Extend an Olive Branch

by Mark R. Vogel

        Extending someone an “olive branch” is a gesture of peace and goodwill.  This benevolent association with olives originated with the story of Noah and the ark.  After many days of rain Noah released a dove to find land.  The dove returned with an olive branch.  In addition to verifying that land was within reach, the olive branch signified God’s forgiveness, and thus became a symbol of peace.

        With dozens of varieties, olives are indigenous to the Mediterranean and have been revered by man for millennia.   Green olives are picked prior to ripening and black ones after ripening.  In addition to being coveted as the source for one of the most popular oils on earth, olives are used in the cuisines of many cultures and in innumerable recipes.  It is the black olive however, that I wish to focus on presently.           

        Puttanesca sauce, most often employed for pasta, originated in Naples.  It is made from black olives, tomatoes, capers, anchovies, onions, garlic, and herbs, usually oregano and parsley but sometimes also basil.  It is an easy sauce that is briefly cooked, and is very fragrant and spicy.  I like it best with spaghetti or on top of chicken breasts.  There are many different recipes; the variations usually being the amount of the ingredients.  Indeed, the basic recipe is flexible.  Below is the recipe I use, but feel free to alter the individual items according to taste. 




1 lb spaghetti or the pasta of your choice

1 medium onion, chopped

1 (2-oz.) can of anchovies

Pinch of hot pepper flakes, (more or less to taste)

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil as needed

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 (28-oz.) can of plum tomatoes, including the juice.

2 tablespoons capers

½ cup chopped black olives, (about 25 small olives)

Oregano, chopped, to taste

Parsley, chopped, to taste

Grated Parmesan cheese to taste


        Boil the pasta while making the sauce but try to time it that the sauce is done first.  Better the sauce simmer for a few extra minutes waiting for the pasta than the reverse.  Remove the pasta just a little before it is done so you can finish cooking it in the sauce.  Sweat the onion, anchovies, hot pepper, salt and pepper in a generous amount of olive oil until the onions soften and the anchovies disintegrate somewhat.  Break the anchovies up with a wooden spoon as they sweat.  Go easy on the salt since many of the ingredients are already salty.  Add the garlic and cook one minute more.

         Next add the tomatoes and their juices, breaking them up with a masher or wooden spoon as you bring them to a boil.  Add the capers and olives, reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 8-10 minutes.  Add the almost done pasta and cook until the pasta is al dente.  Check for additional salt and pepper.  Finish with the oregano, parsley and cheese and serve.  Oregano, by the way, is one of the few herbs that remain serviceable in dried form.  Fresh is always best, but you can get by with the dried oregano.  The parsley however, must be fresh.  Dried parsley is an insipid and grim shadow of its fresh counterpart.

         Below is my recipe for what I call Italian salsa.  Instead of peppers and cilantro, as would be found in traditional Latin salsa, I substitute black olives and basil.  I serve it in martini glasses as an appetizer but you could also use it as a topping for bruschetta.  Like salsa, it tastes best after an extended rest (which allows the flavors to meld more thoroughly), and served at room temperature (since cold inhibits flavor).  Rest it at room temperature an hour before service.  Make sure the tomatoes are fully ripe.


5 ripe plum tomatoes, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

20 small black olives, chopped

2 tablespoons coarsely grated Parmesan cheese

Basil, chiffonade, to taste (sliced into thin ribbons)

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 ½ teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

        Combine the tomatoes, garlic, olives, Parmesan and basil.  Pour the oil and vinegar in a bowl and whisk it until an emulsion is formed.  Pour this over the tomato mixture and add salt and pepper to taste.

        Tapenade is a paste made with black olives that hails from the Provence region of France.  It is served with meat, fish, vegetables, or on toasted bread.  Tapenade can also be used as a filling.  Take a paillard (a thin slice of meat), such as a chicken breast that you’ve pounded thin, roll it with a tapenade stuffing and then sauté. 



8 oz. black, pitted olives

2 oz. capers

1 (2-oz.) can, anchovies, drained

5 cloves garlic

Juice of half a lemon

Olive oil as needed


        Puree all the ingredients in a food processor except the olive oil.  Then add the olive oil in a thin stream until a spreadable paste is achieved.  Other additions to the tapenade include sun-dried tomatoes and various herbs. 

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