Mini muffulettas for Mardi Gras

As much as I’d love to, I’ve never been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  The memory of  the great food I ate on my one trip to the Big Easy still lingers, though.

About this time of year, I always start thinking about celebrating Mardi Gras at home with some of those unforgettable flavors. There’s no way I can hope to recreate the fabulous Gulf Coast seafood where I live, of course.  But it’s not that difficult to approximate  the savory satisfaction of the muffuletta sandwiches made legendary by Central Grocery in the French quarter near the turn of the last century.

The sandwich takes its name from a large, rather soft loaf of Sicilian bread dusted with sesame seeds. Afficionados insist you can’t make a muffuletta without it.

The bread is not widely available, however, and I’m not that fond of squishy bread anyway.  As far as I’m concerned, the irresistible element of a muffuletta is the briny olive salad tucked inside with good salumi and cheese. The salad is simple to make with olives, capers and the pickled mix of vegetables Italians call giardiniera.

To mix things up a little, I’ve turned the muffuletta into a miniature sandwich perfect for a picnic or a party platter at any time of the year.  I took some along on a hike recently and my friends were as enthusiastic as I am.

These little sandwiches can be made on ordinary sourdough dinner rolls.  Just be sure the crust is not too hard to bite through easily.  Use the best meat and cheese you can find and make the olive salad a day ahead to allow the flavors to meld.

If you can’t make it to New Orleans either this year,  mini muffulettas will take you there in spirit.

Serves 8

8 small sourdough dinner rolls
Extra virgin olive oil
Olive salad (recipe below)
4 ounces mortadella or Genoa salami, thinly sliced
2 ounces coppa or other cured Italian ham, thinly sliced
4 ounces provolone cheese, thinly sliced

Slice each roll in half horizontally and pull out some of the interior of each half to create a depression for the olive salad.  Drizzle the cut sides of each roll with a little olive oil and place a generous tablespoon or more of the olive salad in each depression.  Place a slice of mortadella or Genoa salami on the bottom half of each roll and top with a slice or two of coppa and a slice of provolone.  Carefully cover with the upper half of the roll.  Press halves firmly together.  Wrap each roll in plastic wrap and let sit for at least half an hour before serving.  (If you’re making muffulettas for a crowd, you can stack them on a platter and cover tightly with plastic wrap.  Sandwiches can be refrigerated for several hours, then brought to room temperature for serving.)

Makes about 3 cups

1 cup pimento-stuffed green olives, drained
¼ cup marinated cocktail onions, drained
½ cup giardiniera (mixed Italian pickled vegetables), drained
3 cloves garlic
½ cup kalamata olives, pitted
1 stalk celery
2 tablespoons capers, drained
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Thinly slice green olives, cocktail onions, giardiniera, garlic cloves, kalamata olives and celery and place in a medium bowl.  (The easiest way to do this is to use a food processor fitted with a thin slicing blade.) Stir in capers.  Whisk together vinegar, olive oil, dried oregano, and parsley in a small bowl to make a dressing.  Pour dressing over vegetables and toss to mix.  Add pepper to taste.  Refrigerate, tightly covered, for at least 24 hours before using.  Will hold up to three weeks in the refrigerator.

Aleta Watson