Artichoke Beauty and the Art of Aioli

artichoke flowerThe artichoke is such an amazing creature. It is something I usually associate with California or Mediterranean gardens, so here in my little windy corner of the Pacific Northwest, it is always a fascinating treat when I get one to grow and bloom.

Artichokes are full of A, B, and C vitamins, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, and iron. I feel compelled to write that, but I don’t think I ever eat them for the vitamins. I eat them for the ritual of peeling off the petals of the flowers one by one, dipping them in an oily sauce, and individually scraping them across my bottom teeth. It’s a sensual experience, not to be rushed. At the end of a hectic day, sometimes it’s important to sit down, take time, be with someone you care about, and share.  Or maybe just be alone with the solitude of your own thoughts. Also good. Artichokes are a thoughtful food. Thought-full. Interesting word. Yes, an artichoke makes that happen.

Ok – so boil up the chokes, heat up some butter or add a little lemon juice to some mayo, and you’re good to go, right?

Whoa whoa whoa.

Artichokes are all about taking time.

And the perfect accompaniment to artichokes? Aioli.

True, aioli is basically garlic in mayonnaise — but it can be so much more.

As a side story (which I am well-known for telling), in my early 20s, I spent a year in Paris, where a lovely woman, who is a story in herself, took me under her wing and without whom I would not have survived. There are many stories within this story, but one of them involves teaching me to make mayonnaise. The French are fond of rituals, slow food, and taking the time to enjoy good food and relationships. It is not about an egg and a cup of oil; it is about the soul of the little poulet and the tree that provides us with the essence of its fruit.

And so…

How to Make Aioli

1 bulb of garlic
2 egg yolks
1 c olive oil
a lemon
a little salt

Preliminary Notes:

For greater success, all ingredients should be at room temperature. Getting the egg, oil, and lemon to meld together as one is much easier when they are at similar temps. Don’t shock them with a jolt of cold lemon.

Some people may be concerned about Salmonella with raw eggs – in which case, you might add a little garlic and olive oil to commercial mayonnaise. No, it’s not the same as making your own. What you gain in security, you lose in control. My “olive oil” manufactured mayonnaise contains soybean oil, modified corn starch, sugar, xanthan gum, oleoresin, beta-carotene and paprika for color, and something called “natural flavors,” in addition to standard ingredients. The first ingredient is water, which always makes me wonder what I’m really paying for.

Personally, I really miss my chickens, but I buy eggs from our neighbors, and I am not particularly concerned about Salmonella. I don’t feel quite the same with the off-the-shelf variety found in supermarkets, however.

So – get good eggs – the flavor is night and day. This is key. Use good olive oil. Obviously, if it is strong-flavored olive oil, your aioli will be correspondingly strong-flavored. A mixture of oils (pure and extra virgin) might be less overpowering. Expect your homemade version to awaken your taste buds with its richness and simplicity.

Also, to do this properly, you need a mortar & pestle, which gives time for the properties of the garlic to transform and the flavors to better blend. There is something about the rhythmic, repetitive grinding, stirring, whisking motions; inhaling the vapors of the garlic and lemon; watching the transformation of the yolk and oil; and appreciating the texture of something soft and smooth but not mechanically homogenized … all very fulfilling in their own way. But sure – a blender will work here.

Let’s Begin:

Aioli is not aioli without garlic. This is an opportunity to taste the nuances of different varieties – hot, spicy, smooth, mellow. Juan de Fuca Wonder is often my standard, simply because I have so much of it. But try a Persian Star, Bogatyr, or Vekak — all very flavorful varieties. Personally, I like something that packs a little punch – something where a few large cloves go a long way. Hardnecks in general would be my choice, but truly, it’s all good. Whatever kind you choose, peel the cloves of garlic and mash them in the mortar with the pestle. Add a pinch of salt to help things go. Begin smashing, grinding, and stirring with a circular motion until it becomes a paste. Inhale deeply. This is good. I love this step. The fresher the garlic, the easier this is, as fresh garlic is so much juicier.

Start adding the egg yolks, one after another, and stir each until well mixed. My French mentor advised to always go in one direction throughout this entire process. I am not sure why, but I assumed it had something to do with the rotation of the earth. My language skills at the time did not allow me to properly formulate the question, and besides, some things were better not questioned. Listen. Accept. Follow. Learn.

Now for the true Art in the Aioli: in the beginning, the olive oil must be added only a drop or two at a time. Seriously. You must give the yolks time to accept the oil and for them to become one. In kitchen chemistry terms, this is the emulsification process. The garlic helps this transformation. Unless you have a large mortar, you will want to switch to a larger bowl and a whisk. You will capture air into the creamy mass. Eventually you can add more oil at a time until it is a thin stream, but at first, drop by drop is the rule. Stir continuously. Take your time. If you see it start to separate, stop adding oil and keep stirring. If it refuses to emulsify, you can add an extra yolk, but if you go slowly, it shouldn’t be a problem.

About half-way through the oil, squeeze in the fresh lemon. It doesn’t need a lot – a teaspoon or two. The lemon juice not only adds flavor, but also changes the pH of the mixture and helps it to thicken.

When you get the entire cup of oil incorporated into the yolks, you can thin it with a little water or lemon juice. You can also add herbs, spices, or a little horseradish.  Mustard also helps the emulsion process and can be added at any time. Brown mustard is easy to grow, and a little goes a long way. If I use it, I add the seeds when I first grind the garlic cloves. (As with many things, once you grow or make your own, you become a snob to those prepackaged colored things in the squeeze bottles.)

Your aioli is almost complete. Taste. Adjust. Taste again. Gently dip in the artichoke petals. Savor this simple but indulgent delight. Savor your time together.

(One last note: You might want to keep in mind how easy it is to consume a lot of oil. You don’t have to consume it all at one sitting. The aioli keeps well under refrigeration [remember the raw eggs]; in fact, the flavors just get better. The French are fond of putting it on fish, with sliced meats, grilled vegetables….)

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