Muffuletta Olive Salad

“Muffuletta” is an obsolete Sicilian dialect word for a certain kind of round bread loaf. The word was adopted in New Orleans by the Sicilian immigrants around 1900 as the name for a unique, gigantic sandwich made with that kind of bread. Muffulettas are right up there with poor boys in popularity and goodness among local sandwiches.

What makes a muffuletta special is its dressing. It’s called “olive salad,” and it’s something like antipasto, made by marinating not only olives but also a host of other vegetables in olive oil, a little vinegar, and a lot of garlic and herbs. This recipe starts from scratch, but you can make an easy version by using a prepared Italian giardinera in place of the non-olive vegetables.

The muffuletta is filled with as many as three meats and three cheeses, all sliced very thin. Ham and Genoa salami are essential; mortadella is optional but desirable. Mozzarella, provolone, and Swiss cheese can be used in any combination. The best bread to use is a muffuletta loaf with a dense crumb and a somewhat thick crust. A crusty round loaf with a medium-light texture will do.

The great controversy concerning muffulettas is whether they should be heated or not. The current vogue is to do so until the cheeses melt. I take the rear-guard position that this throws off the flavors and textures of everything, and that a room-temperature muffuletta with freshly-sliced meats on fresh bread is superior.

  • 2 medium carrots
  • 1 cauliflower
  • 1 small red bell pepper
  • 2 cups medium olives
  • 16 large green olives
  • 1/4 cup juice from the olive jar
  • 1 cup brine-cured black olives
  • 6 large cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup (a small jar) capers
  • 2 tsp. oregano
  • 1 tsp. dried basil
  • 10 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 lb. lean, smoked ham (I recommend the local Chisesi ham), sliced thin
  • 1 lb. Genoa salami, sliced thin
  • 1/2 lb. mortadella (optional)
  • 2 lbs. total of at least two of these cheeses: mozzarella, provolone, or Swiss
  • 3 loaves muffuletta bread, or other eight-inch-diameter, medium-texture loaf

1. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Slice the carrots into coins about 1/4 inch thick. Cut the cauliflower into quarters; pull apart one quarter into morsels. (Save the other three quarters for another use.) Boil the vegetables for about five minutes, until they’re crisp-tender. Rinse with cold water and set aside.

2. Roast the bell pepper under a broiler until the skin turns black and blistered in spots. Keep turning till the entire exterior is that way. Remove, cool, peel, and remove stem and seeds. Slice into pieces about an inch by a half inch.

3. With a knife (not a food processor), chop the olives coarsely. It’s okay if some of the olives are cut into just two pieces, or not at all.

4. In a large non-metallic bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for at least a day; a week is better. Store in jars, but keep refrigerated.

5. To make the sandwich, slice the bread crosswise, and spoon olive salad with a lot of the marinating oil onto both halves. Top with three or four slices (or more) of each of the meats and cheeses. Cut the sandwich into quarters. Figure one or two quarters per person, but know that this is hard to stop eating, even if you’re full.

Serves six to twelve.

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