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The Olive, Unsqueezed

August 20, 1992|LESLIE LAND

Because it is both tasty and comparatively healthful, olive oil is on its way to becoming the butter of the '90s. Going beyond salad and into the skillet, onto the vegetables and bread--in some cases even into the cake--olive oil is spreading everywhere. Supermarkets that used to carry one brand of virgin olive oil, if they carried any at all, now commonly offer four or five varieties. Gourmet stores fill whole shelves with the stuff.

Meanwhile, what about the fruit itself? Cured olives are among the great foods, small but mighty bites of intense flavor equally welcome on their own and as ingredients in everything from stews and sauces to breads. The sharp flavor of green olives is a perfect partner to dry Sherry before a meal; it also does a fine job of balancing the richness of fat meats such as duck, and fat fish such as salmon. Black olives are rounder and mellower, a meal all by themselves with bread. They are also the classic accompaniment for high-flavored cured meats such as garlic sausage and a fine enrichment for fish stews, tomato sauces, salads and dishes that might otherwise taste a bit thin.

In most of the countries where olives grow, they come in a vast variety of sizes, colors and flavors, thanks to different types of trees, picking times, curing methods and marinades. The selection here tends to be less wide, but groceries that specialize in Greek or Italian foods, large delicatessens and fancy groceries are all likely spots to seek out assortments.

Whether green or ripe, all olives are inedibly bitter when first harvested. They must be processed before they are palatable. For mildest flavor, the olives are subjected to a lye treatment or immersed in caustic soda solution, then soaked in repeated changes of fresh water until all caustic residues have been removed. They are then usually brined or marinated to bring out flavor.

European olives are often spared the caustic treatment. Instead, they are simply heavily salted, or soaked in water and then brined. The choice of initial curing method has a lot to do with the eventual flavor: Salt-cured olives are usually on the bitter side, while those that have been brined undergo a lactic-acid fermentation (similar to what cures dill pickles and sauerkraut) that contributes a savor of its own.

Ripeness, of course, is also a factor. Green olives are green in age as well as in color, and all green olives tend to be sharper-flavored than black ones. But there are differences even among green olives: Some are picked almost as soon as they form, others not until shortly before color begins to change.

Olive trees themselves come in many varieties, as different from each other as the grapes that often grow near them. There are those best for eating and those best for oil, those at their finest when still green and those that don't taste like much until they have ripened to purple or purple-black. Names are not always an indicator of type. They may refer to shape, e.g. picudilla, or pointed. They may refer to a curing method: Olives taillees have been cut with a knife blade before being pickled in herbed brine. Sometimes a place name is the marker. For instance, Sevillanas come from the town of Seville.

The best way to find out which ones you like is to taste and taste and taste. Olives are so small most purveyors are glad to hand out samples. They keep a long time, too, so it's easy to stock up when you're in olive territory.

This is an ideal make-ahead party dish, complex in flavor but easy to prepare, and very pretty if you bone the meat. Serve with plenty of rice or mashed potatoes to sop up the sauce.

LAMB SHANKS WITH OLIVES IN LEMON-PARSLEY SAUCE

4 (1-pound) meaty lamb shanks

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 very large or 2 medium onions, coarsely chopped

3 large cloves garlic

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano

20 large or 40 small brine-cured black olives, Kalamata or similar type, well-drained and pitted, optional

2 heaping cups parsley leaves and tender stems

2 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Lemon wedges

Place lamb shanks on greased shallow baking pan. Broil close to heat, turning as needed, until well browned all over. Set aside.

Place olive oil in heavy stew pot wide enough to hold shanks in 1 layer. Place over medium heat. Add and saute onions until tender. Chop 2 garlic cloves and stir in. Add shanks along with any juices from baking pan. Add wine and oregano.

Cover and barely simmer over very low heat until meat is tender, 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Turn once, about halfway through.

Remove shanks and set aside. Pour pan contents into tall, narrow, heat-proof bowl or big mug and set aside in refrigerator for fat to rise. When shanks are cool enough to handle, remove meat from bones in large pieces.

Skim and discard as much fat as possible from pan contents. Grind in food processor or blender to thick, smooth puree. Mince remaining garlic clove. Return puree to pot. Stir in reserved meat, olives, minced garlic, parsley, lemon juice and salt. Simmer, uncovered, about 10 minutes to reheat and blend flavors. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve at once, accompanied by lemon wedges. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

CANNED BLACK OLIVES: The ferrous gluconate mentioned an the label is a color fixative that keeps them uniformly black. They are treated with lye to remove bitterness, but they are not brined. This means they lack both the spoilage-resistance and the flavor complexity of fermented olives. They are sterilized in the can and must be used up promptly once the can is opened. Their flavor will be considerably improved if you drain them well, cover with either plain olive oil or a garlicky vinaigrette, and let them sit for a few days in the refrigerator.

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