In the heat of summer there is still a need for delicious and substantial food. The simplest of ingredients can be elevated to gourmet status with the addition of a knock-out sauce. Herein is the magic of the Grand Aioli, a classic dish of Provence. In the tradition of French cuisine, fresh vegetables, at their peak of flavor, are simply poached, and served with similarly prepared white fish and shellfish. What makes these ingredients rise to culinary celebrity status is an amazing garlic sauce.
Aioli is an emulsified sauce like mayonnaise. I took my lead from Alice Waters and made the aioli the old-fashioned way, with a small kitchen mortar and pestle. This sauce consists of three ingredients: garlic, egg yolk, and oil. You will want to season the mixture with salt, and a dash of water aids in the emulsification process. Start out by mincing two cloves of garlic. Put these in your mortar, add about a quarter teaspoon or so of coarse salt, and mash the garlic to a smooth paste. If you like, you may transfer all but a small amount of the garlic paste to a mixing bowl before you start the whisking process (reserve a little to adjust the seasoning of your aioli when it’s done). Add a room-temperature egg yolk to the garlic paste and a splash of water (a half-teaspoon should do). Whisk together to blend, then start slowing adding about three-quarters of a cup of olive oil, at first drop by drop, then in a fine stream. The sauce will emulsify and thicken as you add the oil. You can mix the olive oil with a little neutral oil, such as grapeseed, if you prefer, for a milder flavor. Finish the aioli by seasoning with salt and the reserved garlic paste. Refrigerate the aioli until you are ready to use it. If it seems too thick, simply whisk in a little room-temperature water to adjust the texture to your liking. Now choose an assortment of fresh vegetables; potatoes, green beans, carrots, and fennel are all good. Fresh tomatoes and cucumbers can be added as raw garnishes, along with a variety of olives. Hard-cooked eggs add color and substance to the platter too. Cook the vegetables in lots of boiling, salted water until just tender, then remove and arrange on a large platter. Steam some mussels in white wine, poach a piece of white fish (such as halibut) in the mussel liquid, and add the seafood to the platter. Scatter the olives amongst the fish and vegetables, drizzle the lot with a little more olive oil, and sprinkle on some sea salt. Serve the entire assortment, warm or at room temperature, with the aioli. Voila! This is a summer meal to savor. And don’t forget some chilled French wine and a little crusty bread. If there is any aioli leftover, it can be stored in the refrigerator for several days.