Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Epicurian Adventures: Vegetarian/Portabella Muffulettas

I wasn't going to write about this because I didn't have the sufficient information to do so knowledgeably, but since I've had a certain sandwich on my mind since I went to ARFus at Zephyr Stadium Sunday afternoon, it's been all I could do to stop thinking about it.

Okay, fine--I stopped thinking about it for about a good three hours while a group of us were having a lick-your-plate meal at Luke, Chef John Besh's most affordable endeavor (which I'll go into at a later date), accompanied by a delightfully light white French wine, a bottle of Crianza, and a lush Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape. (No corkage fee! Obviously, we went a little nuts here, but hey! Such are the perks for being friends with a fabulous bartender at a nice restaurant.)

But going back to my adventures at ARFus, we had initially made plans to check this out because
  1. I volunteer for the Friends of the Jefferson Parish Animal Shelter fairly regularly, and so I knew of this event
  2. All the proceeds went towards non-profit local animal welfare organizations
  3. My Baxter Bear (photo right at Barkus) had been an exceptionally good doggy whom we now trust to be alone in the house while Boy and I were out for hours at a time
  4. I love fair food.
I thought it'd be a pretty straightforward trip, aided by my handy-dandy new navigation system, but of course, I was wrong. I had evidently wronged Juliet (this is a tentative name for the British voice I use--'Beah raight and taike the motah-way.') in some terrible way in the past week, since both of my recent outings have been off, and I ended up in Mid-City somewhere near the lake.

No matter; I called Leah and away we went.

Due to the fact that I knew plenty of food booths would be present (and that because of daylight savings time, I awoke late, at 11 am), I skipped breakfast and once reaching Zephyr Field, followed my nose to the billows of smoke wafting out of tarp-like white tents.

The usual fair food was present. You had your burgers, your fries, hot dogs, pizza, and of course, Cajun goodies like fried seaf00d-stuffed mushrooms, jambalaya, and other happy things. I veered towards the mushrooms, but felt that that particular choice may not be my best value. In response to that revelation, I veered back to the stand with what was advertised as Portabella Muffulettas.

Muffulettas are something that grew on me. I had my first one at my boss's wedding in bite-sized form and was pleasantly surprised that something so Italian cured meats-y and so olive-y could be so delicious. Savory, salty, with the acidic pungence of vinegar that I like so much, this sandwich can be classified as a Good Idea.

The second time I've ever had a muffuletta was at the birthplace of the muffuletta, Central Grocery right on Decatur Street. They premake theirs at the beginning of the day, using what looks like a giant hamburger bun with sesame seeds on top, but is actually a hearty foot-wide Italian roll. Denser and chewier than French bread and with the toasted flavor of sesame seeds, this is a whole other animal than your typical po-boy. Assorted Italian cold cuts are then piled onto the base, capicola, salami, and mortadella well represented but topped with some Emmethaler (a starchy variety that most resembles Swiss) and provolone cheeses. The crowning addition is the olive salad, a greasy, oily concoction of black and green olives, plus some pickled cauliflower, celery, and carrot. Sounds disgusting or sounds delicious? I thought it was the former until I tried it for myself. That mix of flavor, texture, and feel just combine into one mighty fine sammich.

But I digress.

At ARFus, I shelled out my crumpled six dollars for a nice lunch-sized Portabella Muffuletta from either Sally's or Peggy's Southern Foods (I can't recall which), which was only about six or seven inches in diameter and cut in traditional quarters. It was a long time coming, but I will always opt to wait for fresh, hot food over sitting-there food.

As they were preparing my sandwich, I had some time to observe. Interestingly, they spread the olive salad across the bottom of the bun rather than topping off the other stuff. This basically made the olive salad the focal point of the entire enterprise. Sliced grilled portabella mushrooms were then spread on that hot mess and provolone cheese topped it all off. I thought then that it was done, but boy was I wrong! These fine people took it a step further (than the original) by throwing the thing on the grill and toasting the bread it to a warm fresh-baked crunch and melting the cheese into a hotter mess than the olive salad was ... ironically, though, holding it all together.

Now this was delicious. Crusty, robust white bread that crackles at the bite but is hard to the touch, meanwhile never cutting your gums (I have done this in my exuberence for fresh bread); a mild semi-sweet and sour-ish olive salad for a juicy squish and mild resistance; oils from the olive salad seeping and toasting into the bread for a buttery taste; meaty, smoky, thick grilled Portabella mushrooms sliced into generous strips; melty, gooey cheese. All of these can be categorized as Good Things.

And how can you tell something is really, really, really good? If you make a mess of yourself, and it was worth it. R.I.P. super-awesome V-neck Banana Republic deep orange semi-sparkly tank top. May your dreams be forever sweet.

* For a very Southern muffuletta recipe, Southern Living's got one for ya.


  1. Hi! I love your blog. As a child, like way back before I could make my own conscious decisions, I was traumatized off olives. I am slowly getting back into the swing of things, and I have to give partial credit to Central Grocery's muffalettas for this. Those sandwiches truly are splendid.
    Anyway, I thought I'd introduce myself. I found your blog through Appetites. I'm Remy; I am about to graduate from a high school in the Garden District, and I will be a food writer when I grow up, no questions asked. I'm a food writer now, technically speaking -- my blog is www.passionfruitbutter.com. If you are deterred (as everyone else is), at least I have the credential of having been recognized on Appetites, too.
    Anyway, you can think my writing is awful (it's definitely not as refined as yours!), but at the very least, I thought it only made sense for us to be in touch, what with your being kindred spirits at least in the sense of NOLA residents who adore food.

  2. Hi, Remy -- so glad to have gotten your positive comments. I sent you an email response, but you must not have gotten it since my domain has "whore" in it lol. Anyway, I appreciate your compliments and just wanted to let you know that, so thanks!