Tuesday, July 3, 2007

A Brief History of Tapénade or Happy Birthday MFK Fisher


MFK Fisher would have turned 99 today, and her writing and straightforward food are still balm for the over-exposed palate and mind. She is timeless, tasteful, restrained, and self-possessed – a true antidote to the onslaught of heaving bosoms, bleached smiles, and vulgar contractions so many celebrity chefs subject us to these days.

Yet she was anything but timid. As Laura Shapiro has noted, Fisher once said: “I know what I want, and I usually get it because I am adaptable to locales…I order meals that are more typically masculine than feminine…I like good wines, or good drinkin’-likka, and beers and ales…Women are puzzled…I make it plain that I know my way around without [men], and that upsets them.”


It would be impossible and inappropriate for me to try to sum up Fisher’s life and work in a blog post, but you can read tributes written by her friends at the website maintained by Les Dames d'Escoffier International here.


I think it’s only fitting to cook MFK Fisher’s food today, and next year I’m planning an event for her birthday – you’ve been warned! For this year I’ve chosen 2 recipes from her 1968 book With Bold Knife and Fork. Both are for Provençal black olive spreads – she and her husband spent a few years living in France just after they were married in 1929.

The first, Olive Paste Provençale, is meant to be served frozen and has quickly become my favorite lunch. She calls the freezing a “little trick…in order to keep the oil which holds the whole together as thick as soft butter, to be spread easily upon bread or waifers.” Fisher imagines this incredibly simple Mediterranean ancestor of tapénade to be several thousand years old – snow having been used to solidify the garlic-infused oil in ages past.


Fisher also reveals that, despite the hype, tapénade was invented in a restaurant in Marseille less than a century ago (make that 150 years now I reckon). She readily concedes that, though relatively new, tapénade “tastes as subtly ancient as Time itself can taste.” Her recipe calls for tuna and brandy, and excludes garlic altogether – all firsts for me. But it’s deliciously balanced, as is everything of hers I’ve ever tried.

Fisher writes that in Provence, tapénade is traditionally served with hard-boiled eggs, “often cut in halves and laid face down on a shallow dish thickly coated with the unctuous heady mixture.” Sometimes though, she adds it is spooned onto the open halves, which appealed to me more. I also suggest the addition of some seasonal crudité, like the blanched wax beans and crisp radishes I’ve used here.


The only other adaptation I’ve made is to call for oil-cured olives rather than canned – I feel sure that Fisher would have used the same whenever she had access to them, but they were tough to come by state-side until surprisingly recently. Incidentally, your olive pastes will have more flavor if you start with olives that still have their stones. I suppose it comes down to how much time you’ve got on your hands – I am certainly not going to tell if you use pitted.

Enjoy both these recipes, and know that the flavors – particularly for the tapénade – will develop if they’re left to rest for a day or so. And remember that no mention here can substitute for Fisher’s own subtle, addictive prose. 3 of my favorites for anyone who feels like a grand read: A Cordiall Water, How to Cook a Wolf, and Long Ago in France. Happy Birthday Mrs. Fisher.

Olive Paste, Provençale

(adapted from With Bold Knife and Fork by MFK Fisher)

4 – 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
cayenne pepper to taste (start with 1 teaspoon and work up from there)
2 cups extra virgin olive oil
2 cups pitted chopped oil-cured black olives

Heat the garlic, salt, pepper, and cayenne gently in the olive oil over low heat. Once the garlic cloves are lightly golden, remove from the heat and cool the mixture slightly. Then remove the garlic cloves and discard. Mix the olives into the seasoned oil and pack firmly into small pots or bowls. Press down so that the oil rises to the surface to form a firm seal once frozen. Cover and freeze for a few hours or up to 1 year.

Serve on a bed of crushed ice. The back of a spoon warmed in hot water can be used to smooth the surface if it's cracked from the cold, and you should let the little pot sit out for 10 minutes before serving so it's easier to lift up little curls of the heavenly oil and olive paste.

Tapénade
(adapted from With Bold Knife and Fork by MFK Fisher)

1 cup pitted chopped oil-cured black olives
1⁄2 cup anchovy fillets preserved in oil, drained
1⁄2 cup canned/jarred tuna in water, drained
1 level teaspoon dry mustard
freshly ground black pepper
1⁄2 cup capers, drained
1 scant cup extra virgin olive oil
1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 jigger good brandy

In a mortar and pestle (or an electric blender if you prefer), pound or pulse the olives, anchovies, tuna, dry mustard, pepper, and capers until roughly combined. Gradually add the olive oil and then the lemon juice. Finally stir in the brandy and store covered in the fridge up to 1 week.

Fisher, MFK. "With Bold Knife and Fork." New York: Counterpoint, 2002.

17 comments:

Joanne Rendell said...

happy birthday, MFK! what a cool chick!

ink in my veins said...

Thank you for commenting on my post! It’s nice reading a response from a someone whose blog I enjoy immensely. :)

And how could I forget Billie Holiday?! Gotta try out George Wein myself.

Cheers

Figs Olives Wine said...

Hi Jo! She was possibly the coolest ever, wasn't she?

Hi Ink in My Veins - Thanks so much! I'm really so glad you enjoy Figs Olives Wine, and I know that I for one cook (and often write) much more smoothly with a little music!

foodette said...

Hey, thanks for this post. I have never heard of MFK, but that recipe for tapenade has just sold me on her. It's so similar to the tuna recipe that I have made up, and now I want to try this because I bet it will push my recipe over the edge. Thanks for introducing me to her work!

Anonymous said...

Amanda, I love MFK Fisher! She is my all time favorite food writer. Thanks for posting about her -- love the quote.

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

I just adore olive tapenade. I can even remember the first time I had it - I just thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever eaten! Thanks for the memories and the tribute!

Figs Olives Wine said...

Hi anonymous! You know, she's mine too. Quiet, self-possessed, and wise.

Hello Jenn - It is an intense sensory experience isn't it? Whoever was chef in that Marseilles restaurant was a genius!

Ilva said...

what an interesting post, now I have to learn more about this remarkable woman! Thanks! And thatnks for the tapenade recipe, I like the sound of it!

Figs Olives Wine said...

Hi Ilva! Based on your writing and palate, I think you'd love her books! Let me know if you read one, and enjoy the tapenade!

Cynthia said...

I can't wait to get my hands on her books. Thanks for the recommendations. Your post was informative and motivating. Looking forward to the event next year.

Figs Olives Wine said...

Thanks Cynthia - I really hope you enjoy her work. It's been a true inspiration to me, and her books are something my mother and my grandmother cherished too!

Great Big Veg Challenge said...

Isnt there something wonderful about that generation of woman cooks. There is a depth and character to them that always makes me want to try out their recipes and bring it all back to life.
Very enjoyable post.
Charlotte

Figs Olives Wine said...

Hi Charlotte,
Yes I feel the same way. And I like to imagine that they come to life through their recipes too. They were an incredible group and strangely different from the norm at the time - in the States post WWII especially, I think. I don't think we've had anything like them since.

June said...

I'm delighted to read this post. MFK is a great hero of mine; her writing is poignant as well as learned and I have found her tremendously inspiring. Unfortunately she is not well known in Europe, but I know that she has a great following in the USA. May I suggest that you do something major for her 100th next year? A really big celebration is called for and although I am sure the media will have cottoned on that shouldn't stop us. What do you think?

Figs Olives Wine said...

June, I love the idea and have already been mulling over the logistics! I definitely think it's something that should be celebrated! Thanks for the vote of confidence, and it's so lovely to meet another MFK fan!

Tea said...

What a lovely, lovely post!

Count me in to celebrate with you next year. MFK spent the final years of her life not far from where I was growing up. I only wish I had gotten the opportunity to meet her. What a woman she was.

Figs Olives Wine said...

Hi Tea,
How incredible to have lived so close to her. She was extraordinary, wasn't she? Very quietly ahead of her time. So glad you're on board for next year!

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