Monday, November 16, 2009

James Beard Did Me Wrong

A couple of nights ago I picked out some birthday cards at a bookstore, and then browsed the discounted titles. I found a copy of Beard on Food tucked in amongst the Food Network cookbooks, and for $6, couldn't leave it behind.

James Beard is, per the subtitle to this work of collected columns, "the dean of American cooking." I've read about him here and there, but this is the first time I've dug in.

His writing's inviting and accessible, and his familiarity with the delights of Maryland and DC instantly ingratiated him to me. So when Cam and I picked up some beautiful fresh cod on the way home from a weekend on the Shenandoah River, we turned to Beard for inspiration. We settled on his method for poaching fish, and chose his garlic aioli recipe to accompany the fish and broccoli.

Beard recommends a "simple court bouillon" for poaching -- white wine, water, parsley, lemon, onion, cloves, salt, pepper, bay leaf and thyme, simmered for 20-30 minutes. Once strained, it makes a fragrant bath for the fish, which was cleanly delicious.

The aioli, however, was a whole 'nother story. It seemed so simple. Egg yolks processed with garlic and salt and a long, fine stream of olive oil. Et voila, a creamy white sauce. With a cup and a half of oil, I knew it'd make a ton, but I figured it'd be good on sandwiches.

I'm not sure if the oil never emulsified or if Beard's proportions were just way out of whack, but WHOA. This did not work. We ended up with garlic oil, rounded slightly by the egg yolks. I poked around on the interwebs, and it seems like this is possibly what I was supposed to end up with, but it's not at all what I had in mind. We drizzled the garlicky oil on the broccoli and fish, and it was good, but I just wasn't comfortable keeping it.

And I couldn't leave well enough alone, either, so I researched how to resuscitate an un-emulsified aioli. Two more egg yolks (plus the one I accidentally lost to the garbage disposal), whipped anew, then another long slow dribble of the oily eggy garlicky stuff.

It still didn't work. And now it's in the garbage. So, James Beard, you're on probation. Your fish was delicious and your oxtails sound heavenly, but that aioli was not my cup of viscous, vibrantly yellow tea. Onward.


SaintTigerlily said...

Oh NO! That isn't the post title though.

emma discovery said...

Ha, thanks. And yeah, I felt really let down by Beard! I love the book, and the simplicity of the recipes, so I'm not giving up, but...

cwg said...

The one time I tried to make mayo from scratch (which is what aioli is, plus garlic), it was also a complete disaster. And I used either Alice Waters or Martha Stewart - can't remember now. I've really no desire to try again because it was so utterly disgusting.

You should get Beard on Bread, though - great recipes. Plus, I love the anagram-y title. (It always confused me as a kid, and I thought for years it was Bread on Bread.)

emma discovery said...

Love that - Bread on Bread, of course! And it's certainly where I'll head when that particular bug bites me...

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