The other week, I hosted my first dinner party in more than a year. It was glorious! We were all fully vaccinated, but still spent most of our time outdoors, where the weather was surprisingly agreeable. I played Marvin Gaye and Little Dragon and Britney, plus a little Bad Bunny while I riffed on a dish I learned about when I was studying pastry in the South of France so many years ago: Le Grand Aioli.
“It’s less of a recipe, per se, than a mood,” said Rebekah Peppler, author of “A Table: Recipes for Cooking + Eating the French Way,” which includes a formula for creating your own take on the Provençal classic. It’s just the thing for summer entertaining: fun, easy and entirely adaptable.
As the name of the dish suggests, it stars aioli, that garlicky, lemony dressing that’s good on so many things. Center a small bowl of it on a plate or platter and then nestle a garland of vegetables and proteins all around, ready for dipping. (Still want to keep your distance? Make individual plates, with a generous dollop of aioli and a variety of vegetables on each one.)
Dig into your garden or hit the farmers market for whatever’s in season. Peppler suggests fennel, radishes, those thin green beans the French call haricots vert, baby potatoes, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, tiny lettuce leaves and endive. For protein, add hard-boiled eggs, poached fish or smoked tofu. Peppler likes half a rotisserie chicken or a can of sardines. Almost anything goes; if you’d put it on a sandwich or in a salad, it can go on your aioli platter. Think of it as dip for dinner – the French way.
I was doubtful that the world needed another French cookbook, but Peppler’s lens on effortless French entertaining in “A Table” feels fresh. The book goes beyond the cliched classics. “I wanted to make sure I was including dishes from the modern French table, which is really what people eat everyday, at home, around the country,” Peppler said. “They’re not eating bouillabaisse or ratatouille every day – in the same way that Americans aren’t just eating burgers and hot dogs every day.”
Peppler includes dishes that demonstrate the influence other cultures have had on French cuisine, including an Algerian-style lamb stew, a large-format banh mi, a Tunisian tuna sandwich and green shakshuka, thick with chard, spiced with jalapeño and flecked with dill. “In a society with open borders, we have to talk about the food that has contributed to the culture we’re living in,” Peppler said. “I wanted to make sure that there was a mix and a representation, especially of the dishes that had become part of my personal repertoire, thanks to friends or restaurants where I’ve become a regular.”
But Le Grand Aioli has a special place in Peppler’s heart. “I make it all the time. It’s thought of as a summer dish, but it can really be made year-round,” she says. “The other night, I made le petit aioli, for two, with these tiny tomatoes, crusty whole-grain bread and a can of sardines – there’s nothing better.”
Below, I’ve adapted Peppler’s recipe for le grand aioli, which can be scaled up or down. Every time I make it, I’m reminded of all the aiolis I’ve served and been served, the far away friends I miss, and the conviviality of sharing a meal around the same table, at last, again.
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Le Grand Aioli
2 to 4 servings (makes about 3/4 cup aioli)
Homemade aioli requires just a few ingredients and 10 minutes of whisking – or a quick whiz in a small blender bowl – to produce a silky sauce. But could you doctor half a cup of Hellman’s with a clove of minced garlic and the juice of half a lemon? No one would be the wiser. If you, like a couple of my friends, hate mayonnaise, could you serve this with Dijon or ranch or hummus lightened with a touch of plain yogurt? Bien sûr.
Traditionally, the hardier vegetables are boiled until tender. This is a pretty simple process, because you can use the same pot of boiling water to cook everything, timing it so that whatever needs to cook for the longest goes into the pot first, e.g.: potatoes and eggs, then green beans, then asparagus. While those vegetables cook, slice up the ones you’ll serve fresh.
In the spring and summer, when I have access to a grill, I like to throw everything on the flames rather than boil it, so I can be outside where the party’s at instead of hovering over the stove. You can even grill the eggs, still in their shells: Lay them on the grates over low heat and let them cook, rotating occasionally, for about 8 minutes or until lightly charred.
NOTES: This recipe calls for raw egg yolks; if you are concerned about the risk of salmonella, buy pasteurized eggs, such as Davidson’s brand.
If your aioli breaks, or doesn’t emulsify and looks clumpy instead of smooth, fix it by starting over in a clean bowl with a fresh egg yolk. Whisk in the broken aioli, plus any remaining oil, one drop at a time, until it comes together.
FOR THE AIOLI
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 cloves garlic, minced or finely grated
1/2 cup grapeseed or canola oil
1/4 cup olive oil
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 large lemon)
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
FOR THE ACCOMPANIMENTS (CHOOSE AT LEAST 5 AND UP TO 11)
8 small potatoes, such as new potatoes or fingerlings (about 1 pound), halved
2 large eggs
8 ounces green beans or haricots verts, trimmed
6 stalks asparagus, trimmed and cut into 3-inch pieces
8 large cherry tomatoes
6 breakfast, globe or Easter radishes
2 Persian cucumbers
1 medium carrot, scrubbed and trimmed
1 bell pepper, preferably red
1 small head fennel (about 6 ounces)
One (4- to 5-ounce) tin olive-oil-packed sardines in oil
In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, mustard and garlic. Whisking constantly, add the grapeseed oil, one drop at a time, until the mixture thickens. Unfortunately, you cannot speed this up or your aioli will break so take your time, whisking all the while (see NOTES). It will take about 4 minutes. Once the mixture becomes thick, start adding more oil, including the olive oil, in a steady stream, whisking constantly to incorporate. Add the lemon juice in 1-teaspoon increments, whisking constantly. The aioli will be pale yellow and thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper and transfer to a small serving bowl. (If you’re making the aioli more than 1 hour in advance, cover and refrigerate it until ready to serve.)
Fill a medium bowl about halfway with ice water.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add two generous pinches of salt followed by the potatoes and eggs. If you want jammy egg yolks, remove the eggs after 7 or 8 minutes; if you prefer fully hard-boiled eggs, remove them after 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the eggs to a plate to cool.
After removing the eggs, add the green beans to the pot, and cook until bright green and tender, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them to the bowl of ice water.
Check the potatoes; they should be fully cooked. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the potatoes to a serving platter.
Add the asparagus and cook until bright green and tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the asparagus to the ice bath. Peel and halve the eggs, placing them next to the potatoes on the platter.
While the vegetables and eggs cook, prepare the raw vegetables you plan to use: Halve the cherry tomatoes and the radishes. Cut the cucumbers and carrot into slices or finger-size pieces for dipping. Slice the bell pepper and fennel.
Remove the beans and asparagus from the ice water. Arrange the cooked and raw accompaniments around the aioli on the platter or a plate, and serve.
Nutrition information for the aioli (per tablespoon) | Calories: 131; Total Fat: 14 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 31 mg; Sodium: 36 mg; Carbohydrates: 1 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 0 g; Protein: 1 g.
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Adapted from “A Table” by Rebekah Peppler (Chronicle, 2021).
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com