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)
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).