Homemade "half a muff"
Before the holidays, I had lunch with several people to Katie's Restaurant in Mid City. While I was dying to get Chef Scott's babyback ribs, I saw he had a muffuletta on the menu. The muff is an impulse selection for me; rarely do I go somewhere (other than Napoleon House or Central Grocery) knowing this is what I want.
The muffuletta is a wonderfully New Orleans twist on an Italian classic, antipasti. You've had antipasti, literally, "before the pasta," as starters in your favorite Italian restaurant. The Sicilians who worked in the French Quarter would go to Central Grocery and a number of other places and grab antipasti for a light lunch. The problem was time and logistics. That's when the folks at Central Grocery solved the problem in true NOLA-style. Take the antipasti, meats, cheese, olive salad, and put them all in between two pieces of bread to make a sandwich. They used the round loaves of seeded Italian bread made by United Bakery on St. Bernard Avenue (may it rest in peace, a victim of the storm). Now the workers in the Quarter could grab their antipasti and eat it in a very-convenient, fast-food format.
Like the porridge of the Three Bears, there are three ways to serve a muff: hot, cold, and just right.
The "cold" style is what you get at Central Grocery. Pre-refrigeration, this meant room-temperature for the ingredients. These days, "cold" really means "cold," since the meat and cheese is kept in the deli cooler. The walk from the grocery over to Jackson Square or the Moonwalk on a sunny May afternoon will take the edge off the chill, and you get the antipasti-sandwich that those workers got all those years ago.
Many po-boy places and other restaurants will toss a sandwich in an oven for a minute or two to melt the cheese. They do the same for a muff. The problem with the "hot" muff is in the meat. Salami and mortadella are fatty cold cuts! Heat up a slice of mortadella in a frying pan and watch how much grease it generates. When it's at room temperature, or just starting to warm up, these cold cuts are great; hot, they're dripp and (to some) unappetizing. Think double-pepperoni pizza here, where the grease runs down your arm when you eat a slice.
So, back to Katie's. When my sandwich got to the table and I picked it up, the bread was very warm. When I bit into the sandwich, the cheese had started to melt, but the meat wasn't hot. Chef Scott, working the room as he often does, stopped by and told me how he likes to heat up the bread but not the meat and cheese, so the sandwich isn't too greasy.
Chef Scott Craig of Katie's in Mid City, holding the restaurant's award from New Orleans Magazine (pardon my poor framing of the shot, I was stuffing myself with Scotty's char-grilled oysters at the time).
That's exactly why Katie's is one of my fave places! Chef Scott gets it. The first time I heard this muff-construction vocalized was back on Fitzmorris' radio show, well over twenty years ago. I thought about it at the time. Central Grocery are the masters of the "cold" style. Napoleon House do the "just right" style, as does Katie's.
Making Your Own Muffeletta
Basic components: Round Italian bread, provolone cheese, mortadella, salami, ham, and olive salad. With United Bakery "ain't dere no more," this loaf comes from Binder's, in the Marigny. The cheese is provolone, from Zuppardo's deli counter. The salami is from a specialty company, purchased at Zuppardo's. I tried these folks' chorizo and it was good, so I thought I'd give their Genoa (hard) salami a try. Not bad! The ham here is Chisesi's boiled ham. The olive salad is from Progress Grocery.
Mortadella, from Zuppardo's. This meat is in the same family of cold cuts as Bologna, but much fattier, as you can see. This is the big culprit in the "hot" muff.
The bread. Heat up the bread, nice and warm. When you assemble the rest, it'll transfer.
Assembly. Put it all together and eat!
Keep in mind that this is an "antipasti sandwich." There are many other types of meat, fish, veggies, and cheese that are served on the antipasti buffet. While others may cry heresey if you add or subtract from this basic formula, do what works for you.
Life is short, eat good food!