Olives are as old as the history of man. As Mort Rosenblum mentions in his book, Olives (North Park Press, 1998), Greek athletes lubricated their bodies with olive oil and the first Olympic flame was a burning oil bough. The Romans even had a separate stock market and merchant marine for olive oil. Stories like this abound through the millennia.
By the 10th century, olive groves covered the Mediterranean basin
across southern Europe and northern Africa. Spanish missionaries brought olives to the New World in 1500, and later Italian immigrants carried the olive to South America, Australia and southern Africa. Today, there are about 800 million olive trees in the world with annual product sales of more than 10 billion dollars.
Here are two of my favorite recipes using good olive oil. The saffron penne is sublime. I serve it as a starter before a light,
non-saucy main course.
SPANISH ROASTED VEGETABLE SALAD (6 servings)
A rustic and deeply satisfying peasant dish...
2 large red bell peppers
2 large yellow bell peppers
1 pound butternut squash or pumpkin, unpeeled
2 red onions, unpeeled
2 Spanish onions, unpeeled
4 medium-sized vine-ripened tomatoes
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil (pref. Spanish), divided
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat oven to 475 degrees. Cut peppers lengthwise in half, slicing through the stems. Leave these intact but discard the pith and seeds. Slice the squash or pumpkin into 1-inch-thick discs or chunks. Cut onions crosswise into halves, leaving the roots and tops intact. Leave the skins on, too, as they give extra
color and flavor and protect the shape. Cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze
Place all the vegetables, cut sides up, in a large lightly-oiled roasting pan. Drizzle half the oil over the vegetables and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Roast on the top rung of the oven for 30 minutes or until they are frizzled, fragrant, wrinkled and soft. Drizzle remaining oil over the tops and serve
warm (not hot) or at room temperature. Eat this dish with your fingers, discarding the skins, roots and stems along the way.
Serve with country bread to scoop up the sweet, oily, sticky juices from the bottom of the pan. A fruity red wine such as a Syrrah is a great partner.
PENNE RIGATE WITH SAFFRON (4 servings)
1 pound imported dried penne rigate pasta
1 large pinch saffron threads or 1/4 teaspoon powdered saffron
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons hot water
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil (pref. Tuscan), divided
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
1 leek, white only, finely sliced
1 cup mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup freshly shaved Parmesan cheese curls
Cracked black pepper, to taste
6 baby radicchio leaves, torn, for garnish
Cook pasta according to package directions for al dente. Meanwhile, put
the saffron and sea salt in a mortar and pound to a powder with a pestle
- or use a spice grinder or small processor. Add hot water and stir to dissolve.
Over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed skillet, garlic and leek and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the saffron/water mixture,, mascarpone and wine. Mash and stir to form a creamy sauce. Simmer, stirring, until the wine loses its raw taste and the flavors have mellowed, about 3 to 4 minutes. Combine drained pasta with the sauce and stir until coated. Serve hot, topped with Parmesan curls, cracked black pepper and torn radicchio leaves. Drizzle with remaining oil before serving. A non-oaked Chardonnay is lovely with this.