Mayo Clinic

I had a request for fish and chips, which I make occasionally, and since the day was dreary and cold fried food seemed a fitting repast. I don’t do this sort of thing often, since frying is a pain in my ass and makes a big mess (in addition to being unhealthy). On the plus side, it tastes good and best of all it allows me to pour oil all over my table when I take pictures of the finished dinner. You know, for ambiance.

The fish, cod, was just dredged in seasoned flour before frying. I didn’t feel like dealing with batter, and sometimes it’s nice to have a more delicate crust. The chips, sweet potatoes, got the requisite double frying and turned out pretty perfectly, though they took their time; they contain a lot of water and need more time for both stages of frying than regular potatoes do. The cauliflower got a good roasting in the oven with olive oil and a little duck fat, and I made tartar sauce. This is the important part.

Many many people are intimidated by the thought of making mayonnaise. I understand; if done improperly, it can break, and that only needs to happen once in order for the shame of failure to attend any subsequent urges in that direction. This happened to my wife, in fact, and I don’t think she’s tried it again even though she loves the homemade stuff a whole lot. She just waits for me to do it, and tells me to make fish and chips so I will.

There are about three things you need to do in order for your mayo to work every time, and one of them is the key to non-breaking goodness. That one thing is water, in some form or other, in addition to your egg yolk. Most mayonnaises break because there’s not enough water for the egg yolk to form a stable emulsion with the copious oil you’re pouring in. I usually use vinegar; lemon is obviously a popular choice, but lime can be great as well. If you want an extra mild version, use a couple tablespoons of water. But acidity makes it better. Whatever the form, that extra splash of water means that all those fat molecules you’re about to add have enough dance partners to emulsify and thicken your mayo to a redoubtable stiffness. Besides vinegar, I used some brine from fermenting Espelette peppers in this one for a nice subtle heat.

Mustard contains lecithin, a powerful emulsifier, so a teaspoon or so helps a lot. Garlic is always good, and also helps emulsify. I use the food processor, but a blender works, if noisily, and you can whisk by hand as well. The other main thing is to add the oil in a spaghetti-thin stream, especially at the outset. I like olive oil; it’s better for you and has a wonderful flavor. Shitty oil makes shitty mayonnaise. An egg yolk can handle about a cup of oil. Depending on its intended use, it’s fun to tweak your oil mixture a bit: a bit of sesame, or mustard, or walnut, or pumpkin seed oil can tilt the flavor any which way. Mixtures are nice: a base of olive, for example, with some bacon fat mixed in is not the worst combination in the world.

I put an egg yolk, a spoon of mustard, a glug of vinegar, a fat pinch of salt, and a twist of peeper in the bowl of the food processor, along with any other custom flavorings like preserved lemon, garlic (raw or roasted), herbs, spices, jalapeños, whatever you like.

Some combinations that work well:

  • Curry powder (grind your own for extra credit) with mustard oil and fresh turmeric: Your chicken salad will become a Bollywood musical.
  • Preserved lemon with olive brine and harissa: Lamb sandwiches that fuck your mouth.
  • Sesame oil with scallions and ginger: Tuna’s BFF.
  • Gochujang and kimchi brine: A roast beef and kimchi sandwich you will not believe.
  • Cilantro, lime, and chilies: mix it with a little sour cream and finish your tacos with it.
  • Garlic and basil: Every Italian sub ever.
  • Sherry vinegar, Espelette pepper, and saffron with rendered jamón fat: Dunk grilled shellfish in it and be transported to sunny Spain.

Etcetera ad infinitum.

Again, the key is in that vinegar or citrus juice. If you’re nervous, add a tablespoon or two of water to be safe. Measure out a cup of oil(s) into a pitcher with a spout. Then start the thing, dribbling the oil in super gently—spaghetti-thin, remember—until you see the viscosity change and thicken. The liquid will become more of a goop, and begin lapping at the sides of the vessel. At this point you can increase the flow rate of the oil if you like. Once the oil is gone, stop the blade, open it up, and spatulate the mayo thoroughly around to get at the layer of oil that will be hiding under your blade. Then pulse it a few more times to fully incorporate it. And you’re done. Be happy; you just mastered one of the most vivid examples of how much better homemade food is than store bought.

Once you have your mayo all made, tartar sauce is as simple as folding in chopped capers, cornichons, scallions, pickled jalapeños, parsley and a little extra lemon juice (or kimchi brine, in this case). Dunk the fried fish, the crisp sweet potatoes, or the chewy, earthy-sweet cauliflower in it and you’re in business.

If you’re still apprehensive remember that the stakes are pretty low. The very worst thing that could happen is that you’ll fuck it up. You can bring it back—start over with another egg yolk and add your broken mess slowly back to it—or you can just clean out the appliance and try again from scratch. Get it right once, though, and you’ll never go back. One batch a week and you’ll be set for sandwiches, sauces, deviled eggs, dips (if I recall correctly there’s some sort of sporting event coming up soon) and even busting out some rouille for that bouillabaisse you’ve been craving. Make mayonnaise.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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