Finally, it’s time to relax. The holiday madness is over, we’ve rung in the New Year and the Super Bowl has officially ended the party season. Right? Wrong. Maybe elsewhere, but here in Acadiana, we love a celebration, and with Mardi Gras coming up, our party season is just getting started. Parties, balls, parades — the Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana doesn’t really stop until early March when the Lenten season calms things down. So, with a full week of party planning still ahead, it’s time for a South Louisiana favorite – the perfect muffuletta.
There’s nothing more New Orleans than the perfect muffuletta sandwich, but they’re tricky and I have five keys to unlocking the mystery. There is considerable argument over who has the best. There’s even an ongoing argument over how to spell the name – “muffaletta” or “muffuletta.” Conventional wisdom seems to put the French Market of New Orleans as the epicenter of the muffuletta universe, and clearly it is a “u” in the sandwiches seen in the many shops along the riverfront. These are the benchmark muffulettas on which others attempt to raise the bar.
I advise that before actually making a muffuletta you should make the pilgrimage to the French Quarter and Central Grocery, the origins of this Sicilian masterpiece. When you open the door to the neighborhood Italian grocery, the heady aroma overcomes you – potent dried oregano, pungent oil-soaked olives, spice-cured salami, freshly grated Pecorino Romano. The colorful tins of imported Italian olive oil and row upon row of dried pastas lining the walls from floor to ceiling speak to you in a Sicilian accent. You just know that fresh Italian ingredients are going into this handcrafted sandwich.
But, these muffs are made ahead, not to order. Why? This is one of the keys to unlocking the mystery. Round loaves of Italian bread are wrapped tight and stacked high. Under their own weight, the paper becomes oil-stained and dripping with the olive salad marinade, an indication of a well-soaked muffuletta.
But, can we improve upon the master artisans at Central Grocery?
There are other versions, and it is the hot, melted muffuletta at Napoleon House in the French Quarter that I intend to duplicate. Crispy Italian bread blanketed with an herb-spiked olive salad, piled high with classic deli meats and a crown of melting cheese (it’s okay to salivate) is perfection indeed. If you carefully follow these five key steps, I promise you will unlock the mystery of the perfect muffuletta sandwich.
- 2 (10-inch) loaves round Italian bread with sesame seeds
- 4 cups olive salad (recipe follows)
- ½ pound Genoa salami, thinly sliced
- ½ pound ham, thinly sliced
- ½ pound mortadella with pistachios, thinly sliced
- ½ pound provolone, thinly sliced
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 10-ounce jar green olives, pimiento-stuffed
- 1 cup Italian black olives, pitted
- ½ cup celery, chopped coarse
- ½ cup carrots, chopped coarse
- ½ cup cauliflower, chopped coarse
- ½ cup jarred or fresh red pepper slices
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon capers
- ¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon celery seed
- 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- THE RIGHT BREAD - The bread is all-important to the integrity of this sandwich and should be a large, thick-crust, round loaf of Italian bread, preferably with sesame seeds. Find a good Italian bakery and you should be able to duplicate the muff bread that is common throughout Louisiana.
- QUALITY OLIVE SALAD MIX - Good quality olive salad is crucial. If you live in Louisiana or have access to a good Italian grocer, you can find a jarred product called Muffuletta Olive Salad Mix – my favorite is Boscoli and you can order it online at Cajungrocer.com. Or you can make your own (see recipe) and allow it to marinate for a week or more.
- MAKE AHEAD - Make these sandwiches at least two hours before you want to serve them since the longer they soak, the better. Slice the bread in half horizontally exposing the inside of both halves. Pour olive oil on the bottom bread half to soak generously. Add a thick layer of olive salad over the bottom bread half. Lay out the sliced salami evenly distributing the meat over the bottom bread, and then add a layer of half the provolone. Then, a layer of mortadella. Then, a layer of ham. Then, another layer of provolone. Add more of the olive salad on the top bread half and close it up.
- COMPRESS THE SANDWICH - Compressing the sandwich to distribute the flavors will make a world of difference. Wrap the sandwich tightly in aluminum foil and weigh it down with the heaviest pot you have. To make it heavier add some canned goods inside the pot. Leave it and let it sit for two hours or longer.
- HEAT THE SANDWICH - Turn up the heat. Set the burners of an outdoor gas grill to low. (Alternatively, you can use a 350-degree oven.) This is a major point of differentiation from the traditional muff. Here, you are going to melt the cheese, crisp the bread and add the smoky flavor from the grill. Place the foil-wrapped sandwiches on the hot grates, close the hood and leave for 15 minutes. Unwrap the top of the foil exposing the sandwich and heat for another 5 minutes with the hood closed. Keep warm until your guests are ready and then slice each muffuletta into quarters for serving. A Barq’s root beer (in the bottle, of course) or an ice-cold beer is the beverage of choice for the perfect muffuletta.
- Place all ingredients in a food processor. Quick pulse until chopped but not pureed. Cover and refrigerate overnight and up to a week or more.
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