far, I love this cookbook.
It was so good, in fact, it inspired me to brush up on the olive. I armed myself with knowledge to seduce my Idaho guests because serving cowboys a dish of green stuff on a bed of noodles isn’t the easiest thing to do. If you think real men don’t like beige food, wait till you serve them green food. The word green has many connotations in this culture. To some, it conjures up images of John Deere tractors and that is never bad. Every boy grows up wanting one. On the other hand, some farmers and ranchers associate green with people trying to extinguish their life on the land. In these cases, green doesn’t carry much weight. That said, most farmers and ranchers have come to understand their lifestyle and practices, particularly when sustainably harvesting renewable resources from the earth, are green compared to many of our city ways. It’s my guess it won’t be long before late adopters proudly call themselves green too. This dish might propel them forward faster. My bet is it does.
I used white pasta for this, even though I stick with whole wheat or spinach pastas for the most part. It seemed a shame to lose those beautiful olives to a background of brown. Feel free to use whichever you prefer. The combination of textures make this dish divine, with support from the garlic and anchovies. And, whatever you do, don’t let the anchovies scare you out of trying it! This is a ‘no ingredient left behind’ meal. Each ingredient has it’s own special place at the table. You don’t have to tell anyone they’re in there.
I made this dish for friends at the ranch this weekend and used a store brand jar of large green olives. Olive bars are hard to find in the mountains of Idaho. It was still good, just not as good. If possible, take the leap and find good green olives. I filled a container with a medley of Italian olives at the olive bar when I made it the first time. The olive bar didn’t specify olive names, so I couldn’t take Batali’s suggestion. I made the bread crumbs by simply crumbling up old whole wheat bread into a frying pan heated with olive oil. I toasted it till golden brown, and called it good. And it was. This recipe reminds me of puttanesca, replacing tomatoes with breadcrumbs. I love puttanesca and think I love this more.
Here’s how you make it:
1 Tb plus 6 – 8 Tb extra virgin olive oil, plus additional for drizzling.
1 1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
6 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
10 salt packed anchovies, drained and chopped or 1 can anchovies, chopped and undrained. Add anchovy oil to pan.
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
2 cups chopped, pitted Cerignola olives or other green olives (About 22)
salt and freshly ground pepper
3/4 pound spaghetti or angel hair pasta (I used angel hair and prefer it to spaghetti)
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley, optional
Bring 6 quarts water to a boil in a large pot; add salt if desired. It’s not necessary.
Meanwhile, in a small to medium sized skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat until very hot. Add breadcrumbs, or crumbled bread, and toss until golden brown; transfer to a plate and set aside.
Stir in olives, reserving a few for garnish; cook for 3 minutes allowing the flavors to blend
Add pasta to boiling water and cook until it is almost al dente according to package directions.Take pasta out early, you will cook it further when added to the skillet.