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It's back on top

Once again, mayonnaise is the darling of cooks -- in all its guises.

March 05, 2003|Regina Schrambling | Times Staff Writer

MAYONNAISE is the latest proof that good things come to those who wait. All through the '80s and '90s it was demonized by the food police as the high-fat spread. Now it seems as socially acceptable as steak.

The sauce remains the same. What's changed is the perspective.

As the reign of nutrition terror subsided, real cooks -- and major manufacturers -- started to remember the reason mayonnaise is one of the mother sauces in classical French cooking. A little richness is a wondrous thing, and a tablespoon of real mayonnaise is worth cupfuls of sugary "lite" alternatives. Plus if you blend in a little garlic or mustard you get a whole new taste game.

Partly because it's so easy to jazz up, mayonnaise is undergoing a revival to rival beef's. It's in two-thirds of all American homes (87% if you count Miracle Whip-type salad dressings). Restaurants routinely serve it flavored as an alternative to ketchup for dipping French fries. In supermarkets, jars of plain "lite" are now being pushed aside by full-flavored newcomers, souped up with herbs or mustard or even bacon. The stuff is as indispensable as cheese on a burger.

These days, mayonnaise is also on more and more menus, if only because chefs are trying to cover their chicken tracks in recessionary times. What other condiment can be turned into rouille or aioli or remoulade to make the grilled chicken on ciabatta sound just a little different from the grilled chicken on sourdough? Mayonnaise by any name sounds almost like inspiration.

Unlike so many chef and supermarket standards, though, mayonnaise is one indulgence that's easy to make. All you need is an egg yolk, a lemon and some oil. (You don't even have to have a whisk, although you can fight the good fight if you want to try it the low-tech way.) The rawness of that yolk may seem a little scary, but in fact, for healthy people, the risk is apparently minuscule. Last year, a U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that one in 30,000 eggs may be tainted by salmonella.

Homemade mayonnaise is almost a different animal from what is sold in supermarkets and health food stores, and even snooty food shops. The lemon and egg make it custardy, rather than white as cream. The texture is not quite as gelatinous. And the flavor is more direct: Freshly made mayonnaise tastes like what's in it, nothing more.

Even the fresh mayonnaise from France that is sold in dairy cases in high-end stores, the Delouis fils brand, is different from homemade. The color and texture are closer, but the taste is much saltier and more aggressive, possibly because the last three ingredients listed in order are white wine vinegar, salt and lemon. It makes you realize how much sweetness counts with the big brands of mayonnaise, both from the same company but sold as Best Foods west of the Rockies, Hellmann's to the east.

Open the jar, with no apology

Still, most commercial mayonnaise is the Haagen-Dazs of the condiment aisle, a seriously good product with no kitchen stigma. Cooks -- and some big-name chefs too -- who would never use canned stock see no threat to their reputation in breaking out a jar of Hellmann's.

And there are countless ways to use it besides as an emollient for macaroni in a salad and turkey in a sandwich. You can actually cook with it. Biscuits baked with mayonnaise substituting for shortening (in the same quantity) are actually superior to the Crisco kind. One of my favorite fast dinners is flounder or sole broiled under a coating of mayonnaise and mustard, which melts into a cross between a crust and a sauce. And the most irresistible dip I know combines equal parts mayonnaise, chopped Vidalia onion and grated sharp Cheddar cheese, baked for 20 minutes at 325 degrees.

In French cuisine, mayonnaise is tweaked to make myriad other sauces, like tartar, verte (colored and flavored with watercress and herbs) and indienne (curry). But the two that have really caught on here are aioli and rouille, maybe because they go so well with steak.

Aioli is made a little differently from mayonnaise, with pounded garlic blended with egg yolks and oil, with no acid to help them emulsify. It's tricky to concoct the way the Provencal purists do it, but you can get the same effect by blending regular mayonnaise with some pounded garlic. (The blender destroys garlic's personality, turning it almost inedibly bitter; I always add it minced or pounded at the end.)

Rouille is not traditionally a mayonnaise at all, although American chefs have adopted it like pesto. In Marseilles, where it originated, the sauce is made by pounding water-softened bread with potatoes and garlic and then seasoning and coloring it with paprika and cayenne.

But again, shortcuts are not all bad: If you mix cayenne, paprika and garlic into mayonnaise, you can get a reasonable facsimile. You could even use it the way it was intended, as a pungent spread on a crouton designed to soak up the broth in bouillabaisse.

A whirring start

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