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Easy Mardi Gras treat: The muffaletta

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Updated: March 7, 2013 6:07AM

As a starving student in 1970s Paris, I frequently used my few francs to buy Tunisian sandwiches, cheap and filling combos of olives, tuna and hardboiled eggs on big, crunchy buns.

As a penniless college professor in 1980s New Orleans, I found an equally inexpensive and satisfying option in the muffaletta — olive salad, Genoa salami, ham, mortadella and cheese on a big round of sesame bread, enough for several people.

For both these classic sandwiches, olives are the common denominator, the not-so-secret ingredient that makes all the difference.

The muffaletta was created more than 100 years ago at Central Grocery in New Orleans.

In those days, immigrant Sicilian farmers sold their produce nearby before stopping at Central Grocery for lunch.

As was their custom, they ate olives, meat, cheese and bread — separately. The store’s owner convinced them to combine everything into one sandwich.

To prepare this Big Easy handful, I bought ingredients at a high-end grocer, an easy but expensive gambit. One 8-ounce bottle of That Pickle Guy Olive Muffalata (sic) dressing topped $6, what I’d pay for three sandwiches at Central Grocery 30 years ago.

Olives elevate flavors and keep everything moist (dryness is the enemy of all sandwiches). Pat Sheerin of Trencherman (2039 N. North) recommends using lots of olive salad, “about 1:1.5, relish to meat.” . At Big Jones (5347 N. Clark), Paul Fehribach says, “We use kalamata olives for extra tang,” and at Chicago Firehouse (1401 S. Michigan), Chris Turano mixes olives with “giardiniera and its juice, to spice up the sandwich.”

Muffaletta bread is traditionally a dense disk with sesame seeds; I went with Whole Foods’ Italian bread with sesame.

I’ve always had this sandwich cold, but toasting it “brings out the richness of the cheese and marries it to the olive salad. The slightly crispy bread makes a better contrast to the softer meats,” says Susan Goss of West Town Tavern (1329 W. Chicago).

For Mardi Gras, a muffaletta is a lot easier to prepare than gumbo or jambalaya, and it’s relatively inexpensive — especially if you toss your own olive salad.

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer and contributor to WBEZ (91.5 FM) and E-mail

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