Ancient fruits, exotic flavors

With spring in full green and summer preparing its annual comeback, more people are returning olives

Laura Marino knows all about the exotic Kalamata.

“It’s also known as the Gaeta olive,” said Marino, one of the olive experts at Schenectady’s La Gioia Deli. “It’s the deep red one, like an eggplant-purple color.”

The Kalamata has company in the Van Vranken Avenue store’s coolers. “We have a Sicilian pitted green olive with seasoning,” Marino said. “We have a dried, cured black olive with fennel seed. We have olive salad. Then we have the sweet green olive that’s awesome. . . . It has a whole different taste.”

There are tasters and takers for all. With spring in full green and summer preparing its annual comeback, more people are returning olives to personal menus.

At La Gioia, customers are asking for olives on deli sandwiches to go. They’re buying olive salad by the pound, grabbing handfuls of round fruits for moist, tangy snacks with hints of vinegar and garlic. At home, olives go into tomato sauces, are sliced for hamburger garnish and become part of the salad toss with lettuce, chick peas, onions and celery.

Good for you

The exotic additives are also fine with the nutrition camp. Food experts say olives are a good source for Vitamin E and contain fats that help cholesterol.

Olives are also among the most historic foods on the market. According to the Musto Family Olive Co. in California, which distributes “Black Pearls,” “Green Pearls” and “Mediterranean Pearls,” ancient Egyptians were cultivating olive groves more than 3,000 years ago.

Company historians say Spanish missionaries brought olive trees to North America in the 1700s. The first olive trees were planted in California soil in 1769, with olive oil production in mind. Less expensive oils produced in Europe sold better. New ways to market the olive arrived in the late 1800s, when ripe back olives became popular.

Olives, hard and bitter off the branch, must be cured before they can score points at the dinner table. Salt and water are the two options. Olives can also be stuffed — pimentos, garlic, fried almonds and jalapeno peppers are some popular ways to replace the pit.

Anna DiCocco, who owns La Gioia with her sister-in-law Modesta DiCarlo, said her black olives with fennel do well with other flavors. “A lot of people like the crushed red pepper on them,” she said. “It gives it a little extra bite.”

Extra bites of green, red and black olives are healthy in moderation, said Lisa Finkenbinder, clinical nutrition manager of Ellis Hospital.

“There are some health benefits as far as the good fats; olives have the heart-healthy fats, the monounsaturated fats, which help raise your HDL [high-density lipoprotein], which is your good cholesterol,” Finkenbinder said. “They’re an excellent source of Vitamin E. A cup of olives, kind of a big portion size, will give you 20 percent of your recommended daily amount of Vitamin E.”

Vitamin E helps as an antioxidant, which promotes cardiovascular health. Finkenbinder said olives in small numbers also benefit the body.

“Even if you don’t have a cup of olives, but you have a few on your salad or you use them in cooking or flavoring if you’re making a meat dish, you can still get some of those heart-healthy benefits,” she said.

Olives can also substitute as a snack food. Nutritionists say a handful of fruits help suppress hunger.

“A lot of people like to cook with them,” said Laura Marino. “Especially the Gaeta olive. A lot of people throw them in with chicken, or sauce.”

Greek staple

At Albany’s Athos — a restaurant that specializes in Greek dishes — owner and chef Harry Hatziparaskevas always has olives on hand.

“First, they are healthy,” said Hatziparaskevas, who said children in Greece grow up eating olives. The fruits are always part of their diets.

Olives are also the big stars in the Greek salads served at Athos, and Hatziparaskevas’ other Greek restaurant, Ithaka, in Manhattan.

“The Greek salad is served with olives and feta cheese, the Kalamata olive,” he said. “In Greece, you use the olive oil for the top of the salad. Tomatoes, some greens, green peppers, I have in the restaurants for starters. And in all the Greek restaurants, not only mine.”

Everybody has favorite olives. People who like tacos appreciate the sliced black olives that are a big part of the filling. Egg and olive sandwiches are old-fashioned comfort foods for lunch. Folks who enjoy martinis must have a green olive with pimento in the bottom of their glass.

“I like the sweet green olives,” Laura Marino said. “It tastes the least like all the other olives. It has its own flavor, kind of like a buttery olive and you don’t need to add anything to it. You eat it, and it’s delish.”

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