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How to use Leftover Olives and Capers - Including the Brine

Capers and olives soaked in their jar’s brine are full of flavour and possibilities

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By House & Garden | January 8, 2024 | Recipes

A jar of olives has become such a common household ingredient, it is easy to forget the historical, mythical and religious provenance of this tiny fruit. Olives have been cultivated by humans for some 7,000 years and have diversified into hundreds of different varieties, grown all over the world’s subtropical regions, often in areas where grape vines are also cultivated. In Greek mythology, the olive tree was considered a sacred gift from the goddess Athena and, in the Old Testament, a dove returned to Noah’s ark with an olive branch in its mouth, indicating that the flood waters had receded.

There is good reason why olives have only grown in popularity as the flavour spectrum is expansive, ranging through sour, salty, bitter and rich, making them an exceptionally versatile ingredient to cook with. They can be green, firm and nutty, or soft, rich and black, but the colour is mainly an indication of ripeness as all olives will turn dark the longer they ripen on the tree. Once picked, they need to be cured before they are palatable – most popularly with brine or salt. Lye curing is a widely used commercial method, but this produces a bland flavour and an unpleasant chemical after taste. Firm black canned olives are actually picked green and then pumped with oxygen in order to turn them black.

Ranging from sour, salty, bitter and rich, makes olives an exceptionally versatile ingredient to cook with. Image via unsplash.

I always like to have a couple of varieties in the cupboard, although, once opened, I keep them in the fridge. Beldi are an intensely flavoured type of Moroccan black olive with wrinkly skin, delicious to use in fennel and orange salad, or a chicken tagine. A similar option is niçoise or kalamata olives – their salty richness creates a great contrast when studded in a caramelised onion tart. You could also try them roasted on a bed of thinly sliced potatoes; in classic tomato sauce for pasta; in tapenade; or in a sauce with anchovies, capers and cream that is great with roast lamb.

Green olives are generally softer in flavour and some are particularly large. Image via unsplash.

Green olives are generally softer in flavour and some are particularly large – for example, picholine, gordal and cerignola. In Italy, green olives are served stoned, stuffed and deep-fried in breadcrumbs. This is too fiddly to do at home, so I use them in lighter dishes: cooked with fish or chicken, or marinated with coriander, fennel seeds, garlic and oil to accompany drinks. The smaller green pitted olives in brine are essential for a dirty martini – I buy those from Perelló for this. Or I will serve smoky, almond-tasting manzanilla olives to nibble with a glass of dry sherry. As a general rule, I choose olives with stones and remove the stones only if I need to chop the flesh. A good trick is to bash them gently using a pestle and mortar, or you can squash them with the flat side of a large knife, before picking out the stones.

Once picked, olives need to be cured before they are palatable – most popularly with brine or salt. Image via Unsplash.

Capers and olives go hand in hand in lots of recipes. They grow in similar Mediterranean climates and in abundance on the hot southern Italian islands of Pantelleria and Lipari. Capers are the buds of a trailing perennial shrub that has blueish leaves and white flowers, with firework bursts of long violet stamens. The fruit is mostly harvested as tight buds or as caper berries, which are larger and have tiny seeds inside. Like olives, capers need to be brined or packed in salt before they can be eaten (this should be washed off before cooking); some are then macerated in vinegar, which can overwhelm their subtle flavour. With floral and salty undertones, they work very well in sauces, stews and salads. Use them in a classic steak tartare; mix them with chopped herbs to make a salsa verde; add them to lamb stews; or make a salad with shaved kohlrabi, capers and chervil, and a lemon and oil dressing. They are also excellent fried until crispy in butter or oil and served with skate or another white fish.

This story originally appeared on House & Garden UK.