Olives and Capers Can Get You Through Culinary Tough Spots


Two tasty items we do not grow in Maine have helped me through many moments in cooking when I needed a little extra oomph in the flavor department: capers and black olives. I try to keep them both on hand all the time.

Olives of all sorts are, fortunately, pretty easy to acquire. Lots of grocery stores have bulk olive displays and you can acquire lots of different kinds of black olives from brined to oil-cured, and you can buy exactly what you want. Capers, unfortunately, are most easily acquired in teeny, skinny bottles which make them a tad more costly than one might want to spend. I am lucky enough to live close enough to a food retailer that stocks them in larger jars, and sells pitted kalamata olives in larger containers as well. Excursions to cities and big box stores open the opportunity to buy both these items in large jars which make them more affordable and convenient.

For cooking, I prefer pitted olives. Olives with pits are fine for pre-prandial consumption with wine, but grabbing a big spoonful to add to a recipe means pausing long enough to smack them with the side of a big knife and then picking out the pits. It is lazy, I know, but for cooking, pitted is the way to go. I also prefer real, naturally black olives, not the pitted kind that are all the same color and come in cans, whole or sliced. Don’t even ask how they get them the same color, but it has nothing to do with ripeness.

In some specialty food shops you might find large capers the size of olives that are grand on the hors d’oeuvres platter next to the black (or large green or hot and spicy or anchovy stuffed) olives. For cooking generally I like small capers. A couple spoonfuls tossed into a pasta sauce, or blended into butter, or added to chicken cooked with lemon really add a charming savoriness.

A couple of days ago I assembled a chicken dish to which I added olives and capers. I had no recipe in particular that I was following; I merely added some black olives and capers to a few tablespoons of tomato sauce which I simmered up in the pan juices of chicken pieces. They put the dish into a better than normal realm. The directions below attempts to capture what I did and that you could do, too.

I used black olives but if green is what you have, I can’t think why you shouldn’t use them. You can finish this dish on top of the stove with a lid on the pan, or bake it in an oven for about half an hour.

Looking for…Sour Cream Pastry. Anna Guesman, Bangor, sent along a request for a recipe for sour cream pastry which she thinks might be a German delicacy, used to make apricot, raspberry or nut-filled bite-sized servings of pastries. “It’s like a flaky pie crust,” she reports. We’d welcome any recipe for this.


Chicken with Olives and Capers
  • Olive or vegetable oil
  • Chicken cut up into breast, thighs, legs sections, bone-in, not skinned
  • Onions chopped
  • A clove of garlic or two
  • White wine or dry vermouth
  • A spoonful of tomato sauce
  • Black or green olives coarsely chopped
  • A spoonful of capers
  • Oregano
  • Tomato thinly sliced
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees if you wish to bake it.
  2. Put a little bit of olive or vegetable oil in a heavy sauté pan and brown the chicken on both sides.
  3. Remove the chicken and set aside.
  4. Spoon some of the fat out of the pan and discard.
  5. Add the onion and cook for about five minutes until it softens, then add the garlic and cook for another minute or two.
  6. Add enough wine to cover the bottom of the pan scraping to loosen the browned bits.
  7. Add the tomato sauce and cook together briefly.
  8. Put the chicken in a baking dish or, alternatively, put it back into the pan and spoon the sauce over the top of it.
  9. Sprinkle the olives and capers over the top, add a sprinkle of oregano and distribute tomato slices over all.
  10. Cook covered or bake for about half an hour or until the juices run clear.
  11. Serve with the sauce spooned over the chicken.


Sandy Oliver

About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.