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Steamed potatoes with pimenton

Time 20 minutes
Yields Serves 4 to 6
Steamed potatoes with pimenton
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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.

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.