Monthly Archives: July 2012

D.I.Y. GRAND AIOLI

Our friends Radwan and Raia weren’t able to make it to my Kinfolk dinner, so we replicated the grand aioli feast for them right in their home! Afterward, I wrote another column for Offerings honoring this tremendous, life-affirming dish. My last Offerings piece focused on Provencal mussels, so I guess I’m on a bit of a southern France kick! Read on:

Of all of the sacred Provençal traditions, the fierce, garlicky aïoli is one of the region’s most beloved, mystical and legendary rituals. Frédéric Mistral, the lyrical 19th century Provençal poet, wrote that “aioli intoxicates gently, fills the body with warmth, and the soul with enthusiasm. In its essence it concentrates the strength, the gaiety, of the Provençal sunshine.” (He even had a Provencal journal dubbed L’Aioli, so enamored was he of the dish).

In the summer, Provençal villages gather outside for a festival celebrating their local saints and crops of garlic. This culinary orgy is called the aïoli monstre, or The Grand Aïoli, and the feast constitutes a spectacular entanglement of fresh vegetables, seafood, and garlic. This beauteous meal — surely the most sumptuous, color-soaked way to celebrate summer and local harvest — includes a bevy of seasonal ingredients, like beets, carrots, green beans, artichokes, radishes, potatoes, snails, clams, octopus, and salt cod. The only rule is to use the freshest and best ingredients available.

Of all of Provence’s iconic party dishes (bouillabaisse, couscous, and bagna cauda being other notable Les Plats de Festin), aïoli is my very favorite. In Mireille Johnston’s essential tome The Cuisine of the Sun, she writes that these “superdishes” require “exuberance in the planning, many guests to enjoy them, a certain solemnity at the table, and a long siesta to recover from them.” Aïoli pairs up perfectly with my love of parties.

But perhaps a rounded platter heaped high with of boiled fish, raw vegetables, and globs of garlic mayonnaise does not inspire lust in you, so trust me when I say that this will be one of the most lavish, sensual and extraordinary feasts you will prepare all year. It’s a living rainbow on a plate. (In Simple French Food, cookbook writer Richard Olney says that the thought of aïoli “transports a solid block of the meridional French population to heights of ecstasy”). And in the hot summer months when you are loath to turn on your stove, you’ll be relieved to have on hand such a simple, straightforward recipe.

A proper aïoli comprises three main ingredients: egg yolk, garlic, and olive oil. Each must be of impeccable quality, or else there is really no point. Most importantly, look for garlic that is firm, crisp, and sticky. Once it gets a lengthy turn in a mortar and pestle, the garlic will be transformed into a smooth and creamy paste. (Toss any bulbs that are sprouting or feel limp, as you really want the best and brightest specimens). Be creative and loose with the sauce accompaniments, but think variety of color (saturated fuchsias, grassy greens, marigold yellow, shocking orange) and preparation (raw, boiled, steamed, roasted, grilled). If your guests are worried about their pungent breath — and their breath will be pungent — offer sprigs of parsley or mint at the conclusion of the feast. But we’re all in this together, you know?

Recipe notes: I rarely use a recipe when making aïoli, but a good rule of thumb is two cloves of garlic per person and 1 egg yolk for every four people. For those who have never made an aïoli before, I have a sneaky shortcut: a teaspoon of good Dijon mustard, whisked into the yolk-garlic paste, will help stabilize your mayonnaise as you whisk the oil in. You’ll never have a broken aïoli again.

Le Grand Aïoli

Serves 8 people

For the aïoli:

16 garlic cloves, peeled (the “Music” variety, found in most Ontario and Quebec markets, is a delicious Canadian option)

2 egg yolks, at room temperature

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 cups extra virgin olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

Handful parsley and chives, to garnish

Salt, to taste

 

—Using a sharp knife, roughly chop garlic into big chunks.

—Move to mortar and pestle, and pound steadily using broad sweeps with your wrist. Add a liberal amount of salt, and the garlic should begin to break down after several minutes into a smooth, thick paste.  (If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, a food processor is an acceptable substitute).

—Scrape the garlic into a medium-sized bowl and whisk in the egg yolks and mustard until smooth.

—Using a steady hand, add oil in a steady stream, at first drop by drop, and then faster, whisking constantly and furiously. The aïoli will actually thicken, not thin, with the addition of the oil emulsion. (Note: if the sauce breaks, you can whisk in another egg yolk to get it smooth again.)

—When the sauce looks thick and glossy, whisk in the lemon juice. Add salt to taste.

—If eating immediately, garnish with chopped parsley and chives. If not eating right away, cover with plastic wrap, pressing right on the surface, and refrigerate.

 

For the trimmings, mix and match the following:

Mixed seafood (2 lbs each boiled salt cod, snails, clams, and grilled baby octopus or squid)

6 beets

1 bunch carrots, trimmed and halved lengthwise

1 bunch radishes, trimmed and halved

1 head cauliflower, broken into florets

2 lbs cherry tomatoes, washed and trimmed

8 new potatoes (smaller potatoes like fingerlings would be lovely too)

2 fennel bulbs, sliced thinly on a mandoline

2 lbs green beans, trimmed

8 artichokes, trimmed, boiled and quartered

2 lbs baby squash, trimmed and cut lengthwise

2 lbs asparagus, stalks trimmed

4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

4 lemons, sliced

 

—Prepare the vegetables that you would like cooked. For example: roast cauliflower florets, baby squash, and asparagus spears in a 425 degree oven, or until golden and crisp. Boiled green beans in salted water for two minutes, or until tender. Roast beets for an hour, then peel and quarter. Boil new potatoes in salted water for 20 minutes, or until tender.

—Let everything cool, and set aside.

—Other vegetables, like tomatoes, carrots, and fennel, will be better raw, and just require a good washing and trimming.

—Using the largest platter you can find (and you may need two or three platters depending on number of ingredients used), and keeping each ingredient separate (don’t mix them together!), artfully arrange the various ingredients on a platter in heaping clusters.

—Spoon aïoli into a small dish and place at the center of platter.

—Serve immediately, and with a bottle of cool, crisp Provencal rosé (I love bottles from Château de Pibarnon, Domaine Tempier, and Domaine Du Gros’Noré).

ALMOST-HEALTHY BREAK

Funny how tempura fried fish still qualifies as a ‘healthy dinner’ for us, but it does, somehow. Tender, local fluke fillets dipped in flour, beaten egg, and tempura gets shallow fried in some olive oil and butter before liberally drizzled with lemon juice, and then eaten rapidly while still crispy and hot. We held back on the salt because Adam picked up a small parcel of samphire, which was somehow briny enough to flavor my entire plate of food. Served alongside broad beans, red peppers, and wild red rice, it certainly felt like a healthy, no-wine kind of night. Sometimes you need a break from all the pancetta pasta and crispy duck!

CAT APPROVED

The perfect Birri et Frères summer salad: crisp, cool micro arugula, cucumber half moons, coins of French radishes, halved cherry tomatoes, toasted walnuts, shaved Pecorino, lemon juice, sunflower oil, a little salt, lots of black pepper. Perfect for when it’s so hot outside you can’t bear the thought of eating, unless it’s cool and crunchy and soaked in lemon juice. So good even kittens are curious.

PIEDMONTESE FEAST

My buddy Marc went to Italy and brought back all manner of Piedmontese goodies — and was generous enough to share his bounty with us one evening. (He also gave me a glorious jar of London peel-less blood orange marmalade!) We feasted on Campari sodas, prosciutto di Parma, donkey sausage, fresh pancetta, truffle butter, and some of the most tender, luscious ham I’ve ever had. There were some heavy Quebec players, too, like local fluke, cucumber salad, grilled zucchini, and summer melon from the market. Little Cosmo kept poking his head up to sneak views of the alluring tablescape. I’m such a sucker for beggars — he was given plenty of fish bits.

DUCK LEGS + PHILLY PALS

One of the very best things about the internet (besides adorable cat videos, of course) is the fact that I have met so many cool ladies through our various blogs, though many of our friendships exist only in the cybersphere. Happily, I had a one-night-only chance to meet beautiful Jennifer and her partner Evan in real life.

The pair were in Montreal for some R&R, so I invited them over for a Monday night supper: crispy roast duck legs, navy beans, heirloom beets and dill, Chad Robertson’s dinosaur kale caesar salad (and please, don’t hesitate: make this salad immediately) with big whole wheat croutons, roasted carrots in honey, and duck fat-fried potatoes. (Pro tip: sprinkle your potatoes with chives and smoked paprika and they will emerge from their oven roast tasting of Ruffles-brand sour cream & onion potato chips). For dessert, a little Canadian pride: Ontario peach and Quebec blueberry galette and vanilla-scented whipped cream.

Just a few words on making perfect duck legs. The legs I purchased had a tremendous amount of excess fat, so I rendered all of my trimmings. Just place them in a big pot, cover them halfway up with water, and let it simmer on low, low, low heat. After a few hours, the water will have completely evaporated, leaving behind crisp, golden duck cracklings and a few pints (!) of perfectly rendered duck fat. I used a decent amount to coat the roast potatoes, and bottled the rest — it’ll be perfect for biscuits, savory pie crust, and scones.

But back to the duck. This video sums up the technique quite nicely — the idea is low and slow — though Adam and I couldn’t help but make a few adjustments. Rather than 90 minutes at 300 degrees F, we roasted our legs for two hours at 250 degrees F, turning on the broiler at the end to get extra crispy, golden results. The result is a stunner every time: paper thin shards of skin atop moist, tender leg meat.

EVERY DAY I’M TRUFFLIN’

Pardon in advance for title of blog post, it just couldn’t be helped. This pot of mushroom risotto was determined to be paired with the last of our summer truffle, fortunately much less expensive than the ones we buy in the winter, but also slightly less aromatic and melty. But still delicious, especially with grilled salmon, blanched green beans, and Santa Barbara Pinot Noir (very unlike us!). Not that the risotto needed it, but I couldn’t resist adding a swig of the truffle-scented olive oil Chez Bruno generously gifted us. Gilding the lily, etc.

EGGS AND TRUFFLES

When Adam and I were in Provence, we went to an out of control truffle-themed restaurant called Chez Bruno (more on it soon!). One of my favorite courses was the truffle and scrambled eggs, a classic pairing in traditional French cuisine. Bruno’s eggs, with its soft, liquidy curds, were cooked perfectly. We ate it like a soup. Slurp. So delicious. After returning to Montreal, we recreated the dish (also throwing it on some toast and adding chives). I decided the key to exquisite scrambled eggs is very low heat and lots of butter stirred in at the end. The texture should be super loose, creamy, and light, almost like a pudding. (There’s a nice truffled scrambled egg recipe here). Oh, and anther good tip, courtesy of Richard Olney: Try rubbing your wooden spoon with raw garlic, which will impart your dish with its essence while you stir.

CHILAQUILES BRUNCH

Not much has changed in two years… I still have a faint loathing of the brunch ritual, unless it’s chilaquiles. In which case, yes, yes, yes. Chilaquiles for breakfast, that I can give a thumbs up. This batch was topped with not just guacamole but also my famous tomatillo salsa, made extra spicy with a habenero or two, and served warm. And also: refried black beans with salsa fresca, pan-fried breakfast potatoes with chorizo, pineapple in lime juice, and Sasha’s amazing sauerkraut.

As if it weren’t already a brunch that demanded a post-meal nap, there was dulce de leche-filled churros, too. (Thank you, Sabor Latino.)

Carlo, framed by two bunches of peonies, makes me sad that peonies here are gone so fast. When they were in season, we were picking big bunches from bushes every morning. You couldn’t keep up — the bushes would hang so heavy with the blossoms and be destroyed in an hour of rain or a day or two of sunshine. But while they were here, our apartment was full of magic.

NORTHWEST MEMORIES

Thanks to these photos, I’m really craving a big lunch at Luce right now. Portland summers are totally one-of-a-kind — I love that I wore leggings and a rain jacket to a summer picnic! — and I still miss it like crazy. Was this really two years ago?

DA BOLOGNA, SUBURBAN HEAVEN

I avoid downtown pizza at all costs — my reports for Serious Eats are a good guide for Montreal’s best spots — but what do you do when you find yourself famished, near the Bell Centre, and without a clue of where to eat?  We had just tried a ton of wine with reZin, and I was starving, so we took a chance on Arlequino, which isn’t supposed to be that terrible (Anthony wrote about it for the Mirror back in the day and liked it, so it probably used to be better). Mostly, I wanted to see how the glut of downtown corporate joints measured up to the homey suburban spots I adore.

Well, for a revealing compare-and-contrast, check out my two recent stories for Serious Eats. Exhibit A: Pizza downtown. Exhibit B: Pizza in the burbs. What a differences a few kilometers makes!