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Dip into summer

THE CALIFORNIA COOK

Provence's aioli monstre feast gets the California treatment -- what a wonderful, garlicky start to the alfresco season.

May 31, 2006|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

I found a few helpful tricks. First, the egg yolks should be at room temperature to absorb the oil most readily. Also, the addition of the oil is easier to control if you will transfer it to a measuring cup with a pour spout and then prop the cup against the lip of the mortar so you can drip it into the mixture slowly and smoothly.

And while you really need to pound the garlic to get it smooth, creating the egg yolk and oil emulsion requires gentler treatment: Stir the mixture, don't grind it.

In fact, I find switching pestles in mid-mayo is a help. The granite pestle that came with my mortar weighs more than 2 pounds, which is great for pounding, but after five or 10 minutes of stirring, gets a little ponderous. I've got a wooden pestle from Japan that weighs only a few ounces, and that is much better for stirring.

I also found that after always having added lemon juice to aioli, I now agree with the Bay Area contingent and leave it out. Try this sometime: Make a good aioli without lemon juice, and taste it. Then add a little lemon and taste it again. Keep repeating, adding a little more lemon each time.

I found that the first half-teaspoon of lemon juice seemed to improve the flavor, but as I added more lemon, the oil seemed to become harsher and harsher. After being sensitized to this, when I went back and made aioli again, even that meager half-teaspoon of lemon juice seemed to have the same effect.

Rather than adding lemon, I now follow Rodgers' advice and add a little water, which then allows me to add more oil. This balances the pungency of the garlic and reduces its burn without adding harshness. You wind up with an aioli that finishes sweet rather than bitter.

The texture of the aioli will stiffen as you add more olive oil to it. Remember that it should be a creamy mayonnaise consistency, so stop adding oil when you get to that point. If it starts to get at all rubbery, stir in a couple of drops of water and that should loosen it up.

Unfortunately, it seems to be impossible to quantify exactly how much oil to add for two egg yolks. The amount always seemed to vary, but whether this was because of differences in egg yolk size, speed of stirring or the downright temperamental nature of mayonnaise is hard to say. So the recipe is for a range. Pay attention to the texture and use your judgment.

Keep it fresh

THOUGH aioli tastes so good you may be tempted to try to keep it in the refrigerator as a staple, don't. After half a day or so, the garlic flavor begins to change, becoming metallic. If you do need to refrigerate it, let it only be for a couple of hours and then bring it back to room temperature before serving. It's the texture thing again -- chilled, the olive oil thickens and stiffens the mayonnaise.

Having solved the riddle of aioli (the first chore of summer finished!), I moved on to playing with my monster menu.

Over the course of a week, I experimented with all sorts of meats, fish and vegetables. Basically what I found is that there are few things that can't be improved by a good garlic mayonnaise.

A couple of items would have been perfectly in place in Provence: I love hard-boiled eggs with aioli, and also steamed tiny potatoes (though I couldn't resist dusting mine with a little smoky Spanish \o7pimenton\f7).

The same with fat asparagus spears and green beans. Remember to cook them just to the point that they're beginning to soften but still a little crisp -- that's the best texture for a creamy sauce like aioli.

Arrange all of these vegetables on a platter with a few hard-boiled eggs scattered among them. And feel free to eat them with your fingers, dipping them into the fragrant mayonnaise. Aioli is not a sauce for politesse.

Other dishes were slight twists on tradition. The French aren't real big on grilling, but we Californians certainly are. And I found there's nothing that brings out the sweetness in aioli like a whiff of wood smoke.

After blanching artichokes just long enough to cook them through, I grilled them briefly over oak to add just a hint of Central Coast tang. I also served aioli with grilled flank steak, crusty on the outside and still juicy and rare in the center.

What to drink? I tried several wines, white and red, and found the only thing that really worked was ice-cold rose, but boy, did it ever sing.

The combination of sweetness and acidity was absolutely perfect. This was true of both the wonderfully complex Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir -- my house rose -- and the relatively simple Bonny Doon Big House Pink.

Make an evening of it lingering in your backyard: the honeyed perfume of Southern California summer twilight, the lingering smoke of food grilled over a wood fire, the sweet berry scent of a good rose, and underlying it all, the heady scents of garlic and olive oil. A monster meal, indeed.

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Aioli

Total time: 20 minutes

Servings: Makes 3/4 to 1 cup

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