olives

Having friends over for dinner? Be sure to invite Mikie's fabulous marinated olives

One of the best parts of visiting my hometown, L.A., is dinner or lunch at my friend Michalene's. I've mentioned Michalene – or Mikie, as her family and a few close friends call her – in many posts. It was Mikie, for instance, who wondered, after a recipe for Chinese lacquered roast chicken changed my life, what would happen if I adapted it to duck. (Answer: more life-changingly delectable fowl play.) 

I met Mikie in 2003, when she was Food Editor at the Los Angeles Times, but I'd long been a fan. Before arriving at the Times a couple years earlier, she'd been Dining Editor at the New York Times, producing the Dining section that quickly, under her tenure, became a must-read. I hadn't realized I wanted to work at a newspaper – in fact I thought I didn't. But the minute I met Michalene, who invited me for a drink to discuss the possibility of my coming on board as her deputy editor, and she talked so excitedly about her love for cooking, and eating out, and editing and writing and putting together a food section, I knew I had to give it a go. 

Before long, we became not just co-workers, but fast friends. That meant we cooked and dined together often. It's one of the things I miss most about living in L.A.

So, dining at Mikie's. There are lots of great things about it. Hanging out with Mikie, and her partner Dan (who happens to be an amazing cook, too, and an awesome bread baker). They have an spectacular view of the ocean, over their rows of vineyards, from their house in the Malibu hills, so dinner's often on the patio. They are warm, generous, thoughtful and altogether brilliant hosts. 

 

I always secretly hope, as I drive up Pacific Coast Highway toward their place in Corral Canyon, that Mikie will have made her fabulous marinated olives: They're just so much better than any other olives anywhere, perfumed with orange and herbs, and spiced just so – a dreamy pre-main-event nibble.

A couple weeks ago, with friends coming to a dinner with a Spanish theme, I thought, as I tried to figure out the tapas y pinxtos, hey – why don't I make Mikie's olives? I texted her, asking for the recipe, and she told me it's from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. – just tweaked a little. She adds orange zest, she tole me, and fennel seed. And she uses more vinegar than Bittman does, and less olive oil. Oh, and her technique is slightly different.

In other words, Mikie has made the olives her own. Honestly, I think it's the orange zest and fennel that knock them out of the park. 

How good are they? Well, I spent all day cooking to prepare for that dinner. I made bandilleros – all kinds of pickly and cured treats, prettily skwered. And some really nice tapas – piquillo peppers filled with brandade. And grilled asparagus with Serrano ham. And seafood paella. (OK, I blew the paella, if truth be told. Overcooked it terribly. Don't tell anyone.) Want to know what got the most applause? Mikie's olives. 

They take all of about five minutes to put together: It's just assorted olives (I like to use Castelvetranos, Picholines, Niçoises, Cerignolas and anything else that looks great – with pits), plus a few smashed garlic cloves, bay leaves, thyme branches, red pepper flakes, fennel seeds, orange zest, olive oil and red wine vinegar. Combine it all, and let it sit on the counter all afternoon – or even just an hour. Give it a toss with a spoon every now and then. That's it. 

Here's the recipe:

I will be eager to hear whether you love them as much as I do.

 

My pissaladière: a French cook, three pounds of onions, a jar of anchovies and an overscheduled journalist add up to one snazzy starter from Provence

Pissaladiere

There I was, caramelizing onions at midnight on a Thursday night. At seven the next morning, in between dressing for work and putting on my makeup, I found myself rolling out tart pastry, organizing anchovies, putting things in and pulling them out of a hot oven. My morning workout? Not happening.

It didn't seem completely batty to offer to bring a pissaladière -- a Southern French caramelized onion-and-anchovy tart -- to dinner at my friends' house on a Friday night when the event was a couple weeks off in the future. No problem, I thought, as I normally I work from home on Fridays. But as I stared down my schedule the Wednesday before, I found myself with back-to-back-to-back meetings at the paper downtown. Working from home was not in the stars. The dinner was a Francophile dinner party at our friends Keven and George's place (also downtown); the theme was Provence. Georges had bouillabaisse on the menu as the main course. So how to manage the promised  pissaladière?

No worries -- I'd prepare the ingredients on Thursday evening, assemble and bake it in the morning, drive it (gingerly!) downtown, and let it cool its heels in my car all day while I did my thing at the paper. A quick turn in Georges' oven, and we should be great to go.

Pissaldiere ingredients

Crazy? Perhaps, given all I have on my plate at the moment. But making this classic dish is much easier it would appear, and making the tart actually turned out to be a high point in a stressful week. Have I mentioned that I'm happiest in the kitchen?

More often than not, a pissaladière made with bread dough, but I learned to make it from an old friend, Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch, who makes hers using pâte briseé  -- a savory tart crust. We could argue about bread vs. pâte briseé all day long, and Danièle is not from Nice (from whence the dish comes), but rather Dordogne. But I think she has it right: The flavor of sweet, deep onions with salty anchovies melting into them show more deliciously on a flaky crust.

Interesting side note: Danièle was a home cook, queen of the hearth oven in the kitchen of her family's 500-year-old stone farmhouse, when François Mitterand -- who was president of France at the time -- tapped her to be his private chef at the Élysée Palace. They made a movie about her a few years ago called Haute Cuisine; Catherine Frot did a wonderful job portraying Danièle. Here's an interview Epicurious did with Danièle when the movie was released in the U.S. In any case, she's a wonderful cook, and an amazing spirit. A true cook without borders if ever there was one.

Pate brisee

But back to our regularly scheduled tart.

So, the first thing to do is caramelize onions -- a lot of them. It's a slow caramelization, and I'm completely opposed (morally, gastronomically and vehemently) to adding sugar to speed the caramelization. Required: a sharp knife, a low flame and patience.

Slice thin about three pounds of yellow onions in a little olive oil (or better yet duck fat, if you have some) and let them cook very slowly for more than two hours, till they're deep golden and sweet. Then you drain them. While the onions caramelize, make your pâte briseé. Give flour and salt a whirl in the food processor, toss in bits of chilled butter, pulse till it has the texture of coarse meal, add an egg lightly beaten with a dollop of milk, let the motor run till it clumps together. Honestly, it's that simple.

Let the dough rest in the fridge half an hour, roll it out, fit it into a tart pan with a removable bottom, pour in the onions, smush them in nicely, garnish the top with anchovies, niçoise olives and bits of fresh thyme, pop it in the oven, and in 35 minutes, you have a gorgeous pissaladière. Click on the black bar below for the recipe.

Pissaladiere

Place in shopping bag, drive to the office, spend the day getting things done, arrive at K and G's, present tart, demand Ricard. (That's is the beloved anisette aperitif of Southern France.) 

Note to self: Next time I make this, do it on a weekend!