Way back when, after I arrived in France, I wanted to be all Provençal like we thought we were in Berkeley (except you’d need to force me into a beret only at gunpoint)…but I did go off on the lookout in Paris for a large, sturdy mortar and pestle. I didn’t know what they were called in French at the time, so I went into cookware shops, made a fist around some imaginary cylindrical object in front of me, and shook it up and down maniacally and with great vigor to get across the idea of what I was looking for.
Suffice it to say, I got plenty of odd looks—I’m still not exactly sure why, but no one was able to figure out exactly what it was that I was after.
Eventually I got with the program and did find a few pretty little numbers, mortars and pestles usually made of glass or something equally fragile. But for all the pounding in Paris that I planned to do, I needed something that’s going to take it like a man time-after-time and needed to be a bit more rough-and-tumble.
Acting on a tip, finally I arrived home one day with a manly-sized, rock-hard specimen from Chinatown (made of granite) and afterward, I sought a hand from my olive guy who was glad to help out a friend in need and wrapped me up more olives de Nyons than you can shake a stick (or whatever) at, each week at the market.
In case you don’t know what I’m talking about (and let’s face it, who ever does around here?…), tapenade is a pounded paste made of olives and capers, slick with olive oil.
Sometimes herbs or anchovies are added, but I’ve seen recipes that tip you off and advise mashing in tuna (before you tapenade-purists go all ballistic, I think it was Julia Child, so get out your Ouija boards and take it to the grande dame herself)…as well as recipes with a raw egg yolk (ick) or even a ‘Silver Palate’-sized blob of mayo. And those are just the tip of the iceberg, I suspect, with variations aplenty floating around out there.
For years I pounded away alone at home, making a batch a week of tapenade, squeezing those olives and squirting oily juice all over the place, then pounding until my arm felt like it was ready to drop off. During my days as a pulp pounder, I learned a few tips: One is to rinse the capers and wring them dry with your hands to get rid of any briny taste. And using good olives was another one that goes without saying. But like most men of my ilk, soon I started to cheat, albeit on myself, and began buying the ones already pitted.
Yes, it’s true. Once I was on that scary and slippery slope of Making A Project Easier, I’d picked up enough momentum, got into the rhythm, and there was no stopping me until one day I lost all sense of reason and did it: I bought pre-made tapenade.
Fortunately the earth didn’t open up and swallow me whole and life as we know it didn’t end. And from that day on, I hefted my mortar and pestle up, up and away and started buying tip-top quality tapenade by the barquette.
Tapenade is very versatile and can be used a number of ways rather than just as a spread. Spread a thin layer of it between the skin of a chicken, maybe with some ricotta before roasting or just on its own, put dabs on hard-cooked eggs and top with chervil for you next cookout, spread it on a sandwich instead of mustard or mayo, fold some into an omelet with some creamy-smooth goat cheese, or toss it in pasta as an instant sauce with chunks of fresh cooked or good-quality canned tuna, adding cubes of feta at the end.
If serving it as a spread, should you have the wherewithal to think in advance, another tip is to drain plain whole-milk yogurt overnight through cheesecloth and use the strained yogurt as a foil for the salty tapenade by piling the olive paste atop an equal-sized mound of creamy yogurt for a nice contrast and letting guests plunge a spoon in the center to help themselves to a little of each.
So I’m proudly no longer ashamed my latest tapenade tip is to buy tapenade, sans regret. But this is my most favorite recipe; Fig and Olive Tapenade with plumped dried figs, which not only taste terrific with olives, but decreases the amount of pitting and chopping you’ll need to do. This recipe was given to me by the cheery and charming Carrie Brown, owner of the Jimtown Store in Healdsburg, California, and is from her book, The Jimtown Store Cookbook.
Fig and Olive Tapenade
Makes about one cup
Adapted from The Sweet Life in Paris
If using a mortal and pestle, I find it easier to hand chop the olives a bit first before giving them a good pounding.
- 1/2 cup (about 3 ounces, 90 gr) stemmed and quartered dried black figs (use dried Black Mission figs, if available)
- 3/4 cups (180 ml) water
- 1 cup (about 150 gr) black olives; Niçoise, Nyons, or Greek, rinsed and pitted
- 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard
- 1 small garlic clove, peeled
- 1/2 tablespoon capers, rinsed, drained and squeezed dry
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary or thyme
- 1/2 cup (150 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- black pepper and salt, if necessary
1. In a medium-sized saucepan, simmer the figs in the water for about 30 minutes, until very tender. Drain, reserving a few tablespoons of the liquid.
2. If using a food processor, pulse the pitted olives, drained figs, lemon juice, mustard, garlic, capers, and fresh rosemary or thyme to create a thick paste. Pulse in the olive oil until you’ve achieved a chunky-smooth paste. Season with black pepper and salt, if necessary. (The spread can be thinned with a bit of the reserved fig poaching liquid.)
3. If using a mortar and pestle, mash the olives with the mustard, garlic, capers, and fresh rosemary or thyme. Pound in the drained figs. Once they are broken up, add in the lemon juice, olive oil and season with salt and pepper, and fig juice, if necessary.
Serve tapenade with slices of baguette or pita triangles that have been lightly brushed with olive oil and perhaps sprinkled with salt and fresh thyme, or a dusting of chili powder, then toasted on a baking sheet in the oven until nice and crisp.
A tip from Carrie is to make this tapenade at least one day before you intend to serve it, which allows the flavors to meld and develop.