One of the perks of being a Personal Chef is that I get to experiment with many ingredients and dishes, doing things that maybe I would have skipped if I had to cook just for myself or my family, out of laziness or health concerns.
One of my greatest discoveries were the Olive all’Ascolana, which are a traditional street food -like dish from the city of Ascoli Piceno, in the Marche region. I never tried this specialty growing up, somehow, I missed it: probably in Italy there are many more local specialties that I have never heard of, so big is the variety of food and the imagination of my compatriots.
Olive all’Ascolana are basically pitted olives stuffed with a mix of different meats, usually pork, veal, and chicken, and the omnipresent parmigiano cheese. Breaded and then fried, they are crispy on the outside and soft and tasty on the inside. You start eating them and you never stop – the right size for a one-two bites appetizer.
This recipe seemed straightforward to replicate also here in the US – but don’t get too thrilled because we will never be able to make the same thing. The variety of olives used in Ascoli is exactly the “ascolana”, which is a plump, large, and sweet olive. Needless to say the production area is so limited that it doesn’t even cover the growing demand in Italy, let alone the export abroad: the ascolana olives are thus impossible to find here, as far as I know.
But to make something that reminds the unforgettable taste of the original olives, I experienced substituting ingredients and adapting the recipe. After a couple of tests, I am now convinced that the Castelvetrano olives work better because of their plumpness and texture; they have a beautiful deep green color; they are definitely more acidic and saltier, so they need a good rinse before using for this recipe.
The stuffing of the olives has also evolved with time: originally a mix of 3 meats, is now an exercise in imagination, also in Italy: fish and vegetarian fillings have become common. I prefer to make the meat filling with chicken breast, in order to make them palatable to a broader range of guests. I also tried a vegetarian filling version but was not happy with the results – many more sessions of testing await me – but I don’t complain, it could be worse!
The olives are fried, and as such not the kind of food I would have every day. But the length of the process guarantees the fact that you will probably NOT make them that often!
And in any case frying is an art and when done right, at the right temperature and with the right oil the food can be lighter than what you expect.
This is a great festive appetizer for the end of the year holidays.
2 pounds Castelvetrano Olives, pitted and well rinsed (approximately 80-100 hundred)
For the Filling:
1 pound chicken breast or tenderloins, trimmed and cut in cubes
1 medium onion, 1 carrot, 1 celery stalk
¾ cup parmigiano cheese
Salt and pepper
EV Olive oil
½ glass dry white wine
Some breadcrumbs if the filling is too wet
For breading and frying:
4 beaten eggs
4 – 6 cups breadcrumbs, plain
Salt and pepper
1 quart of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
1. Cut each olive with a small pairing knife in a spiral motion. The olive will get the shape of a spring and will be easier to open slightly without breaking.
2. In the meantime, make the “soffritto”: chop finely the onion, carrot, and celery. Pour 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil in a pan, until the bottom is costed. Start the fire, and when hot carefully transfer the vegetable mix. Let it fry gently stirring regularly – approximately 8-10 minutes.
3. Add the chicken cut into small cubes and let it fry until golden in color on all sides. Pour the white wine, it will drizzle. Let it evaporate. Cover for 5-6 minutes. Remove from the stove. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
4. In a food processor, pulse the chicken and vegetable mix until finely chopped. Add the egg and parmigiano, salt and pepper. Pulse until when all ingredients are nicely mixed, and the resulting paste is dry to the touch.
If it feels too soft/almost liquid, add a teaspoon or 2 of breadcrumbs. Mix and put in the fridge to rest for 15-20 minutes at least.
5. Using a small coffee spoon, take some of the filling and squeeze inside the olive, making sure the stuffing goes inside the cavity and fills it completely, making the olive look bigger. Set aside.
6. When you have stuffed all the olives, prepare your breading station: pour some flour in a bowl, the beaten eggs in another, the plain breadcrumbs in a 3d bowl, season all lightly. Roll 5-6 olives in the bowl with the flour, shake gently until perfectly coated, remove with a slotted spoon and dip the olives in the bowl with the eggs, coat shaking your bowl, remove with another slotted spoon or with two forks, and finally roll the olives in the breadcrumbs. Set aside on a baking sheet, no parchment paper needed.
7. When all the olives have gone through the breading, start again with steps 2 and 3: pour again in the beaten eggs and then in the breadcrumbs. The double breading will make sure the crust will stay intact during the frying. Lay on a baking sheet.
8. Now you have 3 options: you can fry the olives immediately and eat them right away. You can store in the fridge for one day maximum until ready to fry. Or you can freeze them on the same baking sheet, then transfer them to a Ziploc when hard. I usually freeze all what I don’t need and just fry what I’m going to eat immediately.
A Few Notes:
- Olive oil is best for frying. We use EVOO from Le Corti dei Farfensi (lecortideifarfensiusa.com). The smoking point is at 410F, which is way more than the temperature you reach during frying. Moreover, the oleic acid prevent the oil molecules from breaking down – the dangerous event that makes the oil unhealthy.
- Do not reuse oil for frying!
- Use a thermometer for frying if you are not familiar with the procedure. It should read 360 F before you put the olives in it. Careful it could splash!
- Do not overcrowd the pan: cook only few at the time.
- The frozen olives can be fried directly, do not thaw! Just do not add too many at the time as the oil temperature will drop. Make sure the oil keeps bubbling during the cooking process.
Elisabetta Ciardullo is the founder of Think Italian! Events. As Personal Chef she is an ambassador of the Italian cuisine and culture, bringing it into the private homes of Americans, as well as to many corporate clients in Los Angeles.