Muffuletta Sandwich Recipe
Hi there! Big news today: this is the first post written in collaboration between Jeremy and me. From hereon, this blog will be brought to you by the two of us, not just Addie alone. We’re excited to finally be teaming up. As part of this new approach, we’re changing the way we present blog posts. We’re still only going to post once a month (or so) for now, but we’re transitioning from simply bringing you recipes to bringing you explorations of culture via food. We craved more constraints than that though, so we’ve chosen to explore cultures mainly through sandwich recipes. After all, pretty much every culture on earth puts some delicious stuff between other stuff to make a quick meal, so exploring the ways that the sandwich is adapted should be pretty exciting. To warm up before we start traveling full time in June of 2016, we’ll explore famous sandwiches here in New Orleans as well as a few additional culturally relevant sandwiches from the broader United States, to which we have personal connections.
Today we present our first sandwich, the muffuletta.
The muffuletta was created in the New Orleans French Quarter at Central Grocery in 1906 by Mr. Lupo Salvatore, the store’s original owner. As is Sicilian tradition, all of the ingredients were originally placed on the plate separately (like in an antipasto platter) until one day Mr. Salvatore noticed how much trouble the guys from the nearby markets and wharves were having balancing those plates of ingredients on their knees as they ate at work. Some men had even taken to piling all of their ingredients between bread. Mr. Salvatore, being a smart man, started serving muffuletta sandwiches, named for the round, seeded loaves on which the sandwich was served. To this day, the sandwich and bread share the name. It remained an insider’s delight until the 1960s when the muffuletta was discovered by people outside of New Orleans.
Let’s briefly cover the ingredients on a muffuletta. We’ll talk about each in more detail later, but we’ll start by educating you as to what’s actually on the sandwich. It all starts with a 10-inch round loaf of Italian bread, covered in sesame seeds. This bread is a little dry but its crust is sturdy. The dry bread helps to soak up the olive oil from the salad (more on that in a sec) and the sturdy (but not crispy) crust of the bread keeps the large sandwich structurally sound.
Next is the olive salad, the defining ingredient of the muffuletta. Since we live in New Orleans, we have the option of buying prepared olive salad, and we did so because it’s actually economical to do so. Plus, the right pre-made olive salad, having the benefit of marinating in a jar until purchased, tastes better than one you might make yourself. Whether you make it or buy it, the olive salad is typically a mix of crushed or chopped manzanilla olives, kalamata olives, capers, giardiniera (pickled vegetables), garlic, and a battery of other seasonings, all packed generously in olive oil. The Central Grocery people believe in crushing the olives instead of chopping them because they feel it better preserves the flavor of the olives. Other people chop. It’s about the same to us, honestly. What’s most important is that the salad lay flat on the sandwich so be sure to disassemble the olives somehow. If you’re interested in making your own olive salad, we recommend Saveur’s recipe.
Now let’s move on to the meat. Traditionally, the muffuletta is made with a quarter pound of each of ham, mortadella, and salami. The salami is typically Genoa, and the ham can range from prosciutto to smoked ham to capicola. Don’t be afraid to get creative with it, the bolder the flavor the better, as you are piling up an awful lot of different things. The mortadella is our favorite of the three meats used. It’s an Italian bologna with circles of pork fat and toasted pistachios. To. Die. For. Believe that! It’s gourmet bologna at its finest.
Finally, the cheese. Traditionally, the muffuletta calls for a quarter pound each of sliced mozzarella and sliced provolone. However, some people like to use Swiss. As you’ll see below we stuck with tradition and used mozzarella and provolone. Also, make sure it’s sliced and not shredded, as tradition dictates. Also, use deli sliced mozzarella, not fresh mozzarella that comes in a ball (sometimes called buffalo mozzarella). The deli sliced stuff is drier and will melt better, should you choose to heat yours.
As the product of improvisation in the early 20th century, it’s important to identify that the muffuletta is as much a New Orleans thing as an Italian thing. Sure, it was made by Italian immigrants, working in Italian groceries, mostly for Italian immigrant laborers, but ultimately this sandwich was created for New Orleans residents living in New Orleans. The ingredients are obtained in the local environment. Accordingly, we wanted the way we procured our ingredients to reflect the past and present of the local environment in which the muffuletta was born. Part of what we were aiming to do here is source our ingredients from interesting places. Sure, we could have picked up all of this stuff at one grocery store, but we wanted to find stores and places who provide great versions of what we use, and by doing our best to source from local and culturally relevant retailers, we are keeping in the original spirit of the sandwich.
Let’s start again with the bread. It was actually the first ingredient we picked up on our shopping day. We headed over to Metairie (a suburb of New Orleans) to buy our bread from Dorignac’s Food Center, located on Veteran’s Boulevard, near the Orleans Parish line. Interestingly, this store was born in New Orleans in 1947 on Jackson Avenue in the Lower Garden District but was later moved into the suburbs where everyone thought the future was in the 1960s. Dorignac’s is known for its selections of regional specialties, wine, beer, and spirits, and it’s also known for its bakery. We bought the seeded Italian loaf from them for a very reasonable price: $2.78. We could have also visited Zuppardo’s grocery store, which sells bread from Angelo’s Bakery (famous for their muffuletta bread). The muffuletta is widely appreciated enough in New Orleans that any grocery store with a bakery will have the right bread. Some is more tasty than others, of course. If you’re really into bread, it would be interesting to taste test them all.
Now we move on the the meat. We decided to visit Nor-Joe Importing Co. for the meat. They’re one of the few remaining classic Italian groceries in the New Orleans area. They’re located off of Metairie Road in Old Metairie, again, just over the parish line, not far from the city. Nor-Joe’s opened in 1982 and while they’re not as famous as Central Grocery, they still provide a respectable selection of Italian delicacies. For our sandwich, we chose a quarter pound each of mortadella (with pistachios, of course!), Genoa salami, and hot capicola ham (spicy for an extra kick to stand out in the pile of meat). The total at Nor-Joe’s was an astoundingly affordable $10.39. Can’t complain about low priced imported cured meats.
Our next stop was at Stein’s Market & Deli for the cheeses. We could’ve easily gotten the meats at Stein’s, too, or gotten the cheese at Nor-Joe, but we wanted to share the love. Stein’s is a Jewish-style deli and beer store in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans, located on Magazine Street, right near Jackson Avenue. It’s owned and run by Dan Stein and his trusty counter guy Andre. They’re a colorful bunch, and they deserve a place in the pantheon of delicious New Orleans sandwiches, because not only can you get a variety of deli delights, they also have an extensive roster of sandwiches sourced from their deli case (we like the Southern Animal Foundation). All told, we walked out with half a pound of cheese (1/4 lb. provolone and 1/4 lb. mozzarella) for $4.37.
Finally, we got the olive salad. Here in New Orleans you can find olive salad at basically any grocery store. All the brands are local and tasty. However, we decided to go to the creator of the muffuletta for our olive salad: Central Grocery. We felt we couldn’t in good faith create a muffuletta without paying respects to its homeland. So we finished up our shopping day in the French Quarter at Central Grocery. It was around 4pm so fortunately they weren’t terribly busy; we’ve been there when the line snakes all around the store! The olive salad is actually the most expensive part of creating a muffuletta, mainly because you have to buy more than you need. A quart sized jar cost us $13.06, but that’s for TWO POUNDS of olive salad. That’s about what you’d pay at a nice olive bar so really, it’s not like it’s over-priced. Plus, hey, you get lots of olive salad.
With our ingredients procured, we returned home to recover from shopping. Next up: sandwich making!
Once you have the ingredients, it’s time for assembly. Let’s by start noting that heating this sandwich is optional. Personally, we prefer our muffulettas unheated, with all of the ingredients at room temperature. At room temperature and warmer, the flavors of each ingredient can shine, but we prefer to avoid turning on the broiler (which is essential in the summertime here). If you’d like to heat yours, simply broil it for a few minutes until the cheese melts and is brown and bubbly.
The building process starts with splitting the bread in half, horizontally. Try to get as evenly in the middle as possible. Lay the two halves on a flat surface and proceed to smear each half with olive oil from the olive salad. This will pre-soak your bread and prepare it for everything else that’s to come. At this point, you can proceed one of two ways. If you’re not planning on heating the sandwich, you can build the muffuletta layer-by-layer on the bottom bread and top it with the cap. If you want to heat it, though, you’ll need to build it on both sides so that you can transfer it to the oven more easily.
The rest of this explanation assumes you’re going to do the layering on both breads. After you’ve smeared both halves of the bread with olive oil, spread a layer of olive salad on each half. It should be about half a cup per half, but if you want more, go ahead. We won’t tell.
Next you can layer on the meat. The best thing to do is separate each meat into four neat equally sized piles. You’ll be layering from hereon out and everything is more stable when the layers are proportional and the meats are laid flat. Start with whichever meat you’d like, your choice. Take one of the quarter stacks and layer each meat onto the halves. Add the other two meats afterward.
Now, you can divvy up the cheese. Here we suggest dividing each cheese into two stacks, evenly, of course. Place a stack of each cheese onto the meat layer on each half. Next, go back to the remaining meat and layer on the rest. Top the sandwich halves with your remaining cheeses.
Special note: there is no real right or wrong way to layer. We’ve gone through the process of explaining to try to make it easier for you, but do it how you’d like. The only thing that’s really suggested strongly is that if you’re heating it, use cheese as the top layer on both breads so that it can melt better.
If you’re going to heat the sandwich, transfer the halves to a sheet pan and broil for a few minutes. If you’re forgoing heating, and you’ve built it on two halves, carefully pair the bottom part of the sandwich with the top. Use a large offset spatula if you need to to hold the ingredients in place. The same thing will be done with the heated halves. Cut the sandwich into quarters and serve (you wont need much more than a quarter a person). That simple!
Sandwiches are not customarily fancy: they’re a utilitarian way of cramming a variety of nutrition in a compact and portable form. They’re ultimately a working man’s food. Sandwiches represent average people, and the story of the muffuletta reflects the humble origins of most types of sandwiches. Sure, the ingredients seem exotic and difficult to procure for modern Americans, but for Italians in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, the muffuletta was made out of familiar, common ingredients.
The muffuletta was a taste of homes old and new, and remains so today. This sandwich is a reminder that though cultures are transplanted all the time, they continue to innovate. They innovate based on their histories and traditions, of course, but they also innovate by adapting to their new demands and surroundings. Born in the hundred or so yards between Central Grocery and the docks of the Mississippi, the muffuletta represents cultural traditions and the subsequent adaptation. It’s a reminder that while New Orleans natives haven’t always been natives, but they have always eaten well.
This is the Culicurious version of a classic New Orleans sandwich!
- 1 loaf of muffuletta bread (sub sesame-studded Italian bread if needed)
- 1 cup olive salad
- 1/4 pound mortadella
- 1/4 pound Genoa salami
- 1/4 pound ham (capicola, prosciutto, or smoked)
- 1/4 pound mozzarella cheese
- 1/4 pound provolone cheese
- Special note: Heating this sandwich is optional. If you want to heat the sandwich, pre-heat your oven’s broiler before starting sandwich assembly.
- Split the bread in half, horizontally. Lay the two halves on a flat surface and proceed to smear each half with olive oil from the jar of olive salad.
- At this point, you can proceed one of two ways. If you’re not planning on heating the sandwich, you can build the muffuletta layer-by-layer on the bottom bread and top it with the cap. If you want to heat it, though, you’ll need to build it on both sides so that you can transfer it to the oven more easily. The rest of this explanation assumes you’re going to do the layering on both breads.
- After you’ve smeared both halves of the bread with olive oil, spread a layer of olive salad on each half. It should be about half a cup per half, but if you want more feel free.
- Next you can layer on the meat. Separate each meat into four neat equally sized piles. You’ll be layering from hereon out and everything is more stable when the layers are proportional and the meats are laid flat. Start with whichever meat you’d like, your choice. Take one of the quarter stacks and layer each meat onto the halves. Add the other two meats afterward.
- Next, divvy up the cheese. Divide each of the two cheeses evenly into two stacks each. Place a stack of each cheese onto the meat layer on each half. Next, go back to the remaining meat and layer on the rest. Top the sandwich halves with your remaining cheeses.
- Additional note: there is no real right or wrong way to layer. The steps laid out attempt to make this process easier but do it how you like. The only thing that’s suggested strongly is that if you’re heating it, use cheese as the top layer on both breads so that it can melt better. Make sure to also spread ingredients so they cover the entirety of the bread.
- If you’re heating the sandwich, transfer the halves to a sheet pan and broil for a few minutes, until the cheese is melted and bubbly. If you’re forgoing heating and you’ve built it on two halves, carefully pair the bottom part of the sandwich with the top. Use a large offset spatula if you need to to hold the ingredients in place. The same thing will be done with the heated halves.
- Cut the sandwich into quarters and serve (one quarter a person is a meal).