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Branching out: Mark Hix gets creative with olives

People now have a great choice of olives in all sizes and brines for snacking on and cooking with. Long may it last, says our chef...

As a child, I hated olives. It was only much later, when I moved to London, that I succumbed and they became a part of my life. It's great if you can get kids to eat them early on, as it will widen up their taste buds to other strong-flavoured ingredients.

In contrast to my youth, the varieties of olives available now are huge. Olive bars seem to be the norm in delis, supermarkets and farmers' markets these days. Years ago, you only had a choice of black or green in jars. Suppliers such as the Fresh Olive Company and Olives Et Al, from around my way in Dorset, are giving customers a great choice of olives in all sizes and brines for snacking on and cooking with.

Long may it last – even if my younger self would have complained.

Lamb cutlets with tapenade, maple syrup and paprika

Serves 4

You can easily make your own tapenade by simply blending black or green olives in a food processor with a little olive oil. It's traditional to add a few anchovies into the mix too, but some people prefer it without.

This is a great outdoor eating dish, especially if you have a wood-fired oven; if not, a full-temperature conventional oven will do the trick.

8 loin or chump lamb cutlets or chops
3tbsp tapenade (either homemade or bought)
3tbsp maple syrup
1tsp paprika, preferably Spanish pimentón

Mix the tapenade, maple syrup and paprika together and smother the lamb chops in the mixture, then place in a container, cover and leave to marinate for an hour or so in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 240C/gas mark 8. Place the chops on a baking tray and cook in the oven for about 15 minutes, keeping them nice and pink. You don't need to do anything elaborate afterwards, just serve with a simple leafy salad.


Stuffed olives with orange, oregano and chilli

Makes 20 as a snack

This is an unusual and great way to serve olives as a snack. The orange segment really balances up the saltiness of the olive and helps with the slight kick of the chilli.

You will need to find the largest green olives you can get your hands on for this, which can come under different names and varieties.

20 very large green olives, stoned
1 orange, segmented, and any juice squeezed and reserved
A few leaves of oregano or marjoram
1 small or half a mild chilli, finely chopped

Make a slit through one side of the olive to allow the orange segment to be stuffed into it. Cut each orange segment in half and mix with the chilli and oregano and leave to marinade for an hour or so in the juice.

Next, carefully push a piece of orange into each olive with some oregano and chilli and leave them in the juice until required.

To serve, simply discard the juice – or better, use it for a salad dressing whisked together with some olive oil – and arrange on a plate.


Red mullet with tomatoes and black olives

Serves 4

There are some nice red mullet around at the moment which can be served as fillets or whole. Red mullet have a rich and unique flavour and lend themselves to both strong and delicate accompaniments. You can serve smaller portions of mullet as a starter.

8 small or 4 large red mullet fillets weighing about 15g each
2-3 medium-sized ripe tomatoes
16 black olives, stoned
3-4tbsp extra virgin olive oil plus a little extra for brushing
½tbsp good-quality white wine or cider vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring a pan of water to the boil and have a bowl of cold water ready. Make a cross on the top of the tomatoes with a knife and plunge them into the boiling water. Count to 10, then remove them with a slotted spoon into the bowl of cold water.

Remove the skins, they should just easily peel away; if not, repeat the process for about 4-5 seconds. Quarter the tomatoes and squeeze the seeds out. Chop the tomatoes into rough ½cm dice and transfer to another bowl. Cut the olives more or less the same size and mix with the tomatoes, olive oil and vinegar; season to taste.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Season the red mullet fillets and brush with a little olive oil; place them on a baking tray and bake for 6-7 minutes, until just cooked.

Spoon the tomato mixture on to serving plates and place the red mullet fillets on top.

Olive drop scones make delicious snacks or can be used as the basis for a light bite, by topping them off with a soft goats' cheese or ricotta

Olive drop scones

Serves 4

These make delicious little snacks on their own or can be used as the basis for a light bite, by topping them off with a soft goats' cheese or ricotta. Even plonking on a spoonful of guacamole would work nicely. You can make them as small or large as you wish.

150g gluten- and wheat-free self-raising flour
2 eggs, beaten
150-200ml milk
20 or so stoned black, or black and green olives, chopped

Put the flour into a mixing bowl, mix in the eggs and enough of the milk to form a smooth, thick batter, then stir in the olives.

Heat a griddle pan or non-stick frying pan and rub it with a little vegetable oil. Drop spoonfuls of the mixture into the pan and let them cook for 3 minutes, until bubbles rise, then turn them over and cook for another 2-3 minutes; remove. Put them on to some kitchen paper while you are cooking the rest of the batch.