Over the weekend I had a discussion with another chef friend of mine about the origin of tapenade. She believed its origin to be Spanish, while I thought it was French. After a short discussion, we decided to go with a generic Mediterranean origin making us both correct to a point.The definition of tapenade has been manipulated by today's chefs to encompass almost anything pureed into something almost as smooth as a paste. Beans, tomato, cheese, shrimp and bell peppers are all ingredients that I’ve used in tapenade. When thinking about a more traditional tapenade, olives are the star.
While I don't have a specific recipe that I call my favorite, I will share some guidelines on what has worked for me in the past.
First, saltiness! Olives kept in a brine tend to be very salty. They can be drained, rinsed, or might even need to soak in lukewarm water to draw away some of the salt. Unfortunately, this does nothing to help the flavor of the olive. While they might be more expensive, oil-cured or marinated olives have much more flavor without the salt. To help get over the higher pricem don't send the marinade down the drain! Save the oil and use it in a vinaigrette.
Second, knife -vs- food processor. Without even going into the ingredients that might end up in a tapenade, it is important to understand that some foods just should not be put in the food processor. In my opinion, raw garlic, red onions, and leafy herbs are things that should not be processed, rather use a sharp chef's knife to cut the food. Opposed to ripping, tearing, and smashing the food which is what the food processor is doing a good amount of the time.
Finally, ingredients. I've made a lot of tapenade in my time, and the size of the batch directly reflects the number of ingredients. When I offered tapenade as part of bread service it was a simple olive puree. In contrast, when I’ve served olive tapenade as the sauce for a tuna dish it became quite complex. The most simple recipe would include oil-cured olives, roasted garlic, lemon juice and basil. A more complex recipe would have the addition of capers, anchovies, red onion, parsley and thyme. To give you exact measures would not prove to better things; you have to taste it. The makeup of your olive mix determines a lot, I prefer more kalamata than green. Overall the mixture should be at least 90% olives. Adding more doesn't always mean better, so keep things simple