Welcome to the July edition of Cucina Conversations! Our group recently decided to publish quarterly instead of monthly due to our busy schedules, but the quality and creativity of our posts will stay the same, and we have some exciting topics for upcoming editions. This month, our topic is “stuffed”, a cooking preparation Italians are especially adept at, and includes a wide range of foods: stuffed pastas such as tortellini, ravioli, and agnolotti; seasonal vegetables hollowed out and filled with a savory meat mixture; involtini, cutlets of beef, pork, or veal rolled around a filling of prosciutto and cheese; and pastries such as krapfen, airy doughnuts filled with pastry cream. My contribution is one of my favorite savory snacks, olive all’Ascolana–large, tender, green olives stuffed with a mixture of cooked beef, chicken and pork, seasoned with a variety of spices, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and then deep-fried. Whenever I’m in Italy, I never miss an opportunity to buy a half dozen (or more) of these delicious morsels when I pass a forno (bakery) and I eat them warm, straight out of the bag while walking around town. Olive all’Ascolana are frequently served as an antipasto along with a glass of wine, a cocktail, or Prosecco. They are also part of the fritto misto all’Ascolana, a mixed fry consisting mainly of vegetables such as artichokes, zucchini, and zucchini flowers.
The ancient Etruscan culture that arrived in the region now known as Toscana in 400 B.C. was most likely responsible for initiating the cultivation of the olive tree. Vases and amphora with intricate designs of the olive tree and olive harvest have been found in Etruscan tombs throughout Toscana, suggesting the Etruscans deep appreciation and regard for both the fruit and its oil. An evergreen tree, the Olea europaea sativa (as it is known botanically) keeps its leaves throughout the winter months, and is a plant that can survive and thrive inhospitable growing conditions: rocky terrain, dry, hot climates, and minimal watering. More than fifty variety of olives are grown in Italy, divided between varieties that are harvested for oil, and varieties that are harvested for consumption. Certain varieties such as taggiasca (from Liguria) and nocellara del Belice (from Sicilia) are equally desirable for oil and eating.
The olive variety used to make olive all’Ascolana is called oliva tenera ascolana and it grows in the province of Ascoli Piceno in the central-eastern region of Le Marche. It’s a stand-out olive for its large size, meaty texture, sweet-flavored flesh, and straw-green coloring. Tenera ascolana olives grow in a limited area of calcium-rich soil primarily in the province of Ascoli Piceno and partly in the province of Teramo. They are solely cultivated as olive da mensa (olives for consumption). All olives harvested for eating must undergo a process of curing because olives cannot be eaten straight from the tree as they are hard and bitter. There are different curing techniques depending on the olive variety. All olives for consumption undergo a soaking and brining process after which some are lightly fermented, other are cured in dry salt, and others are aromatizzate, “perfumed” with a variety of aromatics: garlic, onion, chili flakes, herbs, slices of citrus fruit peel, and olive oil. The tenera ascolana olive variety is treated with an alkaline solution of food-grade sodium hydroxide, which permeates the flesh to tenderize it and set its signature green color. After they are treated, the olives are thoroughly rinsed and preserved in a salt brine to retain their trademark meaty texture and bright color.
If you ever have the opportunity to see olive all’Ascolana being prepared in Italy, you are in for a visual treat. The tenera ascolana olives are pitted by hand one-by-one using a small, sharp paring knife which the (very skilled) cook carefully runs around the large pit to cut away the flesh in one long, curly strip. It’s precise, exacting work and mesmerizing to watch. Not to mention impressive. Once the olives have been pitted, they are stuffed with a mixture of meats, usually beef (or veal), chicken, and pork, and sometimes liver, which has been cooked with aromatics (carrot, celery, and onion) and seasoned with salt, pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and Parmigiano-Reggiano all bound together with egg. The mixture is then minced finely and small portions of it are stuffed into the olive with the flesh wrapping around the stuffing. From there, the stuffed olives are dredged in flour, dipped in an egg wash, and coated in breadcrumbs before being deep-fried. If it sounds like a lot of work for something you can gobble up in less than ten seconds, you’d be right. But! I promise it’s all worth it. Making olive all’Ascolana is most definitely a kitchen project. The meat mixture must be made in advance so it has time to cool completely, but you can make it the day before and keep it tightly covered in the refrigerator until you’re ready to stuff the olives. As for the olives: tenere ascolane are next to impossible to find outside of Italy and you definitely do not need to pit olives one-by-one (unless you want to, in which case go for it! I tip my hat to you!). I used a large, green, variety labeled “party stuffers” which are sold already pitted and brined. All you have to do is drain and rinse them, pat them dry, cut a slit down half of each olive and start stuffing. It’s a fun task to do with family and friends, or older kids. At my most recent cooking class at the Italian Cultural and Community Center this month, I taught my students how to make olive all’Ascolana as part of our “Italian Street Food” theme, and they had a great time learning the process…and eating the delicious results! I’m certain that after you taste these, you’ll not only agree that it’s worth the effort on the front end, but you’ll also understand what Italians mean when they say una tira l’altra (“one pulls the next one”). In other words, you can’t eat just one!
Photo credit: Red Shoes Red Wine (thanks, Sheila!)
My fellow Cucina Conversations friends have some wonderful “stuffed” recipes this month, so be sure to visit their blogs to learn more about the creative ways Italians stuff a variety of seasonal ingredients. Francesca made one of my favorites, pomodori gratinati, baked tomatoes stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs; Daniela is sharing a recipe for pomodori ripieni con patate alla romana, baked rice-stuffed tomatoes with roasted potatoes; Carmen made a timballo di riso (savory rice torte); Marialuisa is sharing a recipe for zucchine ripiene (stuffed zucchini); and Rosemarie has made melanzane ripiene (stuffed eggplant). As you can see, we all went the stuffed vegetable route with our recipes, which makes them all perfect for these (very) hot days of summer…except for Carmen, who lives in Australia where it’s currently winter, and where her timballo is equally welcome fare for a cold winter day. Enjoy our recipes and buon appetito! We will be back in October with another Cucina Conversations post.
Adapted from Italian Street Food by Paola Bacchia
Look for large, green, pitted olives in brine, often labeled “party stuffers” or “stuffers”. They are large enough for this recipe and have a robust texture and great flavor to complement the flavor of the meat stuffing. Because the quantities of the aromatics, meats, and seasonings is small, use a kitchen scale to get the exact quantity of each ingredient. This will eliminate waste and give you just the right amount of ingredients to use for the recipe.
Special equipment: kitchen scale; food processor fitted with the steel blade; oil/candy thermometer
For the stuffed olives
- 50 large, green pitted olives (“party stuffers”), drained and patted dry
- 3–4 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 ounce (25 grams) finely diced carrot
- 1 ounce (25 grams) finely diced celery
- 1 ounce (25 grams) finely diced onion
- 2 ¾ ounces (75 grams) ground beef
- 2 ¾ ounces (75 grams) ground pork
- 2 ¾ ounces (75 grams) ground chicken
- ¼ cup (60 mL) white wine
- ⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
- ¾ ounces (20 grams) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- ¼ teaspoon grated lemon zest
- ⅓ ounces (10 grams) crust-less sliced white bread, torn into large pieces
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
For the breadcrumb coating + frying station
- ½ cup all-purpose flour, plus more if necessary
- 2 eggs, beaten with a splash of milk
- ¾ cup plain breadcrumbs, plus more if necessary
- Vegetable oil, for frying
Prepare the olives
- Line a baking sheet with 2-3 layers of paper towels and set it near the sink. Drain the olives through a colander, rinse briefly with cold water, and transfer them to the paper towel-lined baking sheet. Pat dry. Take a sharp paring knife and make a slit down only one side of the olive (from “North Pole to South Pole”) so that you are able to open the olive like a book. Repeat this process until all the olives have been sliced. Set them aside.
Make the filling
- Heat a 12-inch (30 cm) skillet over medium-low heat and add in the olive oil to warm. Add in the carrot, celery, and onion and sauté, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes until soft but not browned. Raise the heat to medium and add in the ground beef, pork, and chicken and use a wooden spoon or spatula to break up the meats, stirring frequently until the meat is browned and cooked through. Turn the heat up to high and pour in the wine. Stir frequently until the wine evaporates and then turn off the heat. Set the pan aside to allow the meat mixture to cool completely.
- Place the cooled meat mixture in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Add in the nutmeg, cloves, Parmigiano, lemon zest, bread, and egg. Pulse the mixture several times until the texture looks like a paste. Transfer the mixture to a bowl or container, cover tightly and refrigerate until you are ready to stuff the olives. The meat mixture can be made 1 day in advance, covered tightly, and refrigerated.
To stuff and cook the olives
- Take an olive and use your fingers to open it slightly like a book. Take a small amount of filling (a little more than the size of the pit) and stuff it into the cavity of the olive, then gently wrap the olive flesh around the filling. The olive flesh won’t close completely around the stuffing (see picture above) and that is OK. Repeat this process with the remaining olives until they are all stuffed.
- Line a large platter with a sheet of wax paper. Set it at your breading station. To bread the olives, fill three separate shallow bowls (or pie plates) with the flour, the egg wash, and the breadcrumbs. Dredge the olives (one at a time) first through the flour (shaking off excess), then in the egg wash, and finally in the breadcrumbs (shaking off excess). Transfer the breaded olives to the wax paper-lined platter.
- Line a baking sheet with 3-4 layers of paper towels and set it near the stovetop.
- Fill a heavy-bottomed frying pan (or cast iron skillet) no more than halfway with the vegetable oil and heat the oil over medium heat until it reaches 350℉ (180℃) on an oil/candy thermometer. Alternately, you can test if the oil is hot enough by dropping a very small amount of loose breadcrumbs in the oil to see if they start sizzling right away. Working in batches, carefully lower in several olives at a time, being careful not to over-crowd the pan. Fry the olives for about 1 minute, turning them often so they brown evenly all over. Use a slotted spoon or spider strainer to lift the cooked olives out of the oil and transfer them to the paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain. Transfer the drained olives to a serving platter or serving bowl and serve immediately. Careful…even if they are warm to the touch on the outside, they are still very hot on the inside!