You Say Tomato, I say Olive Salad

You Say Tomato, I say thank you

Gorgeous, juicy, ripe tomatoes are front and center in produce departments and farmers markets now: yellow teardrops, voluptuously broad-beamed heirlooms, hefty beefsteaks smugly squirting juice at the tiniest prick of the knife, brilliant orange, red and yellow cherries begging to be consumed by the handfuls.

Ripe and ready to eat by the handful

After a week or so of eating every variety I can find, either plain or with a little salt, I begin to play with vinaigrettes or other combinations that will bring out the sweetness, tartness or mildness of different varietals. A sprinkling of fresh thyme and shallot; fresh basil, mozzarella and balsamic vinegar; cilantro, shaved Poblano and lime juice; fresh mint, lemon juice, good Feta cheese and pepper; …Drizzled with good olive oil, these combinations make tomatoes the stars of the meal.

Almost tomato-saturated by the fourth week, I add sharper, often pickled flavors to make the tomatoes just one of many ingredients. This year I found Tassos Olive Salad at Costco, and it has become the base for the piquant phase of this tomato season.

Olive Salad just out of the jar

If you are not familiar with shelf stable olive salad, it is a combination of cured olives, capers, onion and other pickled vegetables (carrots, cauliflower, sweet peppers etc.) flavored to be Italian, Greek (Tassos) or Cajun. Various U.S. and imported brands used to be available in supermarket condiment sections. Now, perhaps because of the popularity of “fresh” condiment bars in most large supermarkets, olive salad is not so easy to find except at specialty markets and on the Internet.

Eaten straight from the jar, most brands taste pretty mild. But the olives (very ordinary) and vegetables are in olive oil, so after adding a few tasty ingredients and good olives, it becomes a fabulous base for fresh tomatoes. So far I have used it over grilled salmon, in fish tacos, mixed with poached Albacore tuna in a salad, as a topping for Bruschetta, a sauce base for Muffuletta sandwiches, as a base for a quick Greek salad, and as a primary ingredient in several cold pasta salads.

Quick, delicious Greek salad. Start with Olive Salad, add some fresh fennel, partially skinned sliced cucumber, chopped red onion, Kalamata olives, Feta and fresh yellow, red and orange tiny tomatoes.

The jar I bought holds about 1 quart. Because I add ingredients to focus and perk up its flavor along with lots of chopped fresh tomatoes, the original jar still has more than a cup of salad left.

Following are lists of what I added to each of the versions described above. Try any of them, then dream up some of your own and share your ideas with us.

Ingredient amounts provide for 2 servings

For Grilled Salmon
1/3 cup Olive Salad at room temperature
Juice of ½ fresh lemon
2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
2 tsp. chopped flat leaf parsley
1 tbs. finely chopped shallot
1-2 tbs. extra virgin olive oil
½ cup chopped perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes (yellow, orange and red mixture)

For Fish Tacos (substitute for salsa)
1/3 cup Olive Salad at room temperature
½ cup fresh tomato, finely chopped
Juice of 1 fresh lime
¼ cup finely chopped red onion
¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
½ Poblano pepper thinly sliced and coarsely chopped
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tomatilla, chopped and steamed in microwave for 30 seconds
3 tsp. Green Tabasco (add more to taste)

For Tuna Salad
8 oz. poached Albacore tuna broken apart with a fork
1/3 cup Olive Salad
3 tbs. extra virgin olive oil
6 Kalamata olives, drained and quartered
1/3 cup chopped fresh cherry tomatoes
1/3 cup partially peeled and chopped seedless cucumber
Juice of ½ fresh lemon
2 tsp. chopped oregano
2 oz. Greek Feta cheese, cubed
1 tbs. capers

For Bruschetta
1/3 cup Olive Salad
3 tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 tbs. Balsamic vinegar
6-8 Kalamata olives, drained and quartered
1/3 cup chopped fresh tomato
3 large fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced, blanched and rinsed
1/8 tsp. dehydrated red pepper flakes or a few drops of Chinese Chili Paste

For Muffuletta Sandwich*
1/3 cup Olive Salad
1/3 cup chopped tomatoes, well drained
1/3 cup chopped piquillo or pepperoncini peppers
6-8 Kalamata olives, drained and quartered
8-10 drops Tabasco or other hot sauce
3 tbs. finely chopped red onion
1 tbs. finely chopped oregano

For Pasta Salad
1/3 cup Olive Salad
1/3 cup chopped tomatoes
6-8 Kalamata olives, drained and quartered
3 tbs. finely chopped red onion
3 large fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced, blanched and rinsed
1/8 tsp. dehydrated red pepper flakes or a few drops of Chinese Chili Paste
Feta, Mozzarella or Parmesan cheese

*Olive Salad supposedly was created in New Orleans for original Muffuletta sandwiches made with baguettes, mayonnaise, olive salad and layers of two or three different cured meats and cheeses. They then are wrapped and pressed for several hours before serving. I have a hunch that olive salads were common accompaniments to bread, cheese and cured meats in Europe long before they were claimed as original Cajun creations.

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