Explore aioloi, mayo’s upscale friend

You can serve lobster pieces with saffron aioli.
You can serve lobster pieces with saffron aioli. Los Angeles Times

Mayonnaise does not have to be pedestrian. Mayonnaise, like life, is what you make of it.

This issue is devoted to America’s love-hate relationship with the white stuff in the jar. Yours truly provides a defense for using it as a cooking agent, to keep food brown and crisp. It’s also a secret weapon for dynamite baking.

In the mayo magnum opus, I touch briefly on mayo’s upscale counterpart, aioli, but let’s explore it a little further here. Aioli, like mayo, is an emulsion of eggs and oil, though one with a garlic focus. It’s different depending on what part of the world you’re in, but here, the word typically denotes a flavored mayonnaise.

For a recent dinner party, I prepared Le Grand Aioli, a Mediterranean staple as magnifique as it sounds. It’s a laid-back presentation, perfect for spring, as the main event or something to set out at a gathering. Simply put, it’s an array of fresh produce accompanied by an aioli for dipping.

Technically, Le Grand Aioli should have six components, minimum. The platter often contains seafood such as shrimp or a light fish or crab. Since I was serving it for a large group before a main course that included shrimp, I kept it vegetarian.

On my spread: hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with sea salt, fingerling potatoes, asparagus, haricot vert (green beans, if you please), radishes, fennel and endive. I arranged it on some marble lazy Susans and wooden charcuterie boards, a little bowl of aioli on each. Casual, inviting, dippy.

The key here is to lightly blanche the beans and the asparagus about three minutes and then give them a quick ice bath so they stay crisp and beautifully hued. Boil the potatoes to tender and cut lengthwise. The endive, radish and fennel can be left raw. To achieve a not-so-hard center on the eggs, boil for eight minutes or less and submerge into an ice bath for two minutes.

About that aioli. I went with Food & Wine’s latest incarnation, which includes saffron. You can certainly leave the saffron out, as it’s a pretty luxurious addition. But it’s also kind of fun. Down with mayo haters, this is fancy!

Food & Wine suggests a sprinkle of piment d’Espelette, made from Basque region peppers, atop the aioli. If you can’t find it, hot paprika is a good stand-in.

Saffron Aioli

Yield: Serves 12

From Food & Wine.

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

3 large egg yolks

1 1/3 cups canola oil

2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Combine lemon juice and saffron. Let stand 15 minutes.

Using the flat side of a knife, mash the garlic to a paste along with a half teaspoon of salt on a cutting board. Place lemon juice mixture, garlic paste, 1 teaspoon salt, mustard and egg yolks in a food processor. With machine running, slowly drizzle canola oil and olive oil, alternating with splashes of cold water, until all oil is used.

Transfer to bowl and chill until ready to serve.