The overly literal-minded may describe aioli as a garlicky mayonnaise, but in my house, we call it an occasion.
A big bowl of aioli, assorted vegetables and meats for dipping, and definitely several chilled bottles of rosé for sipping. Eat aioli, drink rosé. Watch the light fade and feel the breeze cool as the sun goes down. Visit with good friends. Can summer get any better?
Well, yes, it could. Because as delicious as aioli is, it's kind of a chore to make. I wish there were an easier way, but after a lot of experimenting, I'm afraid I have to say there isn't.
Sure, you can just stir minced garlic into prepared mayonnaise. It won't be awful — but it won't be aioli. There are those who insist that you can make a perfectly good aioli with a blender, but whenever I've tried it, I've wound up with a sauce that was stiff and sticky, pasty white and with a thin, sharp flavor.
A great aioli is a warm gold from the egg yolks and olive oil. It should have a round, sweet garlic flavor, with just a bit of back-of-the-palate burr. The texture should be creamy, like that of slightly soft mayonnaise. It definitely should be spoonable, but it shouldn't stick to the spoon — when you dip a cauliflower floret into the sauce, it should come out only lightly covered.
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to making an aioli like this. It's going to take a certain amount of elbow grease, but the reward will be well worth it. Still, there are a few things you can do to make the process a little easier.
First, start by pounding minced garlic rather than whole cloves. They'll turn to paste more quickly. And don't forget to add the salt at this point, as it's essential for a smooth purée. Warm the eggs in a bowl of hot water before you add the yolks; they'll hold an emulsion better.
Then start adding the oil at what might seem like a ridiculously slow pace. The garlic paste seems to make it much harder to establish a stable emulsion than with a plain mayonnaise. Add the oil a few drops at a time and stir vigorously in between (this is easier to do pouring from a measuring cup than straight from the bottle).
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A good heavy stone pestle makes the early going much easier, but it does wear on you quickly. I use a Thai granite set (roughly $35 at most Asian markets), and the pestle weighs a good 2 pounds. Once the emulsion has formed, I switch to a much lighter wooden pestle — it makes much easier stirring.
Remember also that aioli on its home turf is made with Provencal olive oil, which tends to be softer and more floral than most Italian oils (and certainly than those popular Tuscan-influenced ones). If you find your oil has too much burn, you can cut it with up to half plain vegetable oil.
What do you eat with aioli? What have you got? I usually try to have three or four kinds of blanched vegetables: boiling potatoes, cauliflower, green beans (Romanos are especially good), fennel, artichokes and carrots. One of my favorite vegetables for aioli is Swiss chard — just the stems.
This will make a very satisfying summer meal by itself, but if you think you need something more substantial, quartered hard-cooked eggs are a classic accompaniment. Being Californian, I also like some kind of grilled meat — flap or flank steak or shrimp.
Variety is the essence here. You want lots of different bites to dip and savor while you sip steely chilled rosé and talk. With any luck, it's going to be a long night.