Ode to an Olive

These little fruits are as nutritious as they are tasty.
By Lisa Turner

In the late spring, throughout the rocky terrain of the Mediterranean, the gnarled limbs of the Olea europaea tree begin to bud with olives. Too bitter to eat right off the tree, they’re first fermented and cured in oil, salt, or brine (a combination of salt and water or wine). The method and ingredients determine the olive’s final flavor, texture, and color.

While olives come in an amazing variety of sizes, colors, textures, and flavors, their nutrient profiles are remarkably similar, says Marc David, a nutritionist and the founder and director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. Like olive oil, they all contain monounsaturated fats that boost “good” HDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Olives are also a great source of polyphenols and vitamin E, both of which play an important role in neutralizing free radicals in the body. Olives’ anti-inflammatory properties can also help reduce the severity of asthma and arthritis symptoms.

Even better, olives are modest when it comes to calories—a medium-size green or black olive packs only four—and their fat content derives mainly from heart-healthy monounsaturates. But before you pop this delicacy with impunity, keep in mind that olives contain lots of salt; a serving of 10 holds 370 mg of sodium, or 20 percent of the recommended daily amount. If you’re sensitive to sodium or have high blood pressure, eat olives in moderation, says David, and cut back on the salt when you use them in recipes. Or you can remove some of the salt by rinsing the olives well, placing in a glass container, and covering with filtered water. Then, soak overnight, drain, and rinse before serving. To fully celebrate olives’ versatility in flavor, color, and texture, try them in these dishes:

Kalamata
Boasting a rich color and assertive flavor, kalamatas have a plump, juicy flesh and a winey bite. They’re best known for their role in Greek salads, where they’re paired with tomatoes, cucumber, and feta.
Try it: Puree kalamatas with capers, olive oil, basil, and garlic, and serve on grilled ciabatta bread with Manchego cheese and arugula.

Moroccan
Their deep, smoky flavor conjures up raisins and wine. Dry-cured in salt—a process that gives them their distinctive wrinkled texture—these olives are then soaked in olive oil and herbs to enrich and soften them and mellow their intensity. As a result, they have an especially high sodium content, so use them in small quantities to enhance dishes with neutral flavors, such as pasta and rice.
Try it: Toss Moroccan oil–cured olives with hot fettuccine, minced basil, sun-dried tomatoes, grated Asiago cheese, and olive oil.

Niçoise
These purplish-black little olives boast a bright, tangy flavor that has earned them the starring role in the eponymous French Niçoise salad and in pissaladier, a Provençal pizza-style dish of olives, onions, and anchovies on flat bread.
Try it: Add Niçoise olives to shrimp sautéed in olive oil and butter, along with garlic, lemon, white wine, and capers; serve over hot linguine.

Picholines
These olives are typically marinated in brine laced with herbes de Provence and other flavorings, such as coriander, onion, bay leaf, or lemon. Flavorful but delicate, herbal, and nutty, picholines add a distinctive accent to all manner of recipes.
Try it: Mince picholines and roasted red peppers, stir into softened chevre, spread on crostini, and top with smoked salmon.

Manzanilla
Familiar to most as the typical, pimento-stuffed green variety sold in glass jars on supermarket shelves, manzanillas are plump and tender, with sweet, almond undertones. You’ll also find more upscale versions in specialty shops; these often are stuffed with garlic, habañero peppers, almonds, anchovies, blue cheese, or other unusual ingredients.
Try it: Marinate cooked shrimp, almond-stuffed manzanillas, orange segments, and shallots in sherry and olive oil; serve over arugula leaves.

Gaeta
Salt-curing concentrates the flavor and wrinkles the skin of Gaetas, but it unfortunately also makes them higher in sodium than most other olive varieties. Curing them in brine, however, imparts a dark purple–black hue and makes their skin and flesh plump and smooth. Either way, they have a tart, winey taste that’s lovely in cooked dishes, especially those that can stand up to their robust flavor.
Try it: Add Gaetas, red pepper flakes, and minced garlic to roasted parsnips and sweet potatoes during the last 10 minutes of cooking.

Arbequina
Famed for their sharp, pleasantly peppery flavor and rich, buttery undertones, these medium-brown olives have only a small amount of firm flesh. Arbequinas make the finest-quality olive oil.
Try it: Toss Arbequinas with chopped endive, baby arugula leaves, crumbled feta cheese, orange segments, and lemon-basil vinaigrette.

Cerignola
The mammoths of the olive family, cerignolas reach spectacular size and have firm, meaty flesh and smooth, taut skin. You’ll find them in both a brilliant green and a dull black. The greens are fresh and fruity, with mildly briny undertones; the black versions offer a rich, sweet flavor with hints of butter.
Try it: Combine finely chopped green cerignolas with minced garlic and shallots, coarsely chopped pine nuts, and olive oil; spread on toasted whole-grain baguette.

Lisa Turner is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado.