Sunday, October 4, 2009

herbed olive and walnut spread

walnut, herb and olive spread
about four and a half years ago,
i was preparing to host friends
for the weekend.
for most people,
that means
cleaning a bit,
making restaurant reservations
and maybe,
planning a meal or two
to make for their guests.

for me,
living in a studio apartment -
a place in which
i made a big production when
showing people around: this is
the living room, and then this
(pulling them two feet
closer to me) is the bedroom,
right there to the left of your foot,
that piece of floor is the
dining room -
overnight guests meant
a complete overhaul.

i mean, really. when your
guests are going to spend
the night sleeping on the floor,
an arms-length away,
there is not a space to even
hide anything.
and making dinner?
that's really out of the question.
while it may have been fine for
me to make a mess - because there
was no other choice, in my surprisingly
spacious kitchen (it's relative, you see) -
and then for larry and i to eat dinner
on the floor, it's not really the kind
of behavior you can
impose on people nice enough to point
out that you're hosting them
in shoebox.

so instead,
when i had guests, i opted
to make reservations and start
the night with appetizers that could
be made ahead of time -
four people could comfortably
sit on the love seat and two
small chairs i kept hidden
in the corner for such occasions.
and i did have a little side table.

so when our friends were
coming to stay,
i took a familiar route.
make delicious nibbles of things
so that people were so
overcome by the food,
they forgot to focus on the
fact that my mixer sat
next to the couch, like pretend art
and, that my television was
on the dresser.
it sounds silly now, but i really
did think i could distract with food.

i settled on two
blue cheese with caramelized shallots,
olive and walnut.
both good, i took a particular liking
to the slightly spicy, mustardy and
herb-infused olives.
i couldn't wait
to serve them the next night.
olives, mixed
the next night.
i got an extremely
good lesson in knowing your audience.
i set the dips out and found out that
one of them despised
both blue cheese and olives.
i didn't blame her -
if someone put a plate
of fennel in front of me,
i don't think all the
trying and politeness
in the world would help me finish,
let alone start in on it.
but, i was still bummed.

that week, i used the spread a lot
in other dishes,
deciding that even though it hadn't
been a hit with everyone,
i had still stumbled upon
something delicious.

my mom's friend, judy, hosts
us and a couple other families
for a gathering every september.
it's a night based on tradition:
my mom always brings the chicken,
judy always make brisket,
someone always brings a platter
of homemade chocolates from his shop
and another is responsible for the
kugel and creamed herring.
it goes on.

over the years, i had played around,
making dessert,
trying different appetizers,
but nothing stuck.
that year, i decided to test the
olive spread with another group.
it was quite well received and i
felt relieved that i finally had my thing.

it's nice.
i'm always so concerned with
finding the perfect recipe
for the situation.
i spend hours - if not days -
on the internet,
reading through my cookbooks
and weighing out my options.
it's more than a relief to have
one thing that is on auto pilot.

but more than that,
this is a recipe worth making
over and over. it is quite
simple, especially with two
new additions:
1) i have upgraded from a
mini food processor
to a standard so that i can now
make everything in
one batch instead
of three.
2) two years ago, i finally gave in
and purchased pitted olives
instead of pitting my own.
so worth it.
olives and toasted walnuts
but even with those original
handicaps, this recipe was nothing
to get nervous about.
thanks to the walnuts and spices,
it will always be very good and simple.
the crunch of the nuts
give the otherwise smooth dish,
welcome texture and obviously, a nuttiness
that plays well against
the briny olives.

over the years, i've taken to adding
more mustard and herbs, which
i think is worth it to make the
whole thing pop.
oh, a couple things about the herbs.
i've switched to dried because as
much as i'm a fan of fresh, it's hard
to rationalize buying a huge bunch
for 1 teaspoon-worth -
and, i'm the kind of person
who typically keeps away
from anything marked herbed
out of fear of intense herbiness.
but in this case, they are still
a background note -
and one that works beautifully.
ground olives and walnuts with spices
i've also upped the cayenne because
i like the idea of a very slight
gentle heat at the end of each bite.

ultimately, this really is
a very simple food processor recipe,
so nothing is stopping you from
tweaking here and there until
it's adjusted to suit you perfectly.

i secretly always wish for leftovers
because the spread is perfect
with tomatoes on bread
and more recently, i've used it to mimic
a very memorable dish
that i enjoyed in charleston a few years ago:
hot pasta, tossed with tapenade,
goat cheese and a few splashes of pasta water.
once, i mixed all three together before adding
to the pasta, but i realized that the restaurant
had been right, there's something delicious
about an occasional bite having only
goat cheese or only the olives.
so now, i add dollops of each to the pasta,
then mix. it makes the whole thing
taste hand-crafted.

last week, i made the spread
for the sixth time and i absolutely
like it as much now as i did the
first time i served it.
everyone else seems to, too.

oh, and when larry and i moved
in together, i felt instantly
spoiled with space.
we put a table in our dining room
(i had a dining room!)
and the mixer on the kitchen counter.
we got a bookshelf.
it's amazing what you can be grateful for.
we invited the same couple back,
made neutral appetizers,
and ate dinner and dessert -
which everyone seemed to enjoy -
at that treasured table
and that night, we gave them their
very own room to sleep in.
they even had a door.
olive spread with walnuts
herbed olive and walnut spread
adapted from pane caldo in chicago, via bon appetit magazine
by all means, buy the pitted olives, but do yourself two huge favors. first, make sure you buy beautiful purple olives and not the greenish-brown ones - the color makes this dish. also, even if you buy the pitted, take the time to check each before they go in the food processor. the process is never perfect and a pit could slip by (sorry, alan!). i always double the recipe, so that's what i'm giving you here, but it can obviously, be easily halved. also, as always, make it, taste and adjust. personally, i like flavors prominent, so i've increased the quantities of everything.

3 1/2 cups pitted kalamata olives (about 1 pound), rinsed and drained well
3/4 cup chopped walnuts, toasted and divided
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons coarse-grained mustard
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons dried sage
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

in bowl of food processor, finely chop olives and 6 tablespoons toasted walnuts. add olive oil, mustard, garlic, thyme oregano, sage and cayenne pepper; blend to combine. taste and adjust. transfer olive mixture to bowl; stir in remaining walnuts. cover and chill until serving.

i like to serve this with pita triangles, grape tomatoes and sliced zucchini and squash. the original recipe called for slices of a baguette.

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