Call it a snack or a condiment; enjoy it by the spoonful or use it as a topping on everything from chicken to soup. This herb-spiced, lemony olive-and-walnut sauté is simple to make, yet is remarkably savory. I like to use Aleppo pepper when I make this, but you can swap out Aleppo for cayenne or crushed red pepper flakes if you’d like to kick your nuts up a notch. (Aleppo is more flavorful than hot, which is precisely why I prefer it.)
Likewise, if you prefer oranges over lemons, use orange zest instead of lemon zest in this recipe; if you’re a fan of strong-tasting black olives, use those in place of the buttery Castelvetrano olives I’ve used. Just remember that if you’re making this for guests who may not be keen on olives, using a buttery variety will increase the odds of the dish being a hit. In fact, when I served this to a non-olive-lover, she said that now she likes olives, or at least Castelvetrano olives. The addition of rosemary and thyme tones down the overall olive impact of the dish, too, and creates a more rounded flavor. You can also chop up the olives rather than halve them if you’d like to cut down on the olive-forward impact.
The best part? This ultra-savory snack/condiment/appetizer is ready in fewer than ten minutes. Talk about a great last-minute party dish! Not to mention a tasty and satisfying snack to take with you to work or school.
Sauteed Olives & Walnuts
4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly (thin slices are less likely to burn and turn bitter; finely chopped pieces cook too fast)
2 handfuls roughly chopped walnuts
At least 15 olives (opt for Castelvetrano or green Niçoise if you’re aiming for a buttery crowd-pleasing olive), halved or chopped
Dash of Aleppo pepper OR crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp. dried rosemary (crumble in your fingers right before adding to bump up the flavor)
1 tsp. dried thyme (ditto on crumbling)
Zest of 1 lemon, preferably organic since you’re using the outside
Pour a hefty drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil into a medium skillet. Let heat for 1 minute over medium heat before adding the garlic. Reduce heat to medium-low and saute the garlic for 3-4 minutes or until fragrant and turning light brown. Stir in walnuts, olives, pepper, rosemary, and thyme. Cook, stirring often, for 3-4 minutes more or until the walnut is getting a little crisp and lightly browned. I use this time to zest the lemon.
Stir in lemon zest and heat through for 1 minute. Remove from heat and promptly scoop into a waiting dish to halt the cooking immediately. Serve alone as an appetizer or a snack or use to garnish anything and everything, from soup to chicken to hummus. Since this recipe has its roots in the Middle East, it’s particularly delicious with Mediterranean cuisine. Leftover olives and walnuts can be refrigerated for up to 5 days.
For sheer flavor punch — and kitchen economics — you can’t beat pickled ingredients. From pickles to olives to capers, a little goes a deliciously long way! And if you’re looking to create contrasting flavors, you can’t go wrong pairing a savory pickled ingredient with a creamy rich one, like cheese with olives or sour cream with pickles (dip, anyone?). I’ve even seen olive ice cream. The key is the contrast.
One of my recent favorite creamy ingredients is mascarpone cheese. It’s a soft, smooth, almost-sweet cheese traditionally made in Italy and now also made — most lusciously! — by BelGioso in Wisconsin. If you’ve ever had tiramisu, you’ve experienced the incredible creaminess of mascarpone. (Although it’s called a cheese, that’s rather misleading since most of us think of cheese as savory and somewhat salty. Think of mascarpone as a thick whipped cream.) In fact, many traditional Italian desserts rely on mascarpone as a central ingredient. You could even make a very last-minute, simple version of affogato by stirring a hint of maple syrup into mascarpone and then pouring espresso over it. (“Affogato” means “drowned in Italian. It also means a scoop of gelato that’s had hot espresso poured over it.)
Another fabulous way to use mascarpone, as it turns out, is as a foil to something briny, salty, and altogether fantastically pickled: capers. A quick spin in a food processor blends the combination of capers, mascarpone, and pinenuts into an ultra-flavorful dip that you can spread on crackers or use as a condiment on everything from sandwiches to roasted chicken. Who would have thought something so tasty could be made with just three ingredients? Then again, anything is possible when mascarpone is involved. Just ask an Italian.
In a blender, combine equal amounts of mascarpone and pinenuts. Add half that amount of drained capers. (If you use 1/4 cup each of mascarpone and pinenuts, include 2 tablespoons of capers.) Blend until mostly creamy. Note that this works better in a small food processor! Unless you’re making quite a bit of the spread, a standard-size processor will simply spin the ingredients around the edges rather than chopping them with the blades.
Use the spread as a dip, a condiment, or as a fun addition to a cheese plate. Leftover spread can be refrigerated for a week assuming that the mascarpone was freshly opened. (Mascarpone typically lasts a week or two upon being opened.)
Since so many people are trying to cut down on sugar nowadays (great idea!), I’ve been playing with stevia lately. Not the “raw” white powder — which I’m not a fan of since it’s more than 50% dextrose/cheap corn sugar by weight — but stevia in its more natural forms, from fresh leaves to dried green leaves to stevia extract. I’m finding that I prefer the extract in terms of flavor and also ease of use: it dissolves easily in liquid, it’s a lot less visible than the powdered green leaves (although that greenness can come in handy if you’re making frosted cupcakes for St. Paddy’s Day!), and the flavor of the extract seems to be smoother than the flavor of the fresh or dried leaves. Also, some manufacturers make stevia extracts that are combined with other extracts, like vanilla or orange or peppermint. Quite a useful 2-in-1 deal!
The tricky thing about using stevia rather than natural sweeteners, though, is that it’s difficult to judge how much you’ll need. Too much, and you wind up with faintly bitter cupcakes. Not enough, and your dessert isn’t quite sweet enough. I find that the best way to hit the literal sweet spot is to taste the batter. (This means you’ll be eating raw eggs, so you want to buy “real” eggs. By that I mean really-from-an-actual-farm eggs. The best way to find those is to hit up your local farmer’s market or join a farmshare/cowshare. Check Local Harvest and Eat Wild for more details on how to find those opportunities. Real eggs also whip faster and stronger and will lend your baked goods a sturdy structure. That’s all the more essential if you’re a gluten-free baker, since the structure normally provided by the gluten isn’t there. Real eggs make a more-than-adequate stand-in.)
When you taste the batter, you want it to be just sweet enough. Resist the urge to add a teensy bit more! You’ll overdo it and the batter will turn bitter. Another handy tip: stevia-sweetened baked goods mysteriously get a little sweeter when refrigerated, so if the cakes are not quite sweet enough, pop them in the fridge. In fact, if you’re going to frost these ahead of time, you’ll need to refrigerate them anyway for the sake of the mascarpone.
Chocolate-Stevia Cupcakes with Mascarpone Frosting
Makes 12 cupcakes.
For the cupcakes:
3/4 cup almond flour, preferably freshly ground in a coffee/spice grinder (freshly ground flour creates a lighter, fluffier texture)
1/2 cup buckwheat flour, preferably raw buckwheat as opposed to the toasted “kasha” variety (the raw buckwheat has a much lighter taste)
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably non-Dutched*
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
Dash of sea salt if you’re using unsalted butter
1 1/4 sticks (10 T.) butter, preferably from grass-fed cows, at room temperature
4 eggs, preferably from pastured hens
1 1/4 cups whole milk, preferably from grass-fed cows
Vanilla stevia extract OR stevia extract + 1 tsp. vanilla extract
For the frosting:
Mascarpone cheese (see last week’s post for more info on mascarpone)
Vanilla stevia extract OR maple syrup
Preheat the oven to 350F and line a muffin tin with cups. I find that parchment-paper muffin cups are ideal — they nearly fall off of the cakes and you won’t lose nary a crumb. Standard cups, on the other hand, will rip away half of your cupcake. Look for If You Care parchment-paper cups.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, cocoa powder (which is also technically a flour; anything dry and ground up is a flour), baking soda and powder, and the salt if you’re using unsalted butter. In a large bowl, cream the butter for at least 2 minutes. You’ll note that butter made with pastured milk and cream is much softer than conventional butter — you can practically cream it straight out of the fridge. That’s because pastured animal products have much less saturated fat, and the saturated fat is what stiffens when chilled. Much, much nicer to work with, plus it tastes a lot better and offers a lot more nutritional benefits. Kerrygold is my favorite butter.
Beat in eggs one at a time. Add half of the milk and beat again, then add half of the flour mixture and beat well. Repeat with remaining milk and flour. Squirt in one dropper full of the stevia extract and beat again. I used NuNaturals vanilla stevia, and when I say “1 dropper,” I mean one dropper of the two-ounce-sized bottle. That’s about 3/4 teaspoon. Taste the batter for sweetness. You might need to add another half-dropper-full or even full dropper of the extract. It’s better to slightly undershoot than risk going bitter by overshooting — you can always add more extract or even maple syrup after the cakes are baked.
Scoop batter into waiting cups and bake for 30 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. While the cakes are baking, make the frosting by stirring a dash of stevia extract or maple syrup into the mascarpone. (I’m not specifying exactly how much since it’s best to just frost as many cupcakes as you’ll be eating that day. Stash away any leftover cupcakes and whip up a fresh batch of frosting for them when you serve them. Also, the overall amount of frosting you use is up to you.) Keep chilled.
After cakes have come out of the oven and are completely cooled, frost them with the sweetened mascarpone. You can also sprinkle on grated chocolate/chocolate curls if you like as a garnish, or top with fresh berries.
* If you want to make vanilla cupcakes, swap out the cocoa powder for coconut flour.
I’ve written about it before, but now that I’ve discovered another fantastic use for it, I’ll write about it again: mesquite. Yes, the one that you burn on your barbecue. In this case, though, I’m talking about mesquite powder, which is made from the pods that grow on the mesquite tree. (The barbecue fuel is the actual tree itself.) A common food in the American Southwest, the pods are dried and then pulverized, making a caramel-tasting flour that’s great to use in a variety of baked goods, from cookies to brownies. I love the caramel backdrop in chocolate-themed treats!
Finally, though, I thought of a way to use mesquite in a savory setting. Seeing as BBQ sauce has a signature sweetness, why not include mesquite in a BBQ mix? It’s a much tastier and healthier ingredient than refined sugar. It’s also just as easy to use to create dry rubs and spice mixes. (Unlike maple syrup and molasses, which — while fantastic sweenteners — can be messy. Maple sugar, though, would be another great option.) And the fact that mesquite flour is finely ground makes it ideal to dust onto popcorn to create a barbecued popcorn effect. All you need to mix with it is chili powder to get the familiar BBQ flavor. If you’re hooked on BBQ potato chips and don’t want to be, here’s your solution: make your own qualitarian BBQ popcorn. Even if you’re not trying to break a chip addiction, make these. They’re sublime.
Mesquite BBQ Popcorn
Create a BBQ spice blend by combining 4 parts chili powder with 1 part mesquite flour. (Example: 4 teaspoons [or 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon] chili powder and 1 teaspoon mesquite flour. Or for a big batch of popcorn, 1/4 cup chili powder and 1 tablespoon mesquite.) Pop your popcorn by whatever method you like, whether that’s stovetop or popcorn-popper, and then pour popcorn into a large bowl. Sprinkle with half the spice mixture and drizzle on a thin stream of extra-virgin olive oil. Toss well and then sprinkle on remaining BBQ spice. Taste and add sprinkle with sea salt if desired. You might also wish to drizzle on a little more oil and then toss well again.
* Note: you can order mesquite flour online from companies specializing in unusual flours and gourmet ingredients. I like to shop at Nuts.com and The Mesquitery. The mesquite flour is pictured in the background here — check out the golden-toned powder in the small bowl.
Courtesy of The Cultured Cook.