Monday, March 12, 2007

Potato and Green Olive Stew

I'm back from the dead! Well, back, at least -- I feel quite close to not-alive, as a matter of fact. Although the weekend was wonderful and super relaxing (as well as warm! I think Spring is finally here!) I had one of those nights where my eyes just wouldn't stay shut. So Spring Break begins in exhaustion, for me. It's really a pity that they don't give us a little time off at the library, although I suppose I can't really complain: I get to come in almost two hours later than usual.
This past weekend spring was in the air, as I mentioned, and we couldn't think of a better way to welcome it into our home than opening all the windows, scrubbing everything down, and preparing a fresh springy stew. D chose this one, and I must admit that I was wary at first. Olives and lemons with potatoes? Sounded weird to me. I was imagining a very briny, bitter tasting mush. Boy, was I wrong. I mean seriously, seriously wrong: this stew was far from bitter or briny. It didn't have an acidic taste at all; in fact, it was extremely mild, with just a hint of spiciness. And the potatoes were fabulous -- they made up most of the stew, really. It wasn't much of a stew, since there is less than one cup of water in the whole dish; instead, it was more like a vegetarian goulash. I can't wait to try some of it cold -- I feel like the flavors will really stand out more solidly after it has chilled, and I'm sure that the remaining liquid will turn into a wonderful starchy mush, coating the potatoes and olives splendidly.

Potato and Green Olive Stew
This stew only takes about 40 minutes on the stove, from start to finish, which makes it a really easy dinner to whip up. Unfortunately, you have to marinate the olives for a few hours before beginning -- outside of the fridge -- so that adds a big chunk of time to the preparation of this stew. I suppose you could set them on the counter right when you get home from work if you're planning on a late dinner; alternatively, they would be fine if you left them to sauce around in the fridge for a day in the lemon juice. The marinating part is extremely simple: mix 1/2 a pound (8 oz.) of cracked green olives with 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice and allow to rest on the counter, stirring occasionally, for at least three hours. Cracked green olives shouldn't be too hard to find: they're usually at the olive bar and are fresher than those that come in a jar or a can. They're unpitted and scored along the sides (cracked) in order to allow the marinade to seep into them more readily. You should not use pitted olives for this recipe: the pit helps the olive hold its shape when you add it to the stew. Without the pit, it would most likely break apart and become mushy, absorbing all the flavors without retaining its essential oliveness.
Now that the olives are marinating, you're free for a few hours. If you're anything like D and I, however, you'll stay in the kitchen to prepare the rest of your ingredients. Besides, peeling and cutting three pounds of red baby potatoes into 1/3-inch-thick slices takes a bit of time. We soaked them in cold water to prevent them from turning brown or mushy, and drained them when we were ready to add them to the stew. We also chopped two medium-sized yellow onions (to make two cups diced onions, total) and 3/4 a pound plum tomatoes -- diced as finely as possible after removing the seeds and liquid. The tomatoes, by the way, are an essential part of this dish. Until we added the tomatoes, I remained skeptical about this whole affair; after the tomatoes were added, the stew finally started to look like something I wanted to eat.
Once the olives have marinated for at least three hours, heat 1/3 a cup of olive oil in a large, heavy stew pot until it begins to shimmer and wave. Add the two cups diced onions at this point and sauté for five minutes, stirring occasionally. The onions should be translucent, not burned, when they are ready. To the onions, add 1-1/4 teaspoons sweet Hungarian paprika, 1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper, and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper. Stir to coat, then add the drained potatoes, marinated olives, and lemon juice that the olives were marinating in to the pot. Stir again until the ingredients and spices are blended.
Add 1-1/2 cups of water and bring the mixture to a boil. The water level won't seem high enough, but don't worry: once you add the tomatoes, the dish will become appropriately saucy and stew-like. After the water boils, reduce the heat to a simmer and cover the pan. Cook until the potatoes are tender -- about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of your potato slices -- stirring occasionally. After the potatoes are tender, add the 3/4 pound diced plum tomatoes and stir. Continue to simmer until the flavors have blended together, which doesn't take long: about ten minutes should do it. Season with a pinch of salt and serve with a lemon wedge and a small dish for the olive pits to rest in. D and I discussed the possibility of removing all the olives from the stew and pitting them before serving, which we would do for company, but it's far too much work (and we knew there would be leftovers, so the pits needed to be intact in order to preserve the olives) for just us two.
This is such a bright, invigorating surprise of a stew. I wasn't expecting it to taste so spring-like. It has the most wonderful underlying hint of lemon -- not overwhelming, by any means, but the taste is there -- and the olives and potatoes are such a unique combination of ingredients. We'll definitely be making this stew again.

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