A Tale of Two Tapenades (and How to Make Them)

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A classic black-olive tapenade. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

When The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters in May of 1980, I was just two years old, which meant that by the time I was old enough to see the original Star Wars trilogy, the big surprise that Darth Vader was the father of Luke and Leia had become common knowledge. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and so for me, it's always been a little hard to understand how so few people figured out beforehand that the guy literally named "Dark Father" might possibly be, you know, an actual father. Then again, those movies came out before the internet era, when obscure fan theories can practically become fact well before the big reveal ever actually happens (I'm lookin' at you, R + L = J).

Right now, I'm trying to steer clear of all the speculation swirling online about The Force Awakens, so, as a distraction, I'll deliver my own little spoiler about tapenade, the popular Provençal olive spread. In keeping with the theme, I'll do it in spectacular cinematic fashion:

SCENE: A VAST BATTLEFIELD, LITTERED WITH THE DEAD AND DYING. SMOKE RISES, THE MORTALLY INJURED TWITCH AND MOAN. WE'RE LOOKING AT THE AFTERMATH OF ONE OF THE GREATEST CULINARY BATTLES EVER WAGED, IN WHICH THE MORTARS AND PESTLES FINALLY SMASHED THE OLIVE-GARCHY'S BRUTAL DOMINION OVER THE CAPERS AND THE FISHES. THE CAMERA PANS ACROSS THE DEVASTATION, COMING TO REST ON THE GRAND DUKE NIÇOISE, ON THE EDGE OF DEATH AS OLIVE OIL SEEPS FROM DEEP, UNTREATABLE WOUNDS. KNEELING BESIDE HIM IS HIS SON, PRINCE PICHOLINE.*

PRINCE PICHOLINE
Father, stay with me. Help is on its way—you must survive to fight again! We will regain our rightful control over the land of Tapenade.

GRAND DUKE NIÇOISE
My child, it is done. I feel the cold press of death approach, the Extra-Virgin awaits me.

PRINCE PICHOLINE
No, father! You mustn't let go! We are the supreme Tapenade race, but I am not sure I can return us to our rightful glory without you. A world in which the Capers and Fishes are equal to us is a world I would sooner leave.

GRAND DUKE NIÇOISE
Son, listen to me. (He inhales weakly.) I have deceived you: We are not the superior race. Your Tapenade ancestors have always been equal parts Olive, Caper, and Fish. Embrace your kin... (His eyes roll back as his final breath departs his pitted corpse.)

* If this ever gets picked up by a Hollywood studio, I promise you now, I'll push for real sets. CGI just doesn't cut it.

I'll give you a minute to collect your thoughts, because I know what a shocker this probably was to read. And yet, just like with Darth Vader, a huge clue has been hidden in the name all along: Tapenade is named after capers, called tapeno in Provençal, a remnant of the fact that they once shared equal status with the olives.

Truth is, you don't have to go very far back to find the original recipe. While pastes made from things like olives and capers have been made in the Mediterranean for hundreds or even thousands of years, tapenade itself can be precisely dated to 1880, when a chef named Meynier created it at a Marseilles restaurant called La Maison Dorée. His recipe was published 17 years later in a great old Provençal cookbook, J.-B. Reboul's La Cuisinière Provençale.

Over time, in France, the United States, and elsewhere, olives gradually became the dominant ingredient, to the point where today almost everyone thinks of tapenade as an olive paste that's flavored with lesser amounts of other ingredients, from capers and anchovies to herbs like basil and thyme and aromatics like garlic.

That modern, olive-forward version is great, and I'm sharing a recipe for it here. But one of the joys I had in working on this story was discovering and resurrecting the original one, made from equal parts of three things: olives, capers, and a mixture of salted anchovies and oil-packed tuna. It's a remarkably different tapenade from what most of us have had before, with everything in striking harmony. I'm sharing a recipe for that one, too, because if you love briny things, I think you should add it to your repertoire.

The Modern, Olive-Forward Tapenade

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This is the one most of us think of when we think "tapenade." It's typically made with black olives from Provence, sometimes the Niçoise ones, sometimes oil-cured ones that have a slightly dried, wrinkly-looking skin. I always like to point out that Italian Taggiasca and French Niçoise olives are really the same variety, known as Cailletier; the main difference between the two is how they're cured, with the Niçoise coming out a blacker shade than the Taggiasca, but either will work in tapenade. Even green olives are sometimes used for a change of pace, so you have options—though it's important to keep in mind that different olives can have different degrees of saltiness and oiliness, which means you'll have to adjust accordingly.

Pitted olives will save you plenty of time and effort if you can find good ones—removing the pits is, without a doubt, my least favorite task when making tapenade.

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If you do have to pit them yourself, the best trick I know to speed things up is to crush the olives under a heavy pan or the flat side of a knife to help break the flesh away from the stone within. It should be a little easier to remove the pit after that.

Besides the olives, I add smaller amounts of drained brined capers, a few anchovy fillets, a couple of cloves of garlic, a bit of Dijon mustard, and then lemon juice for acidity.

Fresh herbs, meanwhile, are a fun way to easily change the tapenade's basic flavor. I tend to choose among the more common ones from the South of France, like basil, marjoram, rosemary, and/or thyme.

A splash of good olive oil whipped in at the end loosens the tapenade just enough to make it spreadable.

So, You Put It All in a Food Processor and Badda Bing, Badda Boom, You're Done, Right?

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Well, maybe. But I'd like to consider another option: the mortar and pestle. In all of our recipe testing to date, both Kenji and I have found that for pulverizing aromatic ingredients, the mortar and pestle wins out over a food processor every time. That was absolutely the case with homemade pesto sauce. It was true for this Isan Thai–style steak salad. And it's true for guacamole, too.

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After testing the two methods for tapenade, I'm going to once again throw my support behind that age-old kitchen utensil: Nothing releases aromatics and creates great texture like a mortar and pestle does. Just look at the two samples side by side:

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Mortar-and-pestle tapenade, at left, and food-processed at right.

The food processor makes quick work of the tapenade, but the resulting spread is made up of uniform, finely chopped bits that are almost grainy in texture. Food processors are so common for tapenade these days that this is the only texture I've ever known it to have.

But look at the pounded-by-hand sample on the left. Now that's a true paste, with a rustic texture that includes a silky base interspersed with chunks of olive and caper. Some of the smaller herb leaves remained whole, but their flavor was coaxed out of them under the pressure of the pestle and infused into the entire spread, similar to the way herbs are muddled for cocktails. The hand-pounded tapenade also had a more garlicky flavor, the result of the garlic being not just chopped but totally pulverized.

I'm not going to lie, though: Using a mortar and pestle is a minor pain in the butt. It takes a lot longer to do, and there are moments when your incessant tapping, crushing, pressing, and smashing don't seem to be making much progress at all. It helps, I realized later, to pre-chop the olives, but even then it takes a while. You'll get there eventually, but you will work for it.

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The convenience of the food processor, therefore, shouldn't be understated. Still, if you have the time and inclination, the mortar and pestle will give you significantly better flavor, aroma, and texture.

The Old-School Tapenade

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Meet the tapenade from back when capers were added in equal measure to olives. On top of that, this version uses a much larger amount of anchovy fillets, along with oil-packed tuna. In terms of ratios, you can think of it as either 2:2:1:1 (olives:capers:anchovies:tuna) or 1:1:1 (olives:capers:fishy things).

As you can imagine, this tapenade is much less distinctly olive-y. Instead, it has a more briny character, thanks to all those capers and anchovy fillets, with a balanced flavor that calls up each of the main ingredients.

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The tuna, too, serves a useful role, adding protein to the mix. When mashed to a paste, that helps the tapenade form and remain more fully emulsified than the olive-heavy version, even after extra olive oil is added to soften and moisturize it.

Some recipes for this older version leave it at that, such as in my copy of Vieii Receto de Cousino Prouvençalo (Old Recipes of Provençal Cuisine), though others allow for the addition of Dijon mustard, herbs like marjoram, rosemary, and thyme, and even a splash of Cognac.

I doubt anyone would really object to the booze, but if they do, sit 'em down and say you have a bit of explaining to do. Before you get to the details, though, it's always polite to say: Spoiler alert!