Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Daviesis taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: Big green olives stuffed with meat, breaded, then fried: Olives all'Ascolana are the ultimate appetizer.
While Olives all'Ascolana -- moreish, deep-fried olives stuffed with a meat filling -- hail from the province of Ascoli Piceno in Italy's central Le Marche region, they're so popular that they have found their way into bars all across Italy. Commonly, they are part of an antipasto course or are one of the hearty nibbles during aperitivo to accompany a negroni or spritz. Either way, they're the sort of thing that would never be missed at a special occasion or a Sunday lunch with the whole family.
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Preparing these olives is a ritual of sorts -- a little time consuming, but one bite of the finished dish and you'll know it is worth the effort. You'll start with the olives: Traditionally, they are local, large, and tender green olives -- themselves known as olive ascolane -- and bear the prestigious DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) status, but any large, green whole olive will do (Castelvetrano come to mind).
Each olive needs to be pitted by hand by cutting into the olive flesh in a spiral fashion (a little like the way you peel an apple of its skin). By doing this, you release the pit and also make space for the filling. Thankfully, the olive pitting and filling can easily be done at separate times, in advance, which means all you have to do at serving time is fry them. Or, do as the ascolani do: Get a group of helpers in the kitchen to work on each step together.
Even with help, though, pitting those olives one by one is going to be a bit of a challenge if you've never tried it before, so I have adapted a recipe from The Silver Spoonso that the other steps are slightly easier and less laborious (by using minced meat instead of larger chunks, which reduces the cooking time from 90 minutes to 20). The meat filling is also amenable to further adaptation: Sometimes you will see prosciutto or mortadella taking the place of the chicken (it's a good idea if you want a more flavorful olive). Along with the nutmeg, you may also find the filling perfumed with ground cloves and perhaps even some lemon zest. For something entirely different, these are sometimes done with a seafood filling of mixed fish instead of meat.
The olives are usually only dusted with flour and dipped in egg and breadcrumbs once, but the double coating really gives them an even, nice coating and a good crunch. Another good idea: Try them hot, with a squeeze of lemon.