Friday, July 10, 2009

Ode to the Green Olive: Atún a la Vizcaina

just like abuelita used to make

I don't know how it started or when (definitely before I was in school), but somehow my childhood memories are littered with many a green olive with pimento satisfyingly being munched on in my mouth. Whenever my mom took us to the grocery store I was sure to voice my desire that she purchase one of those skinny tall jars of my favorite treats.

I guess maybe olives weren't that common in the US back then because I happen to recall that only about 30 olives fit into one of those jars and so it was inevitable that in a day or two I was already looking for the next excuse to go grocery shopping.

In addition to that, I maintain that at least a small part of the reason I consider Matt my soul ma
te is that he shares my love for the green olive and consequently takes his martinis dirty, verrry dirty :) Even before we moved in together, Matt had his own jar of green pimento'd goodness in the fridge. Gotta love a man with a penchant for olives. :)

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Top 5 Reasons I Love those little Green Olives That Come in a Jar
or Any Other Kind of Olive for That Matter
(And yes, I do eat the nasty little pimentos in the middle)

5. They are the gift that keeps on giving.

The trees are monumental. The fruits make oil, and cured or preserved, a great snack. You can
make tapenade, caponata, cure them in oil, salt, vinegar, put them in sandwiches, eat them alone - there are a million ways to sing (and eat) the praises of the versatile olive.

4. There is nothing quite so breathtaking as an olive grove.
I have an olive tree topiary in my living room that Matt carried home on my vespa last year. I also have a small seedling growing on the window sill. I aspire to one day have many more on a piece of land somewhere. :)

ok so it was his scooter, not mine.
And in this picture it was our Bay Leaf topiary, not the olive.


3. There is something life affirming and wise about olive trees.
They always look so pleasantly alive,and seem to breath fresh air into any room while adding a touch of sophistication to any garden. The young ones are little classical promises and the old ones are the mediterranean midget equivalents of JRR Tolkien's Ents. There are a couple in the Med dating back to the Greek and Roman Empires. Mind-boggling.

A wise old (1500 year old) olive tree in Greece.
For more info, go here.

2. They are Highly Aesthetically Pleasing.
Or at least evocative of things that are aesthetically pleasing, such as: olive groves in Sicily, the first time I squeezed oil out of a raw olive in Italy between two fingers, curing olives with nothing but salt in Greece, the small beautiful display of olives at the market in Trieste - in oil, in brine, in vinegar-, buying homemade vinegar soaked elies (olives) in Ancient Corinth and admiring their unique purpley-green color...

1. They take me back.

Which is appropriate since the greener the olive, the younger it is.
They take me back to: grocery shopping with my mom, the youthful joy of feeling so utterly exhilirated about a small jar of cheap olives, unabashedly licking salty little fingers after plucking them straight from the jar, breakfasts at the Sheriff's, cooking Atún a La Vizcaina with my Abuelita Anita...

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Atún a La Vizcaina: Abuelita Anita Style

Serves 2-4

We recently finished off our most recent giant jar (Matt has been eating them by the spoonfull after work quite a bit lately), and the last thing I cooked with them is today's recipe. It is evocative of a lot of things for me, but most importantly it is a dish that really showcases the green olive, IMHO, and was the perfect swan song for our most recent and duly appreciated jar of olives.

There are several different recipes for
Atún a La Vizcaina but this is the one I used to cook with my grandmother and it is therefore, by default, the best one. :)

2 tbsps olive oil
10-15 small new potatoes, halved
10-12 Roma Tomatoes, quartered lengthwise
2-3 tbsps tomato paste
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 medium onion, sliced
3 tbsps small capers in vinegar

5-6 heaping spoonfuls of pitted green olives (pimento or not, it's up to you)

2 tbsps olive juice (from the jar)
1 can of tuna in water or olive oil

salt and pepper to taste


1. Place oil, garlic cloves and onions in a hot pan and allow the garlic to flavor the oil for about 30 seconds to 1 minute.

2. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste and allow them to cook for 5 - 10 minutes over medium-high heat, or until they start to break down.

3. Add the potatoes and 1/4 - 1/2 cup water, olives, capers and season with salt and pepper. Cover pan with lid and allow to simmer over low heat for 15-20 minutes.

4. Finally, add the tuna and mix gently so it doesn't completely break apart. Cook for another 5-10 minutes uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is semi-thick and well-seasoned.

Serve with white, unsalted steamed rice. Some fresh pineapple makes a nice dessert. :)

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  1. I'm an olive lover from way back - for me growing up my memory of olives was the black olives that you could put on the tip of each finger and then suck off. I'd like to think that I am a bit more sophisticated now. I cannot walk by an Eastern European market without checking out their olive cache. Last year I saw some raw olives, so this year I want to try brining some for myself. Looking forward to the experiment.

  2. Your ode to olives is lovely! I was never a fan of olives until recently but my appreciation is certainly growing. I would love to try this Atún a la Vizcaina; it's so sweet of you to share your grandmother's recipe. And the fact that it's served over rice is a bonus! 8-)