Developed in the Provence region of France, a traditional tapenade usually consists of a combination of finely chopped black olives, capers, anchovies and olive oil. Tapenades are often referred to as “the black butter of Provence,” as well as “the caviar of the poor.” As tapenades gain popularity, like any other type of basic recipe, you’ll find there are as many variations as there are shades of green, which are, seemingly endless. Various types of pitted olives (preferably gourmet or deli) are used and through my searches I found a combination of Kalamata and green olives being the most widely favored.
What is also interesting is the American influence on the traditional tapenade. To add anchovy or not to add is the biggest question. I find that most Americans (or at least the non-foodie types) will cringe and turn their noses up at the mere mention of an anchovy, whether they’ve even tasted one or not. I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste yes, but what if you’re making it for a crowd? Then what? I’d say to be on the safe side, leave them completely out. On the other hand, the experimental foodie in me suggests that you may want to make at least a small dish with and set aside to satisfy all tastes. (Which I did btw, and it was fabulous, well, at least to me it was LOL)
The other (unfortunate) influence I’ve noticed is the complete hashing of the original recipe. For example, during my extensive online research, I found some recipes go as far as to use only roasted red peppers in place of olives mixed with cream cheese and still call it a tapenade. Is this really a tapenade? That’s like trying to make a version of potato salad that doesn’t contain potatoes. Let’s be fair here, if it’s a dip, call it a dip, don’t try to fancy it up with a label that doesn’t even come close to describing the original dish.
That said, I think subtle variations/additions of the basic dish is absolutely fine. Go ahead and experiment to suit your personal taste as long as the majority of the ingredients hold true to the original recipe, which are (as a reminder); olives and/or capers and olive oil.
One last consideration of preference is simply texture. Traditionally, tapenades were creamed using a mortar and pestle, making a fine spread for bread slices or sandwiches (hence the reference to “black butter”). However, today one would agree that it’s hard to beat the convenience of a modern food processor. Not only that, but you may prefer a finely minced tapenade, one with a bit more texture. Some will even prefer to finely hand chop the ingredients. I guess this also depends on the destination of the tapenade. Will it be used as a base spread for an appetizer? Or perhaps sandwiches? Or maybe you want it to be the star of the show on a toasted baguette? I made a large batch of finely chopped for my family Christmas party then I took a little aside and added some anchovies and used my mortar and pestle. All I can say is, if you want more of a spread, you might want to use your food processor.
So here is a version that I came up with, while still trying to be true to the original dish. For the record, I prefer mine finely hand chopped :
Tapanade with Variations
1/2 C pitted kalamata olives
1/2 C pitted black olives
1/2 C pitted green olives
1/2 C roasted red peppers
1 Tbsp capers
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 Tbsp finely chopped fresh flat leafed parsley
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar (or lemon juice)
2 Tbsp olive oil (perhaps a bit more if needed)
ground pepper to taste
Thoroughly drain and roughly chop all olives, capers, and roasted red peppers. Add in all other ingredients and pulse in a food processor to desired consistency. Alternatively, finely hand chop everything if more of a texture is desired then add in the balsamic, olive oil, and ground pepper to taste.
Here are some variations that I came across that sounded reasonable (at least to me) and I adjusted (guessed) the amounts according to my recipe above. While I wouldn’t use all of these additions at once, replacing a few of the ingredients above would make for interesting variations:
3-4 anchovy fillets (minced fine or ½-1 tsp anchovy paste)
1/2 C artichoke hearts (replace 1/2 cup of any of the olives)
Shaved or grated Parmesan cheese (on top or a handful mixed in)
Choose one (so as not to overpower original flavors): Thyme, basil, or rosemary (1 tsp dried OR 1 Tbsp fresh)
Sundried tomatoes instead of roasted red peppers
One last thing I’d like to touch upon is presentation. I mean, let’s face it, no matter how flavorful a food is on your buffet table no one will touch it if it looks unappetizing. Simply put, tapenade doesn’t look good. If you’ll be serving it in a dish as a spread or condiment, at the very least, put it in a colorful bowl and add some garnish. Maybe a sprig of whatever fresh herb is in there, or at the very least, a parsley leaf. I chose a glass bowl and then just put red pepper strips on top to brighten it up and make it look more festive. Here are some more serving suggestions:
Crackers, pita slices, or toasted baguette slices
With strips of green and red peppers for dipping
Serve in a hollowed out red pepper
Over a flattened out bed of softened cream cheese
Serve in hollowed out cherry tomatoes, as an appetizer
Spread a soft cheese, like Chevre or cream cheese, on a toasted baguette with a dollop of the tapenade
As a condiment for sandwiches
I loved having this on our Christmas buffet, even though it wasn't to most people's liking. You REALLY have to love olives to love this stuff. However, the dish was really colorful and added an alternative to all of the cheese, sour cream and other (usual) mayonnaise based dips and spreads. I hope you try it out and by all means, come back and share your variations and ideas!