Provencal Olive Tapenade
Right after college, I had the amazing good fortune to spend six months in Aix-en-Provence, the most charming little town in the South of France. I took a bunch of classes at a local university, but mostly I was there to learn about the food. I lived in a little basement apartment at the top of the steepest hill I've ever climbed in my life – right across the street from Paul Cezanne's former atelier – with a tiny kitchen that had a toaster oven, a mini fridge, a hot plate, and exactly zero counter space. Not exactly ideal cooking conditions, but somehow, inspired by the colorful piles of fresh produce, seafood, olives, and herbs at the outdoor markets, I managed to cook nearly all my meals at home. I even bought a little pull cart so I could shop like a French grandma, and haul my goodies up the hill to my apartment.
During those days in Provence, I became friends with Madeleine and (her then-husband) Erick Vedel of Cuisine Provencale. They ran a cooking school and B&B in Arles, and I volunteered to help out several weekends just to learn more about Provencal cuisine. We made all sorts of beautiful dishes that I still love to this day: tian, a brightly-flavored roasted veggie dish with eggplant, zucchini, tomato, and potatoes, daube d'agneau, a rich lamb stew, and my favorite, la tapenade, the ubiquitous olive-caper-anchovy paste used in lieu of butter on bread throughout Provence.
I remember watching Erick make the tapenade and taking note of all his useful tricks: like rinsing the olives to cut down on the salty taste, and grating the garlic clove over fork tines into lemon juice to cut down on the pungency. I remember being shocked to see that anchovies literally melt when heated in olive oil. But most of all, it was the taste of the tapenade - the perfect blend of salty-earthy-herbal - that blew me away. Words won't do it justice: just try it for yourself. Go out and buy some good olives (not in a jar, please!!) and any ingredients not already in your pantry. Pull out your food processor and whizz away! This takes 10 minutes to make and it lasts 2 weeks in the fridge. I love serving it with crostini and goat cheese and really pale Provencal rose. It's also delicious on fish or roasted chicken or on a roasted veggies sandwich with goat cheese. Basically, it's just a great thing to have around.
(Adapted from Erick Vedel of Cuisine Provencale)
Serves 6 to 8
1 pound good quality black pitted olives (preferably Kalamata)
1 large garlic clove, peeled
Juice of 1/2 lemon
4 to 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 anchovy filets (salt-cured, from a can or jar)
2 tablespoons capers
Pinch of bay leaf, ground into a powder
Fresh thyme leaves (about 1 tablespoon)
Prepare the olives: Rinse off the olives to remove some of their natural saltiness; drain well.
Prepare the garlic puree: squeeze the lemon juice on a small plate with a sprinkle of salt. Take a sharp pronged fork and, holding the prongs flat on the plate, grate the garlic clove back and forth over the tips of the prongs. This will produce a fine puree, lightly cured by the acid of the lemon juice. (This same technique is great for taking the bite out of raw garlic in vinaigrettes or purees.)
Prepare the anchovies: Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a small frying pan over medium high heat. Add your anchovy filets and stir with a fork, lightly mashing the filets to dissolve them in the oil. Let bubble slightly for just a moment. Remove from the flame and add the pureed garlic. Return to the heat for just 30 seconds; remove and let cool slightly.
Add the drained olives, capers, anchovy mixture, the remaining olive oil, bay leaf powder, and fresh thyme to a food processor. Pulse until smooth, gradually adding the remaining olive oil as needed.
Serve room temperature with toasted slices of bread and fresh goat cheese with pre-dinner drinks. This mixture is also delicious on roasted fish or chicken. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.