Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September: The Best Summer Meal

When it comes to eating in the summertime, no one does it better than the folks in the South of France. From Languedoc across Provence, the Mediterranean French are blessed with an abundance of spectacular vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, and wine that makes their markets a food-lover’s orgy. Every small village has a farmers’ market with mountains of colourful produce on display, from enormous tubs of olives to mountains of tomatoes, from bins of garlic bulbs to ice-lined counters of fresh fish. Mediterranean cookbooks are full of delicious ways to prepare this bounty, and most feature seductive pictures of a rustic old table beneath a spreading tree, covered with a brightly patterned cloth, and loaded with fresh vegetables, chilled wine, and crusty baguettes. It looks too good to be true.

But it isn’t. On our first visit to the South of France, Valerie and I were invited to a family gathering at a villa overlooking the Mediterranean in the tiny Provencal village of Les Lecques. The scene could have been clipped from any of the gorgeous photographs featured in the pages of glossy cookbooks. All the vegetables you can think of were piled on plates and bowls along with hard-boiled eggs, grilled fish, shrimp, and bowls of a creamy mayonnaise for dipping. But this wasn’t your mother’s mayonnaise or anything from a jar; this was pungent, garlicky “aioli,” the famous sauce that gives its name to the entire meal. The feast consisted of grazing on the bountiful vegetables, fish, and eggs … every mouthful laden with gobs of aioli… and all washed down with pitchers of chilled local rosé. Unforgettable.

In Southern Ontario, we can duplicate this feast in August and September with our own bounty, which, while not as long-lasting as the produce of the Mediterranean, is every bit as good in the relatively short harvest period.
Among the vegetables to put on the table, include green onions, sliced carrots, cucumbers, peppers, and celery, radishes, fennel, cauliflower, broccoli rosettes, cherry tomatoes, cooked beets, fingerling potatoes and green beans. A grilled white fish (Lake Erie perch would be especially good), grilled shrimp, and hard-boiled eggs round out the food… which serves mostly as a vehicle for the aioli, which should be served lavishly.

8 to 10 garlic cloves
2 egg yolks
1 ½ Cups good olive oil
About 2 Tbsp of lemon juice
Drop the garlic into a food processor at high speed and when it’s chopped, add the egg yolks and lemon juice. You can add a few green garlic stalks to make the aioli a nice pale green. Then drizzle the oil through the feed tube in a very thin stream until the mayonnaise emulsifies. Season with salt and lemon juice. (Mayonnaise will not emulsify in stormy weather, especially if there is lightning. If yours isn’t thickening, you can add commercial mayonnaise. Refrigerating the aioli will also help thicken it.)
Serves four… and make sure everyone likes garlic, because anyone in the vicinity who hasn’t had some aioli will be… um, uncomfortable.

This meal cries out for a chilled bottle of the superb Niagara rosé that is on offer at many our local wineries. I haven’t tried them all, but can recommend Featherstone, Calamus, Henry of Pelham, John Howard Cellars, and 13th Street. Cheers!