As I was crushing garlic cloves with my mortar and pestle in the process of making aioli, that gorgeous Provençal mayonnaise, I got to thinking about why my early summer menus so often include this spicy, peppery blend of heaven.

It flouts Provençal tradition to serve aioli in June. Aioli—which is a blend of the Provençal words ail (garlic) and oli (oil), just as the sauce is a blend of those two ingredients—is served on Christmas Eve in Provence, when all the culinary stops come out. Though the Provençal Christmas Eve meal is a so-called lean one, all that really means is that it doesn’t include meat. Instead, it’s a host of seasonal vegetables, the glorious golden aioli and, usually, herb-scented cod.

But the beauty of being a cook is that one can flout tradition, so I proceeded with my mixing, planning to serve the sauce with a host of miniature seasonal vegetables. If I’d wanted to make a “grand aioli” I could have included the cod. Cod isn’t local to Provence, of course, but in the old days when Provence was more landlocked than it is today (it hasn’t changed position, I know, but modern transportation makes it seem closer to the sea), the only fish the Provençaux saw were river fish, or salt cod that had been hauled over the mountains from ports in Spain or Portugal. It was salted to keep for very long periods, and it put the “grand” in a grand aioli because it was special, a luxury, thus perfect for the night before Christmas.

Back to today and Normandy, one reason I found myself making early summer aioli was because my guests were all travelers, joining me for a country lunch. I’ve learned how much the traveler in France appreciates a plate full of vegetables. I also know that almost no one can resist garlic. (Just to be safe, though, I also made mayonnaise scented with lemon zest as a fresh, garlic-free alternative.)

Juicy and new

But there is another reason why aioli winds up on my early summer table so often. It’s because of the garlic. It’s still new in June, which means the cloves aren’t quite fully formed, and the heads are wrapped in layers of thick, damp skin which only turns into that papery skin we’re all familiar with much later on in the summer.

When you crush new garlic the peeled cloves almost explode with juice. It’s so satisfying to turn them into aioli, because they don’t resist and almost immediately become a rich, heady purée. Add an egg yolk, some mustard and lemon juice, then a continuous thread of oil until the mixture thickens and voilà! You’ve got aioli.

There are tricks to making a really good aioli. Making it with a mortar and pestle will result in a much more tender aioli than if you try to do it in a food processor. You’ve got to add some Dijon-style mustard, too, which serves a dual purpose. It adds a little hint of mustard’s bite, and it is an almost fail-safe trick for any mayonnaise—mustard makes it harder for mayonnaise to refuse to “take”, as the French say. Without mustard, the risk for a “broken”, oily aioli is higher.

Slowly goes it

Another trick is the type of oil you use. My aioli always includes two: peanut oil and extra-virgin olive oil, because after years of studying the situation, and much consulting with my friend and colleague Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking (Scribner, 1984), I’ve determined that the flavor is better with the two oils, and the success rate higher. Olive oil can contain impurities that might cause the aioli to break and turn oily. It can also be bitter, something you may not notice if you’re using it in smallish quantities, or cooking with it. So I never make a 100% olive-oil mayonnaise.

I start my aioli with a very thin stream of peanut oil; the temptation is to add it quickly once the sauce has thickened, but the third and maybe most important trick is to add whatever oil you’re using very slowly, in a very fine stream. Don’t get impatient, and if your arm gets tired, rest and then resume. Too many times I’ve hurried and the sauce has broken and turned into an oily mess. If it does separate, you can fix it by putting an egg yolk and some mustard into another bowl and very slowly whisking the separated aioli into it. But it’s better to be patient and go slow from the start. Once the mixture is nice and thick—in Provence they say a spoon should stand up in it—I add enough extra-virgin olive oil, again, in a very thin stream, to give it a veneer of flavor.

To go with it

During this time of year carrots are slim little works of art—I leave some of their green leaves on, as a color contrast with the carrot’s vivid orange or yellow. I like to use bright-white cauliflower, turnips, young onions with white bulbs the size of big marbles and asparagus tips. I want the vegetables to be seasoned, rich and tender so I plunge them into boiling salted water for just a few minutes, then into ice water to chill, then drain and let them dry. New potatoes should be done separately, simmered in salted water.

If cod is part of my plan, I buy fresh fillets and salt them myself. It’s a simple process. I set the deboned cod in a glass dish, sprinkle it all over with coarse grey salt, then refrigerate it for about two hours. Then I rinse off all the salt and poach the fillets gently in water scented with bay leaf, peppercorns and onion slices.

You don’t have to use cod—any firm white fish like lingcod, turbot, halibut or even tilapia will do. And you don’t have to salt it. I do it because salting the fish makes it firmer, helps it hold together better and also seasons it nicely.

Before I poach the cod, my vegetables are blanched or boiled and ready. I like them at room temperature, so I arrange them on a large platter, sprinkling them with crisp radishes. When the cod is poached, which takes just a few minutes, I remove it from the poaching liquid and transfer it to a plate to sit for five minutes, so it can release any excess liquid it’s absorbed from poaching. I pat it dry, then lay it atop the vegetables and garnish the platter with flat-leaf parsley sprigs. The cod is hot, the vegetables are at room temperature, the mortar with the aioli is on the table, and all’s right with the world.

Floral rosé

The wine I like best with aioli is rosé, just the way it’s served in Provence. I’m sorry to be so predictable, but often there are really good reasons for traditional food and drink combinations. The reason for this one is simple: Aioli is rich and full flavored. The right rosé offers a perfect foil, not too rich but filled with floral notes that cut the intensity of the garlic. One of my favorite rosés to serve with aioli is Cabochard from Domaine Robert Serol (2010).

I usually go overboard and make too much aioli. Well, I actually do this on purpose because having aioli in the refrigerator, where it will stay delicious and fresh for three or four days, is like having the best meal you can think of right at hand. I love to spread it on freshly toasted bread with thinly sliced radishes. It’s delicious on a sandwich, and a dollop of it turns a bowl of soup into something very special if you stir it in right before you eat it. Aioli is perfect in chicken salad, it goes well with any kind of fish, and you’ll think of many other things to do with it too.

Blanching Vegetables

Blanching means plunging vegetables into boiling salted water and leaving them just until they lose their crispness. You have to stand by and test them—cauliflower takes 3 to 4 minutes to soften, asparagus and baby onions about 3 minutes, baby carrots about 6 minutes, turnips up to 11 minutes. Have a big bowl of ice water ready, with a sieve sitting in it. When the vegetables are blanched to your liking, transfer them to the sieve in the ice water and stir gently. As soon as they’ve cooled, remove them to towels to dry. Don’t leave them in the ice water—they’ll get soggy.

Lemon Mayonnaise/Mayonnaise Citronnée

There are many myths about mayonnaise. One is that all the ingredients need to be at the same temperature, but it’s not true. The only thing that will guarantee the success—emulsion—of mayonnaise is the speed with which you add the oil. That speed is SLOW. You can make mayonnaise in a blender or food processor, but it will not be as good as that made by hand.

The zest from 1 lemon (preferably organic)

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 large egg yolks

1 cup (250 ml) peanut oil, or other neutral oil

1/4 cup (60 ml) fine quality extra-virgin olive oil

1. Mince the lemon zest, and put a small bowl over it so its flavor doesn’t fly away.

2. Place a wet towel under a medium-sized, nonreactive bowl to keep it from sliding around. (Or use a mortar and pestle.) Put the salt, mustard, and lemon juice in the bowl and whisk them together. Whisk in the egg yolks, then very slowly, in a fine stream, whisk in the oils. The mixture will thicken as you whisk. You can stop adding oil when it gets to the thickness you prefer. Stir in the lemon zest, then season to taste with lemon juice.

Makes about 1-1/4 cups (310 ml)

Find Susan’s aioli recipe here.

Susan Herrmann Loomis teaches cooking classes in Normandy and Paris. Find her cookbooks in the France Today Bookstore.

Originally published in the June 2012 issue of France Today