Dip into summer

Times Staff Writer

WE ate dinner on the back porch four times last week -- only partly because I’ve been making aioli, though that probably could be considered reason enough.

Essentially, aioli is nothing more than raw garlic pounded with a little salt and a couple egg yolks into a sticky paste, with just enough olive oil beaten in to make it creamy. It is absolutely delicious, in an elemental, breathtaking sort of way that is perhaps best appreciated out of doors.

On its home turf in Provence, aioli is the quintessential summer sauce and the centerpiece of numerous street fairs which, as Richard Olney relates in “Simple French Food,” often culminate in an orgiastic aioli monstre, “the entire population turning out to pile plates high with boiled salt cod, potatoes, carrots, green beans, artichokes, chick-peas, beets, hard-boiled eggs, snails, squid stew and huge globs of garlic mayonnaise, liberally moistened with the local rose.”


While everything Olney describes sounds quite delicious, there’s a difference between Southern France and Southern California.

And that got me thinking: If I were to make a Californian monster aioli, what would it be like?

Delicious visions danced through my head: Meats, seafood, vegetables -- what wouldn’t go well with a really good aioli?

But before I could begin playing with any monster menus, I knew that I had a chore to attend to. I had to learn to make aioli -- a really good aioli, that is.

I’ve been making aioli for years and every once in a while, when all the stars were in alignment, everything would work according to plan.

I’d pound the garlic to a paste in my big, Thai granite mortar and pestle. Then I’d use the pestle to smear in the egg yolks. Then I’d stir in the oil and lemon juice.


Voila: a golden, creamy mayonnaise, sweet and pungent from garlic and with a slight fruitiness from the olive oil.

More often, though, about halfway through the process I’d wind up with something that looked like badly scrambled eggs. The mayonnaise had broken beyond repair, the eggs and the oil separating into a greasy mess.

When that happened, the only cure was the blender: Whip up a whole egg, then slowly pour the broken mayonnaise into it. This is a sure-fire fix, almost guaranteed.

The only problem is that the high speed of the blender beats in so much air that you wind up with an aioli that is pale and fluffy rather than golden and creamy. The flavor is pretty good, but it lacks the finesse of the handmade. (The same thing can happen if you whisk too vigorously.)

Analyzing recipes

MY first thought was that I must be using the wrong recipes. So I pulled out half a dozen of my most reliable cookbooks that include aioli. Then I made up a little spreadsheet and broke down the recipes into the amounts of garlic, egg, oil and lemon, then compared them.

What I found was that few of my favorite experts agree on anything.

Judy Rodgers, in “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook,” makes aioli with only one or two cloves of garlic; Anne Willan, in “French Regional Cooking,” uses six to eight to make the same amount of sauce.


Thomas Keller, in his “Bouchon” cookbook, uses confited garlic that has been roasted in olive oil, rather than raw. Some call for fruity olive oil, some call for mild. In the “Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook,” Alice Waters calls for a mixture.

Some add the lemon juice at the beginning, some at the end. Waters and Rodgers don’t use lemon juice at all.

Because these are all very good cooks, clearly the secret to a good aioli isn’t in some specific formula of ingredients. And if it isn’t the ingredients, that means it must be the technique.

Suddenly, I remembered my pie crust days. I once spent an entire summer trying to learn how to make a great pie dough. Then somebody -- I believe it was Nancy Silverton, then the pastry chef at Campanile, or Kim Sklar (her assistant then, now the pastry chef at Literati II) -- pointed out that when I was rolling out the dough I was pushing down too much. If I’d keep my elbows tucked in, I’d stretch the dough rather than smash it. D’oh!

And after half a dozen tries making aioli, what I learned was similarly basic. My problem, it turned out, was not somebody else’s recipe, but my own impatience. I was adding the oil too quickly.

Aioli, like mayonnaise, is an emulsion of two usually antagonistic ingredients: oil and water (from the garlic and the yolks). In creating any emulsion, the early stages are trickiest, when the union is at its most fragile.


Because of all that garlic, this is even truer of aioli than mayonnaise. While I can whip up a decent mayonnaise without much thought by beating in a thin stream of oil until it thickens, with aioli you really have to proceed a drop at a time at the beginning. This is a very shaky emulsion, and if you try to go too fast, whoops, you’re back to the blender with another mess.

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 pimenton).

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.



Total time: 20 minutes

Servings: Makes 3/4 to 1 cup

Note: This recipe is very flexible. You can use a strong, peppery oil if you like, but I prefer a milder Provencal style. Add lemon at your discretion, as little or as much as you like. You can even make it more garlicky by adding more minced garlic at the beginning.

5 to 6 teaspoons minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 egg yolks, at room temperature (if necessary, warm briefly in a cup of hot tap


3/4 to 1 cup olive oil

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice


1. Place the minced garlic in a heavy mortar along with the salt. Pound with a pestle into a smooth, sticky paste. Using the pestle to stir, beat in the egg yolks and stir until the mixture is smooth and lemon colored, about 30 seconds.

2. Begin to beat in the olive oil, adding just a drop at a time, stirring constantly until the oil is emulsified with the egg yolks. Do not attempt to rush the process by adding the oil too fast. After you’ve added about one-fourth cup this way, you can increase the flow to a thin stream. If at any time you see oil begin to gather separately from the yolks, immediately stop adding oil while continuing to stir. Very shortly the mixture should come back together.

3. When you have added about one-half cup of oil and the aioli is quite thick, stir in one-half teaspoon lukewarm water, then begin adding the oil again, starting again with a drop at a time.

4. When you’ve worked in about three-fourths cup oil, stop and taste the sauce. The texture should be creamy, not stiff and sticky. If it is too firm, stir in a little more water up to 1 teaspoon total. The flavor should be very garlicky but sweet, with a balance of garlic and olive oil flavor. If it’s still a little too garlicky, stir in a little more oil. Add more salt if necessary and the lemon juice if that is to your taste. (If the sauce breaks and the oil and yolks separate and won’t come back together, it can be easily fixed. Add a whole egg to a blender and puree it until smooth. Pour the broken aioli mixture into a measuring cup and, with the blender running, slowly add it to the blender. When it is completely incorporated, slowly add more oil with the blender running until you have the texture and flavor you prefer.)


5. Cover tightly and refrigerate until ready to use, but allow it to return to room temperature before serving. Aioli should be made no more than a couple of hours in advance.

Each tablespoon: 112 calories; 0 protein; 0 carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 12 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 26 mg. cholesterol; 37 mg. sodium.


Steamed potatoes with pimenton

Total time: 20 minutes

Servings: 4 to 6

1 1/2 pounds small potatoes

1 tablespoon oil

Salt (about 1/2 teaspoon)

1/2 teaspoon pimenton de la vera

Juice of 1/2 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)

1. Cut the potatoes into walnut-sized pieces. Steam over rapidly boiling water until tender, about 15 minutes.

2. Transfer to a work bowl and toss with the oil, salt to taste and pimenton. Add the lemon juice and toss again. Transfer to a bowl and serve.

Each of 6 servings: 107 calories; 2 grams protein; 20 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 2 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 203 mg. sodium.


Hard-boiled eggs

Total time: 15 minutes, plus 1 hour cooling time

Servings: 6

6 eggs

Place the eggs in a saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a rolling boil and cook 1 minute. Remove from the heat and let stand until the water is lukewarm, about 1 hour. Remove the shells and cut in half lengthwise.


Each serving: 78 calories; 6 grams protein; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 5 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 212 mg. cholesterol; 62 mg. sodium.


Grilled flank steak

Total time: 15 minutes, plus marinating time and time to prepare the grill

Servings: 4 to 6

1 (2-pound) flank steak

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Olive oil

1/4 pound wood chips (preferably oak or hickory)

1. At least an hour before cooking, unwrap the flank steak. Liberally season with salt and pepper on both sides. Rub it lightly with oil. Wrap it in plastic wrap and return it to the refrigerator.

2. Place the wood chips in a bowl, cover with water and soak at least 30 minutes. Light a fire and when it is medium-hot (when you can hold your hand at grill level to a count of three), add the wood chips. Let them flame up and die down.

3. Over the hottest part of the flame, sear the flank steak on one side, about 3 minutes, then turn and sear on the other, another 3 minutes. Move the steak to a slightly cooler part of the grill and cook another 3 minutes on each side, to medium-rare. Remove to a platter and let stand about 5 minutes.

4. Carve the flank steak on a deep bias, laying your knife almost flat against the cutting board to get the thinnest, widest cuts.

Each of 6 servings: 250 calories; 30 grams protein; 0 grams carbohydrates; 0 grams fiber; 13 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 59 mg. cholesterol; 448 mg. sodium.



Grilled artichokes

Total time: 55 minutes

Servings: 4

1 lemon

4 medium artichokes

1 tablespoon salt

1/4 pound wood chips (preferably oak or hickory)

Olive oil

1. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice into a large saucepan with 6 cups of water. Add the lemon halves to the water.

2. Trim the artichokes to hearts, leaving the stems intact. Begin by holding the artichoke in your left hand with the stem facing toward you and the tip facing away. Slowly turn the artichoke against the sharp edge of the knife while making an abbreviated sawing motion. (It’s easier to control if you use the base of the knife rather than the tip.) You will begin to cut through the tough outer leaves; when you can discern the natural cone shape of the artichoke, adjust the knife to follow it. Keep trimming just like this until you’ve cut away enough of the tough leaves so that you see only light green at the base. Cut away the top half-inch or so of the tip of the artichoke and dip the artichoke into the lemon water to keep the cut surfaces from discoloring. With a paring knife, trim away the very tip of the stem, then peel the stem and base of the artichoke, going from the tip to where the base meets the leaves. You’ll have to do this at least five or six times to make it all the way around the artichoke. When you’re done, there should be no dark green tough spots left, only pale green and ivory.

3. Dip each artichoke in lemon water to prevent browning, then cut in half lengthwise. If there is a hairy choke in the center of the heart, remove it (a serrated grapefruit spoon is easiest; a teaspoon will work too). Put the cleaned halves in the lemon water and repeat for the remaining artichokes.

4. Add the salt to the soaking water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook just until the artichokes are tender at the heart, about 15 minutes. Remove the artichokes to a plate with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool and dry.

5. Place the wood chips in a bowl, cover with water and soak at least 30 minutes. Light a fire and when it is medium-hot (when you can hold your hand at grill level to a count of three), add the wood chips. Let them flame up and die down.

6. Brush the artichokes lightly with oil and place around the outside of the grill. Cover and cook for 3 or 4 minutes. Remove the lid, turn the artichokes and cook another 3 or 4 minutes, just until lightly bronzed on both sides. Watch carefully as they will go from golden to charred very quickly. Remove to a serving platter.


Each serving: 120 calories; 3 grams protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 9 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 270 mg. sodium.