by Mort Rosenblum (North Point Press, $25)
In his endlessly fascinating book, "Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit," Mort Rosenblum reminds us that domesticated olives were around before the Bible, "was a first draft scribbled on papyrus." Olives are so caught up in the history of Western civilization, in fact, that it is hard to imagine the latter without the former. Olive oil, which has, in our time, become no more than another affectation of the Upscales, has determined the course of empires from ancient Palestine to the modern-day Mafia.
To see our world in a grain of sand might take a poet. But to see it in an olive takes a reporter of Rosenblum's insight and doggedness. In "Olives," he takes us everywhere olives are king or, more often, deity: the presses of Tuscany, the orchards of Spain, the warehouses of Greece, the groves of California, France and Croatia. In Israel and in the West Bank, he talks to Palestinian growers who see their entire conflict with the Jews in terms of its impact on their beloved trees. He reports on the findings of the Ekron excavation, near Ashdod, where Iron Age jugs and olive presses reveal a remarkably advanced Philistine culture, whose wealth was built primarily on the oil trade -- olive oil. "In ancient Israel," writes Rosenblum, "if a prophet wanted to utter a curse, he would say, 'Let God ruin your olive trees.'"
Rosenblum, who writes for The Associated Press and Vanity Fair, has his own olive grove in Provence, France. He is passionate about olives, but open-minded. He can be concise and fair-minded in examining the health benefits of olive oil, and refreshingly unsentimental -- Peter Mayle take note -- in dismissing some peasant oils as one step below Valvoline.
There are recipes, but too few, and there's some advice on olive curing, but too vague. This is not a cookbook, but a cook's book. Turn off the stove, get out the wine, the bread and the oil, and read all about how an elemental foodstuff shapes the lives of the people who grow it, and cook with it.
Some Like Fish Hot
This recipe, adapted from Paula Wolfert's "Mediterranean Cooking," appears along with several other olive-heavy dishes in Rosenblum's "Olives." It is similar to many fish dishes in books on North African Jewish cooking.
Tunisian fish Fillets with Harissa and Black Olives
1 1/2 pounds firm white fish fillets
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup tomato sauce
1/2 teaspoon harissa (a North African chili paste available at most fine supermarkets)
1 bay leaf
1 cup pitted black Tunisian or Greek olives
Juice of 1/2 lemon or more
1) Season the fish with salt and pepper; dust with flour.
2) Heat the oil in a large skillet and fry the fish until golden brown on both sides.
3) Transfer the fish to a warm dish. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of oil.
4) Add the onion and garlic to the skillet and cook, covered, 2 to 3 minutes.
5) Add the tomato sauce, 1/2 cup of water, the harissa and the bay leaf. Cook 10 minutes.
6) Add the olives and fish fillets and continue cooking, uncovered, until the fish is tender and the sauce is thick.
7) Add lemon juice to taste.
8) Serve with a sprinkling of chopped parsley.
A Nice Piece of Fish...and More
The Fish Grill
Where: 7226 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles (3 blocks west of La Brea)
Phone: (213) 937-7162
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., &'009;11 a.m. - 9 p.m.; Fri., &'009;11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted
The Jewish men I knew growing up -- guys named Murray and Harvey and Marv -- would like The Fish Grill. These were men who, in their 30s or 40s, made a lot of money in real estate or merchandising and spent it lavishly. They dined at the continental restaurants that once lined the parvenu blocks of Ventura Boulevard, or drove over the hill to binge on rare meats in done-up cream sauces at Le Restaurant or The Bistro.
Then they got older. Maybe it was the hit they took in the recession, maybe it was the cardiologist's hand-stitched zipper down their sternum, but these men's tastes suddenly got simple. Ask them what they wanted for dinner, and the answer rarely varied: "A nice piece of fish and a baked potato."
And that, in a sentence, is The Fish Grill.
It's a small, spare and kosher place in the part of La Brea colonized by equal numbers of hipsters and Orthodox. Both line up to order from the counter, choosing from a menu so short that you can read it in a glance. There are nine choices of mesquite-grilled fish -- trout, salmon, ahi, the usual suspects -- two spicy Cajun preparations, some fish sandwiches, fish and chips, a fish taco and chowder -- fish chowder. You place your order, which comes with a choice of baked or fried potatoes and coleslaw or Israeli salad. Pay your money -- no item costs more than $8.95 -- and then watch as the grill cooks lay your piece of bright, fresh fish on the grill.
The portions hover around the 6-ounce mark -- that's a nice piece of fish. They arrive charred at the edges, gently cooked toward the center.
The ahi tuna -- my favorite -- spreads over the plate like a French hangar steak. I order it with the thin, fresh-cut fries, which are boiled in oil until crackly and spilled in a heap across the fillets. As for the baked potatos, they're tonged out of the oven to order, flaky as the sea bass. If you have less than $10 to spend, it's hard to leave The Fish Grill hungry.
The same fries accompany the Fish-n-Chips ($5.50), but the fillets are coated in a dense crumb crust and fried until they twist into brittle, briny crackers. I love them.
But I wouldn't order the Blackened Redfish ($7.95) again. It's not real redfish, for one, and charred Cajun-style spices taste just like -- surprise! -- burned spices.
In the small sawdust-strewn seating area -- decorated with old fishing nets and a broken-down soft-serve ice cream machine -- you'll find an only-in-Los Angeles bunch of patrons. Last Friday, at lunch, an ardent yeshiva bocher was trying to push copies of his rebbe's video on the ultra-efficient Latina cashier. An Israeli businessman was trying to schmooze an American buyer, or vice versa, and both argued God with the yeshiva student. Meanwhile, a stunning interracial couple straight out of a Benetton ad nuzzled over their grilled salmon and butterflied trout.
Murray, Harvey and Marv weren't there, but they should have been. They'd have loved it. -- Robert Eshman, Associate Editor