Your friend, the olive.

THINK OF IT LIKE THIS: If a martini is a television, a martini made well with Plymouth Gin and Noilly Pratt is a widescreen, high definition television. And that same martini with a great olive is that television with Surround Sound.

See, a great olive won't make a bad martini good, but it can make a good martini great, since it extends the taste along a different dimension. The traditional formula for a cocktail is tripartite: the base, the body and the perfume. In a negroni, the base is gin, the body is sweet vermouth and the perfume is Campari. You'll notice that in a classic martini, there are only two components: gin and dry vermouth. So where's the perfume? It's the garnish: that thing that enhances and accentuates the flavors of the drink.

A truly classic martini also uses a lemon twist, but consider the humble olive. At most bars, you'll be lucky to get something that has any flavor other than salt. Maybe you'll get a pimento. Some tony bars will offer blue cheese or gorgonzola stuffed olives, but for the home bartender, the sad fact is that these cheese stuffed olives don't fare very well on store shelves. We'll get back to them in a moment, but first, let's get at your best store-bought options for olives.

If you want to go beyond your basic green olive, those stuffed with jalapenos or garlic are your best bet for ones that come in a jar. Still, though, extensive research has led us to one conclusion: the best olives have pits. Like bone-in chicken, an olive with a pit has a deeper and more complicated flavor than its pitted brother. Removing the pit is like cutting the soul out of an olive. Krinos makes a killer cracked green olive with the pit still in there, and it has a bold and peppery flavor that's less of a cosh than your average jalapeno stuffed olive.

Now you may be asking yourself, how do you get a toothpick through a pit? The simple answer is, you don't. Actually, that's the whole answer, but there's enough olive there to squeeze the toothpick through the side, so do it. Or just drop 'em in there and let them settle. Of course, you have to figure out a classy way to get rid of the pit when you're done, but we'll leave that to your imagination.

If you're going to go with fresh olives, though, your options expand exponentially. Most gourmet grocery stores (in the Twin Cities, I'd recommend Byerly's or Kowalski's) have solid olive bars where you can get several different types of olives, not to mention sundry other marinated goodies (more on those in a minute). This is where you want to go for your blue cheese and gorgonzola stuffed olives, plus, the jalapeno and garlic stuffed ones will be considerably better than the jarred variety. For something unusual, try a citrus stuffed olive. And even though it's got an almond in it, the almond stuffed variety will take a toothpick with surprising ease.

It's obvious that you could match the olive to the drink: a citrus stuffed olive in a martini with Grey Goose Citron, a jalapeno stuffed olive with Absolut Peppar (not that we recommend that stuff--Absolut Peppar is not to be trifled with). But a lot of interesting combos can be contrasting. How about an almond-stuffed olive in a martini made with Hendricks? The olive's savory butteriness offsets the flowery and clean flavor of the gin excellently well.

Now, part of the beauty of a martini is in the simplicity; by even putting stuffed olives in a martini you're messing with perfection. But once you've started down the path of corruption, it's hard to stop.

In preparing for this piece, we collected a bunch of things from the olive bar that you wouldn't normally find in a martini. Thus was born The Antipasto Martini.

It may not be pretty, but it sure is delicious. Prepare yourself a regular old martini (5 pts Plymouth gin, 1 pt Noilly Pratt dry vermouth, stir with ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass), then grab two toothpicks. On one, place a jalapeno stuffed olive, a peppadew pepper, and a garlic-stuffed olive. On the other, a citrus-stuffed olive, a slice of salami, and an almond-stuffed olive. We know what you're thinking: we're crazy.

We are. Crazy delicious. (McPHERSON)

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