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Long Island Larder: Aioli Garni

Thu, 05/31/1984 - 14:18

"Garlic's taste is briefest pleasure—
Eat in haste, repent at leisure.
Garlic's like the poor, like sorrow—
Here today and here tomorrow."

-Justin Richardson, from an anthology by William Cole, "...And Be Merry"

Oh, you will find poems and paeans in praise of everything from haggis to bouillabaisse in the work of everyone from William Makepeace Thackeray to Erica Jong. Especially bouillabaisse! “This bouillabaisse a noble dish is ...” is but one line of an effusive ode by Thackery to this famous fish stew of Marseilles. But it is rare to hear song or story about that other glorious native of Provence, the aioli garni.

This dish, traditional on Fridays and other fast days in Provence, is centered of course, on the heady, rich garlic mayonnaise called aioli. An assortment of many vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, and some kind of fish, often salt cod if nothing else presents itself, makes up this wonderful farm­ house meal. The ad lib arrangement may include fresh green beans, chick­ peas or dried white beans, peppers, beets, any kind of fish you fancy (or even some baked chicken or ham). It is perfect for an al fresco meal since nothing need be really hot. (It is one of the verities that in warm climates “hot” hasn’t a great deal of meaning and tepid is about as hot as hot gets — even the coffee!)

The aioli garni makes a splendid lunch on a sunny Sunday, and you can send your guests back to their week­ly pursuits fortified against head­aches, colds, weak blood, and numerous other preventives ascribed to garlic since ancient times. (In 1722 garlic was the principal ingredient in “four-thieves vinegar,” sold in Marseilles as insurance against the plague.)

The amount of garlic in an aioli is traditionally two cloves per person, or to put it another way, 16 cloves to the pint of olive oil which would make enough aioli for eight. How­ever, this is not a matter on which one can be dogmatic. There are many variables: Fresh, plump white bulbs, recently harvested, are much, much milder than the usual papery, shrivel­ed garlic in supermarket boxes, al­ready acrid with old age. Violet garlic is stronger than white garlic, but in any case it is necessary to seek out fine, fresh, plump bulbs with large full firm cloves. Red garlic is the strongest, but it comes from Mexico and is seldom seen in the Northeast. It would be foolish to waste the elu­sive fragrance and flavor of an extra-fine virgin olive oil in this fumious sauce. Any good-quality fresh olive oil (by this I mean a freshly opened can or bottle) is fine for aioli, which should be strong enough to leave a tingle in the throat.

Aioli Garni

Make the aioli sauce first and leave it, covered, at room temperature. This is a foolproof method and takes only a few minutes to prepare. For six.

The sauce:

1 slice stale French or Italian bread, trimmed
4 large fat cloves fresh white garlic
1 tsp. coarse salt
Fresh white pepper
1 whole fresh egg, grade A “Large”
1 cup tepid olive oil
1 tsp. red wine vinegar

Soak the small slice of bread briefly in a little water. Squeeze it dry and put it in a blender. Add garlic, which has been peeled and chopped coarsely. Add salt, which will help to puree the garlic. Grind in pepper and add the whole egg (blender sauce is much lighter because a hand-made aioli is made with three egg yolks to 1 1/2 cups of oil). Puree all together on high speed, stopping at least once to scrape down the blender jar. Turn the machine on to high speed and pour the olive oil in a thread-like stream through the top opening into the vortex of the egg mixture.

In a couple of minutes, when the sauce thickens into a rich, smooth mass, you can pour the oil faster. Add the vinegar last. If the machine clogs, remove the aioli to a bowl and whisk in the vinegar. Scrape it into the serv­ing dish, cover with plastic wrap, and leave in a cool place. It should be served at room temperature.

The vegetables, et cetera:

2 lbs. small new potatoes (red or brown)
2 lbs. young, fresh baby green beans
1 jar pickled beets sliced, drained
1 large red sweet pepper
6 hard-boiled eggs, shelled
Large bunch fresh spring rad­ishes
1/2 lb. imported Greek or Ital­ian olives (or Nicoise)
1 head fresh fennel, sliced (op­tional)

Wash and scrub the potatoes but do not peel them. Put them on a steamer rack, salt them lightly, and steam for about 15 minutes. Test with a sharp fork and take care that they are just tender but not hard in the center. Let them steam while you prepare the beans.

The hard-boiled eggs, radishes, sweet pepper, and fennel can all be prepared long ahead of time. The red pepper should be roasted on a fork over an open gas jet to loosen its skin. Put it in a small paper bag and twist it shut. After about ten minutes remove it and scrape off the skin with a blunt knife. Cut it into julienne strips after discarding seeds and pith.

Before you buy, snap the ends off a sample bean. If they do not pop off crisply, the beans are old, no matter how small and young they may appear. Freshly picked beans cook quickly; old ones just get mushy as you must boil them too long. Refrigerate the beans in a plastic bag after you top and tail them. When ready to cook them, rinse briefly in cold water, then drop them into salted boiling water for about two or three minutes. Drain at once when they are bright green and have lost their starchy taste. Plunge into cold water and drain at once — they will still be warm.

Get out your largest, most impres­sive platter as an aioli garni presents the opportunity for a gorgeously arranged dish. Use two platters if necessary. You have here many won­derful shapes and colors to work with. Begin with the eggs standing in the center (slice a thin piece off the bottom of each), surround with a circlet of beets (well drained), then bundles of green beans, a few strips of red pepper laid across each. Dot here and there with olives and rad­ishes, but serve a separate bowl of olives as well. Put the fennel slices around the perimeter. Serve the freshly steamed, dried potatoes in their own bowl so they will stay a little warm.

The Fish:

2 lbs. grey sole or any pre­ferred white fish
Court bouillon: 1 small carrot, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup water
1 tsp. salt, and some white pepper

Simmer all together for 20 minutes. Strain. Cool. Pour over fish arranged in one layer, bring to a bare tremble, and poach fish until opaque (this de­pends on thickness of the fish) but still firm — test with a toothpick in the thickest part. Remove at once to a hot plate, cut into pieces for serving, blot up any juices. Sprinkle with plenty of chopped parsley. The court bouillon can be made in advance; the fish fillets do not usually require more than seven minutes cooking time for most flat fishes.

Pass the bowl of aioli sauce sep­ arately and let each person assemble his own aioli garni. This is a perfect buffet dish. There is only one caution: potatoes, beans, and fish become soggy and unpalatable if cooked in advance. But if you do every possible prepping job short of the actual cooking, last minute time in the kitchen shouldn’t be more than 15 or 20 minutes.

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