Tag Archives: Home-cured olives

Mom’s cured green olives

6 Oct

One of my strongest childhood memories of autumn goes something like this.

Uncle Joe pulls up to our apartment building in Brooklyn in his red dump truck. He is greeted by his sister, my mother, who emerges from the family’s fountain service store onto the concrete sidewalk outside. My uncle goes to the back of the truck and drops the tailgate, his sister following close behind, but not too close.

There are wooden crates stacked along the back edge of the truck bed, eight or ten of them I would estimate. Soon my uncle begins to unload them. He carries the crates through the store, past the two small rooms behind it, ending in the backyard where my grandparents used to keep chickens, ducks, lambs and, at one point I am told by Cousin John, even a baby calf.

One by one he places the crates on the ground, underneath the huge trellised grapevine where 30-odd family members spend many hours together every summer. Being autumn many if not all of the grapes, white ones, have already been harvested, either made into Aunt Laura’s famous jellies or simply eaten straight from the vine as they have ripened.

Two or three tables are in place for the work that is ahead, sturdy ones because that is what they must be. After he unloads the last crate Uncle Joe goes back to his truck to gather the tools that will be needed once the crates have all been opened. There are several of these tools, but all are the same.

They are hammers of various shapes and weights, normally used for my uncle’s work but here put to use in order to pound away at the contents of the crates.

They are filled with hundreds of pounds of fresh raw green olives. Where the olives were grown I do not know, but they were surely purchased at the Brooklyn Terminal Market in Canarsie, about a twenty minute drive away, longer in a dump truck. My mother is the designated curer of olives in the family and as her son I am expected to lend an assist.

My work is simple, if a tad tedious. Grab one of Uncle Joe’s hammers and, one by one, crack open each and every olive until not a single whole one remains. It is impossible to finish the job without bruising my fingers, but this is the price of autumn’s work. I don’t mind paying it.

In the end I will have helped my mother produce many glass jars filled with strongly flavored cured green olives for appreciative family members and friends.

That is the memory that stays with me, not the bruises.

Anyhow, this is a very long-winded way of saying that I got my hands on some fresh olives last week when visiting my brother Joe in New York. Mixing up a batch of cured ones did not at all seem an unacceptable thing to do.

And so.

This is 4 pounds of raw green olives. They’ve been rinsed thoroughly and allowed to dry.

Though I was tempted to use my old claw hammer, for old time’s sake, I decided on a kitchen mallet instead. One by one you’ll need to give each olive a little whack in order to break open the skin and expose the inner flesh.

Like so. Now, you can see that this is a nice clean cut, but don’t worry if it isn’t. Even if some olives come completely apart they’re still okay.

Some of my olives even broke in half. Not a problem.

A fennel bulb, three carrots and a couple celery stalks.

Cut them all up, like so.

And place them in a non-reactive container along with the olives. I used a large dutch oven, as it’s lined with porcelain and also has a lid for covering the olives as they cure.

Add 2 1/2 cups of white vinegar, 1 1/2 cups water and 3 tablespoons Kosher salt. Then drizzle a bunch of olive oil on top and cover. Set aside where it won’t be in the way because the olives will remain in the mixture for a couple days or longer. Try and stir them once in a while, too.

Knowing when the olives are ready is a little bit tricky. Just-picked olives will need to stay in the vinegar mix longer than those that have travelled a bit. I’d say start checking them after two days. The color should have darkened some by then, and the olives will have softened too. Just don’t allow them to get too soft. Pick out a couple olives and give a taste. When the texture seems right then it’s time to wrap things up.

These olives were ready in three days.

Pour the olives into a colander and let them drain fully.

At this point you’re ready to jar the olives. I transferred them into a large bowl and added several sliced garlic cloves and a little hot pepper, but you don’t need to add anything at all if you don’t want to.

Either way, stuff the olives into jars and fill the jars with extra virgin olive oil.

Make sure the olives are completely covered in oil, then tighten the lids on the jars and set them aside in a cool place. Be patient because they won’t be ready to eat for a good couple months.

I filled seven pint-sized jars out of this batch. My guess is that five of them will be distributed to others at Christmas.

It’s always better when you share, no?

Home-cured olives

26 May

Back in 2007, prompted by an article in the Times (http://nyti.ms/aALUBJ), my compatriots (that would be Strenk, Meyers, and of course Lang) and I set out to cure ourselves a mess of olives. Being a last-minute kind of thing we were forced to have a box shipped to Maine from California. The shipping cost more than the olives, but we were determined.

Of the four I was the only one who had prior experience in olive curing. If you want to call it that.

Once every couple years my mother and aunts used to whip up a batch. They’d direct me towards the giant grape arbor out back of my grandfather’s two apartment buildings (six railroad flats, six families, all of them headed by one of his children). Under the grapevine would be several crates of olives, a couple large wooden tables, and (here’s where I came in) one of Uncle Joe’s (http://bit.ly/bdfuV0) hammers. One by one, I’d have to smash each and every olive so that the skin would crack, in order to accommodate the family’s curing method. Decades later and my fingers still hurt.

Thing is, my job began and ended under that grapevine. Which is to say I had no prior olive-curing experience whatsoever.

Long story short, the batch we made in ’07 was just okay. Way too heavy on the lemon was the consensus. And the scary lava-like action when some of the jars were opened after the required six-month wait was unsettling, leading to a few jars’ worth getting tossed. And so last fall, unaided by my usual crew, I set out to try again, this time hauling a box of olives back from Brooklyn, where all is wonderful and good.

I used the same recipe (reprinted below) but with some adjustments, the main one being that instead of using lemon juice I just used more of the brine. Other adjustments were similar to what we did three years ago: instead of using just celery, we went with celery in some jars, fennel in others; and we used oranges as well as lemons.

Other than that, here’s the recipe and some of the shots taken along the way. (Apologies for the lack of true step-by-step pics, as this blog did not exist last fall and so who knew I’d need to document everything?)

The raw product.

And now, I will make an egg float.

The part I could’ve used some help with.

Nice, huh?

Seven months later.

Not the prettiest olives you ever saw, but tasty. Much better without the lemon juice. And, so far at least, no jars seem to need tossing.

Here’s the recipe from the Times article. If anybody’s up for making a batch, I can haul a few crates up to Maine come fall.

Nonno’s Olives
Adapted from Marco Smouha


1 egg

3 1/2 pounds fresh green olives, washed

2 lemons, scrubbed and cut into quarters

4 stalks celery, cut into 2-inch lengths

1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled

1 handful fresh hot chili peppers, such as jalapeño, serrano or cubanelle

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup lemon juice (fresh or bottled)

Vegetable oil.

1. Make a brine: Add about 1/2 cup salt to 2 quarts water, mixing to dissolve. Place whole egg in brine. If egg floats, water is salty enough for curing; if egg sinks, add salt and mix gently, repeating until egg floats to surface. Remove egg.

2. Place a third of the olives in a gallon jar with a wide mouth and a tight lid. Add roughly a third of the lemon pieces, a third of the celery, a third of the garlic and a third of the chili peppers. Repeat twice with remaining ingredients, pressing down to pack layers tightly into jar. Top off with a layer of celery pieces.

3. Pour brine into jar until it comes halfway up. Add vinegar and lemon juice. If needed, pour in more brine until jar is almost full. Gently pour a thin layer of oil over surface. Close jar and store at cool room temperature for at least six months. Jar may leak slightly from top as mixture ferments, so store on a tray.

4. Serve plain, or with a tangy cheese such as kashkaval, kasseri or Manchego. Everything can be eaten, and lemon pieces can be used in recipes calling for preserved lemons.

5. Refrigerate after opening. As olives and vegetables are removed, keep remainder covered with brine or oil. If olives become too strong-tasting as they sit, drain brine and pour in olive oil to cover.

Yield: 1 gallon.

Note: Top layer of vegetables may turn black during curing, because of air exposure. (A little bit of air is necessary to cure olives safely, so just screw the top firmly shut and do not attempt to boil or vacuum-seal the jar as for canning.) Blackened parts should be discarded but remainder is fine to eat. If contents become moldy, discard them.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company