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There was a time, when I was much, much younger, that mayonnaise was on my relatively short list of reviled foods. How things have changed! Like an arachnophobic who gets over a fear of spiders through repeated exposure, the more I dabbled in mayonnaise, the more I grew to like it. My conversion was complete upon trying my own hand at the homemade stuff, when I realized most of mayo you buy in jars is but a poor imitation. ( If you missed the story the first time around, you can read it here.)
Soon a sandwich was nothing without mayo. It replaced ketchup for my fries, and I discovered the limitless dips one can make with a bit of mayo and sour cream. All was well, and then I made another discovery that rocked my world.
And I’m not talking about the kind in the squeeze tube, found on supermarket shelves, another poor substitute for the real thing. I mean a veritable , traditional garlic aioli, made with a mortar and pestle and some elbow grease. It is a garlic mayonnaise that transforms the dullest fish, is heavenly next to a bucket of frites, and de rigeur in certain French dishes like Bouillabaisse or the fish stew called Bourride.
Le Grand Aioli is the name of a dish composed of salt cod, hard boiled eggs, and squid cooked with a variety of vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, and green beans accompanied, of course, by aioli.
To develop the fullest, most pungent flavor, the garlic should be pounded in the mortar with the egg yolks before beating the oil a few drops at a time, as you would when making a regular mayonnaise.
This recipe if from Anne Willan’s wonderful book The Country Cooking of France.
Aioli – Garlic Mayonnaise
Makes 1 1/2 cups/ 375 ml – Serves 6-8
2 egg yolks
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped (or more to taste)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (more to taste)
salt & white pepper
1 1/2 cups/375 ml olive oil
1) Put the egg yolks, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a mortar. * Pound with a pestle until the mixture becomes lightly thick–about 1 minute.
2) Beat in the oil gradually, a few drops at a time, until the mixture begins to emulsify and thicken considerably.
3) Transfer to a small bowl and continue to add the remaining oil in a thin, steady stream while stirring constantly with a whisk. Do not add it too quickly or the mixture will separate.
4) Taste and adjust the seasonings if required.
The mayonnaise should be thick enough to hold a spoon upright. It can be covered and kept in the fridge for up to twelve hours, but should be brought to room temperature before serving or it may separate.
*If you do not have a mortar and pestle, whisk the mixture in the bowl to start and use freshly pressed garlic.
Even people who claim to love food with near obsession will often tell you that cooking for yourself is either a waste of time or horribly self-indulgent. It wasn’t that long ago that I counted myself among them. Since a large part of eating is sharing and connecting with others, cooking was something I did to nurture family and entertain friends. I always wanted to impress people with what I made, which always added an element of stress to my time in the kitchen and made the whole process of cooking less pleasurable. Everything had to be timed just so and look worthy of the pages of Gourmet magazine. It was easy to forget the whole point of getting together and eating in the first place. It all got lost in some misplaced drive for perfection.
There were times when I came home from work and poured myself a bowl of cereal for dinner. Or fixed myself a sandwich, even though I had already had one for lunch. I cooked for myself, but not every day. I didn’t eat packaged foods; I made fresh food, but the sort of food one makes when in a hurry or not wanting to make much of a fuss. Pasta with a bit of bottled pesto. Store-bought skewers of chicken thrown on the grill and eaten with a green salad and a microwaved sweet potato. Nothing was inherently wrong with this food, it just wasn’t very exciting. Furthermore, it wasn’t food I would ever serve anyone but myself.
Everything changed when I began writing this blog. I started Gratinée when I decided that I wanted to become a food and travel writer. I wanted a portfolio of writing samples I could show editors; this was my main motivation. But when you put so much work into something, you want others to read it consistently. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a huge audience, but I wanted a loyal one. People who would come to this site and find something compelling in the narrative, inspiring in the recipes, and keep coming back. To this end, I knew that the writing mattered, but that the photography and recipes I chose would also be paramount. The photography is an evolution, and I try my best with my limited resources i.e. major lighting challenges. The recipes represented here are for the type of food that I love to eat. Simple, classic dishes, often French or inspired by French technique, comforting and bursting with robust flavor, composed of fresh and easy to find ingredients.
When I started cooking for this blog, I was essentially cooking for one. I offered the full recipe, but always cut the ingredients by half, or even three-quarters. I froze a lot of food and began inviting people for dinner more often. Posting recipes that people would want to make required more. More ingredients, more herbs and spices, more trips to the grocery store. It required more of me. Because I was accountable to this project, I had to come home and cook something new instead of just plopping on the couch.
I learned a lot. I learned how to cook new dishes, of course, but I also learned more about what I liked and what I didn’t like. Through my exploration and sourcing of better quality ingredients, my palate changed. I learned what a really good cheese should taste like. I began to love cilantro even though I once hated it. I found my voice, not only in terms of how I wanted to say things, but also in the kitchen.
Here is what I noticed when I began cooking for myself with some effort; the things that I cooked, more often than not, turned out perfectly. Much better than they did when I cooked these same things for others. When I cooked for myself, I didn’t have to impress anyone. I felt much more relaxed about the whole process when it didn’t matter whether my souffle fell or not. No one else was going to eat it but me. Even when my food didn’t look that great, it always tasted fine. Learning this was a kind of liberation, wholly unexpected.
There are days when I still want something fast, something that I can throw together in a matter of minutes. But I’m no longer satisfied with the standard fare of singledom. The other day I noticed that in almost eight months of blogging that I have posted only one pasta recipe. This is amazing to me, because for years, I ate pasta on an almost daily basis. Not that there is anything wrong with pasta, but writing this blog has taught me that there is so much more in the world to cook and eat.
Lemon Garlic Prawns
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
pinch dried rosemary
pinch dried chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
basil, chopped chiffonade style
juice of half
1) Combine all of the ingredients except the lemon juice and butter in a mixing bowl. Toss the prawns to make sure they are well coated.
2) Melt the butter in a skillet over high heat. Add prawns and cook for a couple of minutes on each side, until they turn pink and cooked through.
3) Drizzle with lemon juice and garnish with more chopped basil, if desired. Best eaten with slices of French baguette or pita.