I recently prepared a dinner that featured a Grand Aïoli as the main course. Le Grand Aïoli is a traditional Provençal feast of simply prepared vegetables and fish centered around a very special sauce... Aïoli (eye-oh'-lee). Loaded with as much fat, juicy summer garlic as your guests can stand and—in a perfect world—featuring the golden olive oil of Provence, the aïoli is used as a dip or a spread for everything on the table...including the bread (not for nothing is it called the "butter of Provence"). Featuring the best produce the season has to offer, Le Grand Aïoli is the perfect summer feast. It is best when accompanied by a lightly chilled dry rosé (from Provence, of course) and ideally it should be eaten out of doors in the company of as many of your friends as you can gather around your table. If this sounds like your idea of a perfect summer evening, then all you really need to know is how to make the sauce (poaching/steaming the vegetables and the fish is easy). Since making the sauce requires that you be able to "smash a clove of garlic to a purée with pinch of salt", I thought I would devote today's post to the nuts and bolts of that technique.
This technique is used all the time—not just in the preparation of an aïoli. A random look at the savory recipes I have posted on my blog would probably turn up many recipes that use garlic that has been prepared this way. It is used any time when raw garlic is going into a preparation and the textural presence of discernable bits of minced garlic is not wanted. It is a basic food preparation technique that every cook should have in their repertoire.
To begin, peel the garlic. Sometimes the garlic will have a green germ (the garlic is beginning to sprout) running through the center. Hopefully you won't be making an aïoli with garlic that is sprouting, because this is a sign of age, but any time you will be using garlic raw, and there is a green germ present, you should split the clove and remove the germ. It can be bitter.
Place the peeled clove of garlic on the cutting board and rest the side of your chef's knife on the clove of garlic with the blade pointed away from you and your "non-working" hand. (If you are right handed, the knife blade will be angled away and towards your right.) While still holding the knife with your right hand, with the open palm of your left hand (if you are right handed....as usual, all of my instructions will have to be flipped if you are left handed) rap the blade of the knife firmly with the heel of your hand. This will break and flatten the clove of garlic.
Begin mincing the flattened clove of garlic. First break the clove down a bit with a few quick slicing motions across the broken clove.
Then begin to mince. Do this by holding the knife parallel to the edge of the cutting board and rocking the knife back and forth in a see-saw motion—holding the knife handle firmly in your right hand and stabilizing the pointed end of the blade with your left. The fingers of your left hand should be extended flat as you rest them on the back side of the blade near the tip (but far enough in from the end so that your fingers won't slide off).
As you rock the knife back and forth sideways, "walk" the blade forwards and backwards. You will occasionally have to corral the bits of garlic as they spread out over the board so that they are all concentrated in one tight spot under the edge of the knife blade at what would be the fulcrum of your see-saw. Do this just by scraping your knife edge across the board to bring everything together.
Because garlic is sticky, you will also occasionally have to stop mincing so you can wipe the blade free of garlic. Do this by carefully running your finger down both sides of the blade, collecting the sticky bits of garlic on your finger and then using the back side of the knife to scrape the garlic back onto the cutting board.
Continue to mince, corral, wipe, scrape and mince some more until you have uniformly small bits of garlic. At this point you have "minced garlic"—perfect for many recipes.
To make a purée of the garlic, sprinkle a generous pinch of salt over the garlic. Something a bit coarse like a medium-fine sea salt or flaked kosher salt works well, but ordinary table salt will do.
Begin mincing again, this time to work the salt into the garlic. The garlic will continue to break down—due in part to the action of the knife, but mostly because of the presence of the salt which acts as an abrasive and also draws out the moisture in the garlic.
Once the salt has been worked in, turn your knife on its side again (as when you smashed the clove). The knife will not be completely flat on the board, rather it will form an acute angle where the board and the sharp edge of the blade meet. Begin to draw the knife over the garlic a bit at a time, placing pressure on the edge of the blade with your fingertips as you draw the knife to the left.
Tilt the blade up (now forming the acute angle between the back of the knife and the board ) and move it to the right again.
Once again, lay the sharp side down on top of more of the garlic and draw the knife to the left again, applying pressure.
Repeat this back and forth motion, moving from the left side of the pile of garlic to the right side, with each movement to the right pulling more of the garlic under the blade, until you have smashed the whole pile of minced garlic. Repeat this action two or three times. With each repetition, the garlic will have fewer and fewer "bits" and be more of a purée on the board.
If you are only working with a clove or two of garlic, soon it will seem that the garlic has disappeared. But it has not. Use the blade of the knife (placed almost flat) to scrape across the cutting board, moving from right to left. The garlic will appear along the edge of the blade.
At this point the garlic may need a bit more of the mincing action to break up any stubborn bits of garlic. So go ahead and run the knife through the mincing motion again. Then finish working the garlic to a purée with the flat of the knife again. Scrape the purée of garlic up off of the board and scrape it from the blade (using your finger) into a bowl or receptacle of some kind.
If you are going to prepare an aïoli, deposit the garlic directly into a bowl along with some egg yolks, more salt and a bit of warm water (see the recipe below for quantities) and whisk until smooth. You are now ready to prepare your aïoli.
The aïoli sauce is not difficult to prepare...it just requires a bit of patience. It is a member of the class of French sauces known as the "cold emulsified" sauces. The most basic—or "Mother"—sauce in this category is mayonnaise. If you can prepare a mayonnaise, you can prepare an aïoli. The principles and techniques are identical.
Mayonnaise is basically a creamy sauce of oil and vinegar (or lemon juice) held in a permanent suspension by the action of an emulsifier (something that naturally holds liquids and fat in a homogenous state). The emulsifier is the egg yolk (actually, the egg yolk contains the emulsifier—lecithin—in addition to some water and fat which are in turn held in a permanent suspension by the lecithin). Without the egg yolk, mayonnaise would simply be a vinaigrette. And like a vinaigrette would need to be re-whisked before each use in order to make it temporarily homogenous.
Unfortunately you can't just throw some liquid, oil and an egg yolk into a bowl and whisk them together and expect them to form a homogenous, emulsified whole. The oil must be very gradually introduced into the already stable emulsion contained within the egg yolk itself. This is achieved by consistent agitation of the egg yolk (via a whisk, a mortar and pestle, a food processor or a blender) as the oil is very gradually incorporated. As the volume of the emulsified sauce increases, the oil can be absorbed into the emulsion in larger quantities and can therefore be added more rapidly.
In recent years the word "aïoli" has unfortunately become a generic term for a flavored mayonnaise (at least in the U.S.). People who recognize the term (because they have eaten a "roasted red pepper aioli" or a "basil aioli" on a sandwich or a serving of fish at their favorite restaurant) may have never tasted a real aïoli. Aïoli is a very specific sauce—and it is not just garlic mayonnaise. Whereas mayonnaise is made with egg yolk, Dijon mustard (although not everyone agrees on this), vinegar or lemon and a neutral vegetable oil, authentic aïoli contains nothing but garlic, egg yolk and olive oil (not a neutral vegetable oil).
Occasionally you will find versions of this sauce that include a squeeze of lemon juice, but this is mostly to tame the bite of out-of-season garlic. I am not an expert on word etymologies, but I believe the word itself is derived from the old Provençal words for garlic and olive oil.
One of the reasons that I have called attention to this misuse of the term aïoli is that I want people to be aware that the terms aïoli and mayonnaise are not really interchangeable. The two sauces are distinctly different. The character of an aïoli is nothing like that of a mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is a friendly, mild mannered sauce that takes well to all kinds of flavor variations and additions. Aïoli, on the other hand is astonishingly bold and robust. If you have had it, you will not have forgotten it. It is not a sauce that people have mild reactions to. I love it. If you were to decide that you wanted to flavor it in some way you would find that the flavor of your additions would be overwhelmed by the presence of the garlic and olive oil. I can only imagine that it became common in this country to call a flavored mayonnaise an aïoli because the term aïoli sounds sexy and chic on a restaurant menu.
If you have made it to this point, I thank you for hanging in there for a rather long post. I have always intended to use this blog as a place to occasionally take the time to write out detailed explanations of cooking techniques. I have found in my classes that this particular technique (smashing garlic to a purée) is of great interest to people. I've been told more than once by someone who went home and tried it and had some difficulty with it that I make it look much easier than it is. This is probably because it is a motion that is executed very rapidly—less than a minute from whole peeled clove to smooth purée. It will have taken longer than that to read my dissection of the process. It is probably difficult to absorb and retain the details of the process in a classroom setting. By writing the minutiae of the process down, I hope to provide some reference notes for people who have struggled to do it at home. With practice the process becomes natural, fluid and easy.
And what better way to practice than to prepare a Grand Aïoli for your friends...
Le Grand Aïoli
The Components (for 8 servings):
4 to 8 eggs
8 small or 4 medium beets (about 1 lb.)
1 lb. green beans, topped and tailed
1 large head cauliflower, cut into large florets (about 1 to 1 1/4 lb. trimmed weight)
1 to 1 1/2 lb. baby carrots, peeled—if baby carrots are not available, cut large carrots on the diagonal into long batonettes
1 to 1 1/2 lb. small new potatoes, scrubbed
2 lbs. skinless, boneless Halibut, Cod or other mild white fish, cut into 8 4- oz. portions
1 or 2 bunches radishes, greens and roots trimmed
Crusty French Bread
1 recipe Aïoli
Prepare the Components:
Place the eggs in a small sauce pan and cover with cold water. Bring just to the boil, turn off the heat, cover and let stand for 15 minutes. Refresh under cold water. Peel and halve or quarter.
Trim the beet greens so only a half inch or so of the stems remain. Leave the root intact. Scrub the beets. Place in a baking dish and add a splash of water. Cover with foil and bake in a 375° to 400° oven until tender to the tip of a knife—45 minutes to an hour. Allow the beets to cool. Trim and peel. Cut into halves or quarters.
The remaining vegetables should be cooked in boiling salted water until just tender. Remove the vegetables from the water and spread on towels to cool. Typically the vegetables are served room temperature or while still slightly warm. The green beans will take 5 to 8 minutes, the cauliflower about 4 to 8 minutes, the carrots 12 to 20 minutes—depending on their size and age, and the new potatoes will take 15 to 20 minutes. If you like, halve the new potatoes when they are cool enough to handle.
To prepare the fish, rub each filet lightly with oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange in an oiled baking dish, add a splash of water (literally a splash—it will not even be enough to cover the bottom of the dish) and cover tightly with foil. Transfer to a preheated 400° oven and bake until just cooked. This will probably be about 10 minutes. The rule of thumb is 10 minutes per inch of thickness of the filets...but it will be slightly longer if you have a very heavy/thick baking dish. Do not overcook...remember that the fish will continue to cook after it is removed from the oven.
Arrange the fish, cooked vegetables and eggs on large platters. Place the olives and radishes in bowls. Place several bowls of the aïoli sauce on the table and pass a basket of crusty bread.
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 egg yolks
2 t. warm water
1 t. kosher salt
1 1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil (French, if possible. Barring that, I have had excellent results with Spanish oils.)
Smash the garlic to a purée with a few pinches of salt. Add half of the garlic to a medium-sized bowl, along with the yolks, warm water and remainder of the salt. Whisk until smooth. Then, very slowly, begin to add the oil in a fine stream, whisking constantly. If you add the oil too quickly, the mixture will not emulsify. As the emulsion begins to take hold, you will be able to add the oil a bit more quickly.
The aïoli will gradually thicken and lighten in color as the oil is added. If it becomes very thick before all of the oil is incorporated, thin with a few drops of water and continue to whisk in the rest of the oil.
Taste the aïoli for seasoning, add more salt and more garlic—as you please. The aïoli will taste best if it has 30 minutes or so to sit. It is best eaten the day it is made. Refrigerate any leftovers. Makes about 2 cups.
• In Provence the fish of choice is poached salt cod, but any fresh mild white fish, simply cooked (poached, roasted or grilled), is a fine substitute. The vegetables too, are always simply cooked—poached in plain salted water or steamed. I have included vegetables in this recipe that are available at our Midwestern farmers' markets in July. They are typical of what one might find in Provence. Any vegetable that is fresh and in season can be included—fresh artichokes, summer squash, roasted red peppers, etc. Typical too is the inclusion of one or two raw vegetables—radishes, vine ripened tomatoes, sliced fresh fennel, thinly sliced red bell peppers, etc. Often a bowl of cooked chickpeas will be included in the spread. In France the feast will also usually include a platter of freshly cooked snails or stewed octopus.
• Classically there should be at least 6 different items (vegetables—raw and cooked, fish, bread) included in the feast...but frequently there are more. A good rule of thumb is to have, at a minimum, a half pound of (trimmed weight) vegetables per person, in addition to fish and hard cooked eggs. You should prepare enough of the Aïoli sauce to serve 1/4 cup per person.