There are some foods that just fit me like a glove. Foods that mingle up my favorite flavors, all at once, and deliver them in walloping bites. Foods that not everyone loves as much as I do, giving me full license to pretend I’m just more sophisticated than they are (all the while stuffing whatever’s left into my greedy maw). Olive tapenade is one of those foods.
I never met a salty briny thing I didn’t like, and tapenade’s got a trifecta of them: olives, capers, and anchovy. Mashed or blended with a healthy punch of raw garlic and a glug of olive oil, these three make one of the most weirdly compelling foodstuffs I’ve ever met. A good tapenade is salty but not withering, spicy and nose-tickling from the garlic and gardeny-fragrant from olive oil and herbs. Slather some on a piece of crusty bread, and I’m powerless to resist. Dollop some on fish or stuff it under the skin of a chicken, and I swoon. Use it as a salad dressing or pasta sauce, and I’ll be over at your house before the plate hits the table.
This particular tapenade started with a pack of oil-cured olives I found in my boyfriend’s fridge. Oil-cured olives are particularly powerful things–ugly as sin, to be sure, all black and wrinkled and greasy, but with an incredible salty wallop and lovely oily finish. They’re far too gutsy to use on their own in a tapenade, which is why I jumped at a recipe that called for a mix of olives and dried figs. The combination of funky-sweet fig and salty-sharp olive, with the potency of garlic and the deep savor of anchovy, is absolutely phenomenal. I ate it on bread until the bread was gone, and then scraped out the bowl with a spoon. I think my friends avoided me for the rest of the day, but eh. Their loss.
As with pesto, there are several ways to make tapenade. (In a way, I suppose a tapenade is kind of like a pungent olive pesto.) You can chop it finely with a knife, mash it together with a mortar and pestle, or blitz it to pieces in a food processor. I like my tapenade with a little bit of texture–slightly bumpy, in a way. But it’s a matter of taste, so take it to the consistency that feels right to you. And then hide it from me, or I will eat it all and leave none for you.
Fig and Olive Tapenade (makes about 1 cup)
Adapted slightly from David Lebovitz
1/2 cup (about 3 oz) dried Black Mission figs, stemmed and chopped
Boiling water to cover
1 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted
1 tbsp capers, drained and rinsed
1 large or 2 small garlic cloves, minced
1 anchovy fillet, minced (optional)
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tbsp), or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, or as needed
Place the figs in a medium bowl, and pour over boiling water to cover. Let sit for 30 minutes, then drain.
Knife method: Pile about 1/3 of the olives and figs in the center of a large cutting board, and use a large sharp chef’s knife or cleaver to finely chop. Add another 1/3 of the olives and figs and chop again, followed by the remaining olives and figs. Chop in capers, followed by garlic and anchovy (if using), followed by thyme leaves, until the mixture is very fine but still has some texture. Transfer to a bowl, and stir in lemon juice, pepper, and olive oil.
Mortar and pestle method: In a large mortar and pestle, combine olives, capers, garlic, anchovy (if using), and thyme, and pound until broken down into a rough paste. Add figs and pound until incorporated. Add lemon juice, pepper, and olive oil, and mash until combined. Transfer to a bowl.
Food processor method: In the bowl of a food processor, combine figs, olives, capers, garlic, anchovy (if using), thyme, lemon juice, and pepper. Pulse until finely chopped but not quite smooth. Transfer to a bowl and stir in olive oil.
Serve the tapenade immediately, or cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight for even better flavor. The tapenade will keep in the fridge, tightly covered, for up to 1 week.