My maternal grandmother's Thanksgiving spread would not have been complete without a relish tray. Unfortunately it was filled with things that as a child I had no desire to eat. I was admittedly a picky eater, but to this day I am loth to consume celery stuffed with anything. There was also almost always something called a watermelon rind pickle. I confess I never once tasted it. Its appearance—glistening, semi-translucent chunks of pale, whitish green—was enough to put me off.
I don't know how old I was when I discovered the black olives, but once tasted I was hooked (maybe I should have tasted those watermelon pickles). They were not fancy olives—just the ubiquitous tinned, pitted California olives—but I loved them. Whenever my grandmother started to put together "the relish tray" I would hang around waiting for the can of olives to be opened so I could sneak some before dinner. It was not long before I expanded my horizons to the big green pimento-stuffed Spanish Olives that also made an appearance on her relish tray. I loved their salty tang so much I was even willing to eat the pimento.
As an adult I have continued to taste my way through the world of olives, happily sampling any olive I am presented with. I was in olive heaven in the South of France. The stalls of the olive vendors at the markets there are loaded with black and green olives of every shade, marinated in all manner of tasty aromatic ingredients. The olive bars in most of my local super markets...even Whole Foods...are meager in comparison.
Fortunately, making your own marinated olives is extremely easy. There are recipes all over the web, but you don't really need a recipe. Just visit the store with the largest selection of olives at their olive bar and pick and choose until you have a nice medley (or you could just go with one favorite—my current favorite is Castelvetrano). When you get home, remove the olives from their brine (if they are in one) and place in a large bowl. Toss them with your marinade, cover and refrigerate for a day or two, pulling them out occasionally to give them a stir. Bring them to room temperature before serving.
Here is my favorite (at least for now) marinade: Drain four cups of olives (pitted or not) and place them in a medium-sized bowl. Place a half cup of olive oil in a small saucepan. Add several sprigs of rosemary, some whole fennel seed (1/2 to 1 t.), a pinch of hot pepper flakes (as much or as little as you like), 2 or 3 bay leaves and 4 or 5 cloves of peeled garlic (if they are very fat, use 2 or 3 and halve them lengthwise). Using a vegetable peeler, remove several strips of zest (about 3- by 1/2-inch each) from an orange and a lemon—about 4 or 5 strips of orange and 2 or 3 strips of lemon is about right. Be careful to remove just the zest and as little of the white pith as possible (the pith is bitter). Add the strips of zest to the oil with the other ingredients. Over moderate heat, warm the marinade until all of the ingredients are gently sizzling.
Remove from the heat and let stand for 15 to 20 minutes to infuse the oil with the flavor of the aromatic ingredients. Pour the warm marinade over the drained olives, folding to make sure the ingredients are well combined. Let cool if necessary before covering and transferring to the refrigerator.
I love the look of these olives with the large pieces of zest and herbs and garlic. But if you prefer, you could finely julienne the strips of zest and mince the rosemary and garlic. You could substitute thyme for the rosemary....or coriander seed for the fennel....a star anise or two would be an interesting addition. The last time I made these I didn't have any un-zested lemons in the house. So instead I julienned a piece of preserved lemon and added this to the mix.
It was delicious. Next time I will add more.... The "recipe" really should only be a guideline. The idea is to give the olives a chance to sit in an oil infused with flavors that you love in combination with olives.
Your own "house"-marinated olives would make an excellent addition to your Thanksgiving celebration. Although, if you have small children around, it might be a good idea to include a small bowl of those mild California black olives (just plain...without any marinade). While not what I would choose to eat now, they paved the way for a future filled with olive delights.