So what the heck are pimentos, anyway? (Yes, yes, I know pimiento is another spelling, but pimento is also correct and doesn’t have random useless vowels bouncing around the inside of it.)
It’s a small, very mild, red chili pepper, also known by the name cherry pepper.
Cherry peppers by Christopher Murphy, on Flickr (CC license) (cropped)
So how did they get in olives? Some of that has to do with the olive it’s most often paired with, the picholine. Native to the Southern coast of France, the picholine is a firm, almond-shaped green olive that is most stunning for how average it is in a lot of ways.
The trees don’t produce a ton of fruit; the olives are used sometimes for oil, but don’t produce enough oil per fruit to justify cultivating them for that purpose; and after being cured to remove the bitterness, the olive tastes pretty mild, if slightly floral and salty. It’s not a bad olive, by any means, and it has its enthusiasts who prefer it to all others; but compared to its neighbor, the aromatic and delicate Nicoise, or the wine-cured Kalamata in Greece, or the nutty Manzanilla or herbal Gordal olives of Spain, the picholine doesn’t bring much to the table except its firm, lye-cured texture.
(To be fair, cultivars of picholine grown in the U.S. and in Morocco have higher yields than the original trees.)
But it’s the lye-cured texture that makes them a prime candidate for stuffing, a practice that started somewhere in Spain or France in the 18th century. American advertisements for pimento-stuffed olives start showing up in the late 19th century, imported from Europe. Until the 1960s, the pimento strips were cut and placed into olives by hand, making them a legitimately fancy treat.
These days, most of the olives on the shelf aren’t even stuffed with pimentos–they’re stuffed with a congealed strip of mashed pimento and thickening medium, typically sodium alginate (although occasionally gelatin, so be on the lookout, vegans).
These stuffed olives would come to be known as cocktail olives in the late 19th century, probably because of their connection to the martini, a mixture of gin and dry vermouth frequently garnished with an olive. But the martini, and the cocktail olive, became much more popular during of Prohibition, when the most common illegally brewed spirit was gin. But that’s another post.
From a box sold in East Moline, Illinois.
Onion Pimento Sauce
1 medium onion, minced
3 Tbsp. butter
3 Tbsp. flour
1 c. chicken stock
1/2 c. cream
2 Tbsp. chopped pimento
2 tsp. chopped parsley
Salt and white pepper
Combine in usual way. Add pimento and parsley; salt and pepper; and puree in processor.
Good on pork, chicken, or veal.
Well, here’s what I think is the “usual way.” We start by making a sauce velouté, which is a roux-thickened stock.
- Make a blond roux by melting the butter over medium heat, then adding the flour and stirring/mixing the two together into a smooth paste. Add the onion and cook for a couple of minutes, until the roux just takes on the slightest color.
- Add the chicken stock and bring the sauce to a boil to thicken, stirring occasionally. After it reaches a boil, turn the fire down to low. Add the pimento, parsley, salt, and pepper and stir.
- Add the cream just before serving. Taste for salt to see if it needs to be adjusted.