Feast of a French Childhood–Le Grand Aioli

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A photo of Sara Remington in the book Paris to Provence

When I was 10 my family spent a year in Paris. We lived in an apartment in the 13th arrondissement and I went to a French school.  As a family, we explored the city visiting historical monuments, museums, churches and luxurious palaces.

But it was really the small details of everyday life that I remember with the most pleasure; the warmth of roasted chestnuts on a cold winter day; the red flare of tulips in the Jardins des Luxembourg, the swirl of traffic around the Arc de Triomphe; and the crushed violet flavor of a sorbet de cassis from Bertillion. When you are small, you notice the small things. Even now as an adult, I am enchanted with those same small observations of childhood; the odd and unusual moments that make Paris so compelling.

The pleasures of a French childhood are many because the small sensual experiences of France abound.  From the bakeries to the parks to odd little museums, Paris offers some of the most beautiful, quirky, and delicious things to see, do, smell and of course, eat.

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Paris to Provence, a new cookbook beautifully written by Ethel Brennan and Sara Remington, is a beautiful paen to the intimate wonders that make France a magical place for children and adults alike.  Filled with poetic, luscious images and delicious recipes, the book includes moving stories of childhood and of the sensual pleasures of growing up in France.  In Ethel’s recipe for Le Grand Aioli, she includes a marvelous description of summer celebration in her tiny French village—“a party that lasts for days culminating on the last days with the feast and petanque (French bocce ball) The feast itself consisted of platters of boiled vegetables, salted cod, and bowls of homemade aioli cooked by the men and women of the town.”

My favorite memory of Le Grand Aioli actually took place with Ethel at her mother Georgeanne Brennan’s, house in Winters California. Great cooking and writing and generosity run in their family and Georgeanne and her husband Jim invited my parents, brother, sister-in-law and nieces up to join their family feast.  Ethel’s boys and my nieces ran around under the walnut trees while we drank rose in the shade.  Luckily Ethel  included this recipe in the book so now it is my turn to cook this feast. Petanque, anyone?

Tips for making big quantities:  The aioli recipe can be doubled but is best not made in big batches as it can be tricky. When cooking for a crowd, Ethel recommends prepping multiple batches of aioli in advance. Aioli will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.  

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Photo credit: Sara Remington

Le Grand Aioli with Vegetables and Salt Cod

Every Summer, for the fifteenth of August, Fox Amphoux where my bother and I grew up, hosts a village feast, a Grand Aioli, a party that lasts for days, culminating on the last day with the feast and petanque (French bocce ball) tournament. The feast itself consists of platters of boiled vegetables, refreshed salted cod, and bowls of homemade aioli, all cooked by the women and the men of the village. The days preceeding are filled with the first rounds of the petanque competition, lots and lost of pastis and rose wine, and in the evenings very eclectic, if not somewhat embarrassing, DJs or rock bands. As kids we would dress up a bit in party clothes. I remember sporting my skinny-leg Gloria Vanderbilt yellow cords, wedge espadrilles, and possibly a side ponytail, then dancing away with all of my girl friends to Abba, the Bee Gees, and Donna Summer. Too young for drinking or boys, the evening fun usually included spying on Aileen’s older brother and his friends, strange and curious teenagers; the girls all smoked and wore lightweight cotton scarves, a look I still find undeniably French.–Ethel

6 pieces salted cod, 4 to 5 ounces each

3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 teaspoon coarse sea salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 egg yolks

1 ½ cups extra-virgin olive oil

12 boiling potatoes, such as White Rose or Yellow Finn, peels intact

12 medium sized carrots, peeled

1 pound haricots verts or other small green beans stem ends removed

6 eggs

To refresh the cod, rinse it well in water, then place it in a large bowl, cover with water, and let it soak for 6 to 8 hours, changing the water every two hours. To test, bring a small pan of water to a simmer over low heat, drop in a 1-inch pice of the rinsed fish, cook for 3 to 4 minutes, remove and taste. It should be pleasantly salted and edible. If still too salty, continue soaking for several more hours.

In a small bowl, crush together the garlic and salt using a wooden spoon. In a larger bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks. Very slowly drizzle in the olive oil, a teaspoon at a time, into the yolks, whisking constantly. Continue this slow process until all of the oil is incorporated and an emulsion has formed. Aioli is finicky and sometimes just doesn’t set; if this happens, try again (with all new ingredients?) Once the mayonnaise has formed, stir in the garlic mixture and the black pepper. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add potatoes and cook until easily pierced with a fork, about 20 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove them from the water and set aside on a platter.

Using the same water, cook the carrots until they are tender but still firm, about 15 minutes. They too should be easily pierced with a fork. Using the slotted spoon, remove from the water and set aside on the platter.

Continue the process for cooking the green beans, but just cook for 5 minutes. Drain the beans and rinse them with cold water to stop the cooking process. Pat dry and transfer to the platter of vegetables.

Place the eggs in a pot of water, bring the water to a boil, turn off the heat, and let the eggs sit in the hot water for 10 minutes. Drain the water from the pot and run cold water over the eggs for about 3 minutes. Remove the eggs, let cool, and peel. Cut the eggs in half length-wise and arrange of the platter.

To cook the fish, bring a large skillet of water to a simmer. Poach the cod fillets until they gently break apart, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the skillet and pat dry.

To serve, arrange all the vegetables, eggs, and fish on a large platter and put the aioli in several bowls on the table.

Photos and recipe from Paris to Provence: Childhood Memories of Food and France by Ethel Brennan and Sara Remington/Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC 2013″

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