A Taste For Tapenade

SUNDAY GOURMET

September 12, 1993|By GAIL FORMAN

Tapenade, the aromatic capers-and-olive spread of Provence, is bound to become a favorite in this country as it is in the South of France. Its intense flavor, versatility and healthfulness have already charmed the gastronomically adventurous among us.

People usually first encounter it in restaurants, where the paste serves as a butter substitute for fresh or toasted French baguettes and bread sticks. Then, at home, they discover how easy tapenade is to prepare and how many ways there are to use it.

The name tapenade comes from the ancient Provencal word for the caper, tapena. In the old days, the peasant spread was made by pounding olives and capers in a mortar with olive oil, garlic and cognac, then packing it into pottery crocks. Today, a food processor makes the job easier. Pulse it to create a coarse mixture or run it longer to produce a smooth puree.

Tapenade also excels as a dip for raw vegetables or even hard-boiled eggs, as a topping for broiled tomatoes or grilled mushrooms and zucchini, or in place of butter to flavor steamed vegetables. One trick is to thin it with butter to soften the flavor and then spread it on top of grilled chicken, fish or beef.

Inspired variations make tapenade even more sublime. Some cooks use oil-cured olives, others olives cured in brine. Some use vinegar, some lemon juice. And some add tomatoes or canned tuna packed in oil while others thin the mixture with rum.

As an olive-based dish, tapenade fits in perfectly with the current interest in the Mediterranean diet. It's the monounsaturated fats in olive oil and the antioxidant properties of olives that are believed to be key factors in the healthfulness of the much-touted diet.

Recently, I tasted a quirky version of tapenade at La Columbe d'Or, whose claim to fame is New York's first restaurant dedicated to the lusty cuisine of the South of France. The "secret ingredient" of this tapenade is bitter orange marmalade, which gives the spread an edge of sweetness that is balanced by vinegar and Dijon mustard.

It's the signature dish of Chef Naj Zougari, a native of Morocco. He serves it with bread and butter.

Thanks to Helen Studley, the longtime owner of La Columbe d'Or, for sharing the prized recipe. Now it's possible to enjoy a mouth-watering tapenade without traveling to New York. Or Provence.

TAPENADE LA COLUMBE D'OR

2 cups Calamata olives, pitted (or about 1 pound unpitted)

4 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained

8 anchovy fillets, rinsed and dried

4 tablespoons bitter orange marmalade

3 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons white vinegar

Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend for a few seconds. Mixture should be fairly coarse. Store in a tightly covered jar. Keeps in refrigerator two weeks. Makes about two cups.

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