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Originally published Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 7:07 PM

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Taste

Muffuletta sandwiches are the Big Easy's best

Stacks of provolone cheese and salami layered between slabs of bread smeared with a chopped-olive salad, the muffuletta is one of New Orleans' most guarded and cherished culinary delights.

EVEN THOUGH I'm not particularly observant of religious holidays, when Fat Tuesday rolls around with Ash Wednesday on its heels, I'm on it. At least, that is, I'm aware of it, because Fat Tuesday — also known as Mardi Gras — reminds me of my home on the Gulf Coast. It makes me long not only for my own hometown but for the crown jewel of that corner of the world, New Orleans.

"I never miss New Orleans more," said my friend Ruth Beebe Hill, "than when I'm sitting right in the heart of it." With her shock of red hair, seated regally in one of her straight-backed chairs (she abhorred deeply upholstered furniture), Hill was sipping a Sazerac, the famous cocktail of New Orleans, and holding court in her living room.

Most people who've heard of Hill know her as the author of "Hanta Yo," a controversial novel about the Plains Indians, which she researched for 30 years, going so far as to learn the archaic language of the Lakota Sioux. Criticism of her work stemmed from her depiction of the Sioux as radical individualists, a characterization that probably had more to do with Hill's fascination with her friend and mentor, Ayn Rand, than it did with the Lakota.

When I met Hill, she was in her 70s, living on San Juan Island and working as a freelance editor. Born and raised in Cleveland, she was a graduate of Ol' Miss and a student of the great William Faulkner, and she always had a soft spot for the Deep South.

During the early years of her marriage, in the mid-20th century, Hill spent a couple of decades in the Crescent City and celebrated its distinctive Creole culture for the rest of her life. She used to hire me to cook for her Mardi Gras and Christmas parties, and over a decade or so, we became fast friends.

"I know you love New Orleans, too," she once said to me, "and I want to know what you think of these people who say the city has lost its way." This was years before Katrina, and Ruth had taken it as an affront when one of her friends said the city was going downhill.

"It doesn't matter what people say," I assured her, jumping to the Big Easy's defense. "New Orleans can hold its own. It's a world unto itself." The city's unique cultural heritage has always impressed me as something beyond criticism. Its architecture, its cuisine, the propensity of its citizens to stay put for a lifetime, never venturing too far from their own neighborhoods, are characteristics that have always struck me as endearing.

"It's so easy to imagine being there," I said. "I can never forget the sights and sounds of the Cafe du Monde or the taste of those amazing beignets." Beignets, puffy square doughnuts, three to a plate, buried in a pile of powdered sugar, are the only item on the menu at that cafe.

"Stop it," she said. "You're making me homesick." But I couldn't stop. "If we were there right now," I said, "I would walk right past the Cafe du Monde and the old farmers market, down to Central Grocery and buy us one of those muffuletta sandwiches." Stacks of provolone cheese and salami layered between slabs of bread smeared with a chopped-olive salad, the muffuletta is one of New Orleans' most guarded and cherished culinary delights, ranking right up there with oysters Rockefeller and Creole Gumbo.

And that's when Ruth said she missed New Orleans most when she was there. "It's a nostalgic place," she said, "but let's talk about something else." A pragmatic woman, she never was one to dwell on the past or what couldn't be achieved in the present. "Tell me about what you're doing now."

Greg Atkinson is a Seattle-area chef, author and consultant. He can be reached at greg@westcoastcooking.com. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Muffuletta Sandwiches

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Makes 4

Originally named for the Italian olive-oil bread on which it was made, the muffuletta sandwich originated in the Vieux Carre at Central Grocery in the early years of the 20th century to satisfy Sicilian farmers who sold their produce at the farmers market across the street. Today the sandwich has become a mainstay of New Orleans groceries and sandwich shops.

For the olive salad

2 cups mixed olives and roasted peppers or pimientos

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped or grated through a microplane

For the sandwiches

4 soft kaiser rolls or a one-pound loaf of focaccia

8 ounces salami or a combination of salami and mortadella

4 (1-ounce) slices provolone cheese

1. To make the olive salad, combine the olives, olive oil and garlic in a food processor and pulse the motor on and off until the mixture is roughly chopped. Do not over process the mixture; the olives should not become a purée.

2. Split the rolls or the focaccia in half and distribute the olive salad over one side of the bread. Layer the meat and cheese on top of the olive spread and top with the other half of the bread. The sandwich may be eaten at once, or better still, wrapped in paper and held at room temperature for half an hour or so to allow the oil to soak into the bread and the ingredients to come up to room temperature.

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