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Kind of perfect

Tomorrow is our first anniversary. I can hardly believe it. I don’t know what to say, except where on earth did the year go? That, and I love this man.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our anniversary. I like the idea of anniversaries. Early on, Brandon and I decided to accumulate as many of them as we could. At that point, we weren’t thinking in terms of wedding anniversaries, mind you. We weren’t even engaged yet. It’s just that we’re both quite fond of champagne, and we wanted to cultivate excuses for drinking it. This required a strategy: we would celebrate, we decided, as many occasions as we could get away with. For starters, we would celebrate the anniversary of the day he first e-mailed me, and of the day we first met. Then, as the months went by, we added more days to the list: the day we got engaged, the day he moved to Seattle, the day we got married, and so on. Happy marriages have been built on less, right? Champagne is as sturdy a foundation as any, we figured. Even if it does make me tipsy. Which is the opposite of sturdy. Anyway.

But the thing is, we made a mistake in our strategizing. We accidentally put two champagneable events on the same day. Our wedding date is, as it happens, also the birthday of this site.

We didn’t plan it that way, I swear. Cross my heart, even. In fact, we initially chose July 28 for our wedding day. A few friends who are particularly nerdy about Seattle weather had told us that, statistics-wise, the last few days of July are generally among the best - in other words, the least likely to be rainy - days of the year. So we settled on the 28th, a Saturday. But the caterer we wanted was booked for that day, so we bumped it back to Sunday. Which happened to be July 29. The date on which, in 2004, I started this site. The site that, in early 2005, inspired Brandon, then not even a twinkle in my eye, to send me an e-mail to say hello. For a mistake, it was kind of perfect.

At the time, I remember making a mental note of the coincidence, thinking, Oh, isn’t that AMAZING? Isnt that the CUTEST? We’re getting married on my blog birthday! Eee!

But then, as quickly as that thought had arrived, another one took its place. Molly, it said, what about the champagne strategy? THE CHAMPAGNE, damn it. Also, you are a colossal sap.

Needless to say, we’re still working out the champagne issue. I think we might have to have two bottles, which isn’t such a bad idea, right? If we have one today, maybe, and one tomorrow? (Being tipsy is only pleasant to a certain degree, I find.) But whatever we do, we will raise a brimming glass in your direction. I can’t thank you enough, every one of you, for being here. Thank you for your appetite, your generosity, and your immense kindness. After four years, this space feels like a second home to me, and I hope it feels the same, at least a little bit, to you.

P.S. All photographs in this post are by the lovely, lovely Michèle M. Waite.

P.P.S. I am going to Oklahoma on Thursday to spend some time with my mother and grandmother, so I won’t be posting next week. I’ll see you back here on August 11, or thereabouts.


The important parts

Hello again.

I sincerely hope that all our talk of chocolate chip cookies hasn’t left you in a sugar coma, because I come to you today with more sweets. Some of you are going to hate me for this, I know, but I had to. I didn’t have a choice. This past Saturday evening, a reader of this website sent me an e-mail with the subject line, “Looking for Good Pie Crust.” And get this: I happened to have an apricot tart sitting on my kitchen table at that very moment. I think this is what is sometimes called fate. Or happy coincidence. Or serendipity. Or synchronicity. Or all four.

Anyway, like I said, I didn’t have a choice. Also, I love apricot tarts.

I was introduced to this particular apricot tart a few summers ago. Actually, now that I think about it, it was three years ago this month. Brandon and I had met only a couple of months before, at the end of April. He was living in New York then, working part-time and going to graduate school, and I was in Seattle, working part-time and writing my Master’s thesis. That summer, we both chipped in toward a plane ticket, and he came to stay with me for five weeks. We hardly had any money, but my work schedule was flexible - a fact that almost, almost, made up for the lack of money - and we decided to drive to San Francisco for a week. We had family there to stay with, so we could do it on the cheap, and we could take the coast road, we decided, which was supposed to be gorgeous.

So we did. We threw our bags in the trunk and positioned a cooler of snacks on the back seat, and we drove. We ate tacos in the Mission and meringues at Tartine, Indian food in the East Bay and tomatoes on my aunt’s back deck. We also, as a splurge, had dinner one night at Zuni Café. I don’t remember many details of the meal, unfortunately, because I was very busy talking with my aunt during most of it - we two are talkers - and I was also quite intent on staring at the man across the table from me, this man who had amazing curls and who made my chest feel funny and tight and who, only three months before, I had not known existed. But I do remember one thing: the apricot tart. I always remember the important parts.

The Zuni apricot tart was a very simple affair. It was essentially a tart shell lined with sugared apricot halves and baked. There was no custard, no frangipane - nothing but apricot. If you look up the word “understatement,” I am pretty sure that, next to its definition, you will find an illustration of this tart. But it wasn’t the least bit boring. On the contrary, it was sweet and a little tangy, sticky at the corners and jammy in pockets, the fruit soft and the crust crumbly with butter. It was made with Royal Blenheim apricots, the menu gently boasted, and though they looked pretty average, their flavor was enormous: ripe, dense, almost rich. They tasted as though their essential apricotiness, or whatever you might call it, had been multiplied and concentrated by one of those fancy machines in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In other words, this was a delicious tart.

So when I saw some especially nice apricots at the farmers’ market last week, I decided to try to replicate it. I had seen a recipe for an apricot tart in The Zuni Café Cookbook, and it looked as simple as I had imagined it would. Mine weren’t Royal Blenheims, of course, but maybe, I thought, if I played my cards right, they would surprise me.

And lo and behold, they did. Which is why I am yammering on and on about this. That, and because one of you wants a good pie crust, and the recipe I’m about to give you includes one.

I ordinarily hang on every word that Judy Rodgers writes, but in the case of this tart, I decided to forgo her crust recipe. Pie and tart doughs, I have noticed, tend to be a very personal matter for cooks: each of us has one that we love, and we tend to want to stand by it. I know I do. Until recently, I swore by Martha Stewart’s pie dough recipe. I made that stuff for years. But then my friend Olaiya introduced me to hers, and it was very, very persuasive. It’s an all-butter crust, like Martha’s, but it differs a bit in the amounts, and it also includes a smidgen of apple cider vinegar, which helps to relax the gluten in the flour and keep the dough tender. Also, it just seems to work more easily, and more consistently, than Martha’s does. I am in love. (Sorry, Martha. We can still be friends!)

I’ve made this pie dough recipe a dozen times now, easy, and it is the one that I am using in my book, and I really can’t say enough good things about it. It’s buttery and impossibly flaky and has yet to let me down, and on several occasions, it has even inspired perfectly sated people to beg for seconds. I don’t know about you, but that’s what I look for in a pie dough. Top it with some ripe, fragrant apricots, a little sugar, and a bit of salt, and you’re in business, as they say. In the heat of the oven, the dough goes golden, crisp, and toasty, and the apricots release their juices to mingle with the sugar, forming a glossy, sweet-tart glaze that settles under and around them. Cut into wedges and dolloped with crème fraîche, it’s the closest you can get to serving summer on a dessert plate. And when you run out of chocolate chip cookies, that’s not a bad idea.

Apricot Tart
Adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook

Because this preparation is so simple, be sure to choose the very best apricots you can find. If you can, ask to taste them before you buy. There is little in this recipe to disguise their flaws, so if they are mealy, watery, tart, or otherwise lacking, this is not the best use for them.

This tart would also be delicious with Italian or French prune plums, those small, oblong, purple-skinned plums that come into season in late August and September. For those, you can use a little less sugar - about ¼ cup, rather than 1/3 cup.

For crust:
4 Tbsp. ice water, plus more as needed
¾ tsp. apple cider vinegar
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. sugar
¾ tsp. salt
9 Tbsp. (4 ½ oz.) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

For filling:
About 1 lb. small, fragrant, firm-ripe apricots
Heaping 1/3 cup sugar
3 pinches of salt

To prepare the crust:

In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine 4 Tbsp. ice water and the cider vinegar.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Pulse to blend. Add the butter, and pulse until the mixture resembles a coarse meal; there should be no pieces of butter bigger than a large pea. With the motor running, slowly add the water-vinegar mixture, processing just until moist clumps form. If you pick up a handful of the dough and squeeze it in your fist, it should hold together. If the dough seems a bit dry, add more ice water by the teaspoon, pulsing to incorporate. I sometimes find that 1 additional teaspoon is perfect.

Turn the dough out onto a wooden board or clean countertop, and gather it, massaging and pressing, until it just holds together. Shape it into a ball, and press it into a disk about 1 ½ inches thick. If the disk cracks a bit at the edges, don’t worry; just pinch the cracks together as well as you can. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and then press it a bit more, massaging away any cracks around the edges, allowing the constraint of the plastic wrap to help you form it into a smooth disk. Refrigerate the wrapped dough for at least 2 hours. (Dough can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 1 month. Thaw it in refrigerator overnight before using.) Before rolling it out, allow the dough to soften slightly at room temperature.

To assemble:

Set an oven rack to the middle position, and preheat the oven to 375°F.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a circle wide enough to fit a 9-inch removable-bottom tart pan. Transfer the dough gently into pan, and ease it into the corners and up the sides. Trim the edges to extend about ½ inch beyond the pan; then fold the overhang inward and press it against the side of the pan to reinforce the edge. Put the tart shell into the freezer while you prepare the fruit.

Cut the apricots in half, remove the pits, and then cut each half in half again. (In other words, the apricots should be quartered.) Put them in a wide bowl, and toss them gently with the sugar and salt. It might look like a lot of sugar, but don’t worry; it is balanced nicely by the salt and the acidity of the fruit. Remove the tart shell from the freezer and quickly arrange the fruit inside it, cut side up, in concentric circles. Scrape any sugar remaining in the bowl over the fruit.

Bake the tart until the crust is golden brown and the fruit is soft and relaxed, about 45 minutes or longer. It’s alright if some of the pieces of fruit are a little burnt (or, I suppose, caramelized) at their edges or tips. The sugar and juices from the fruit should form a loose glaze of sorts in the bottom of the shell and around the fruit, and as the tart cools, the glaze should thicken slightly.

Serve with crème fraîche or whipped cream.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Note: The crust portion of this recipe can easily be doubled to make a (double-crust) pie.


A bold statement

So, how many of you, after reading last week’s food section of The New York Times, made a batch of chocolate chip cookies? I can’t possibly be the only one susceptible to suggestion around here. Hands up, now. Don’t be shy.

Okay, so, for those of you who made the cookies, how many ate them at every meal for multiple days, to the near-complete exclusion of other foods? I ask not only because I did, but because these cookies deserve to be eaten that way, in extravagant quantities. I mean, just look at them. A mere glimpse makes me want to pour a big glass of iced coffee and do something immoderate.

The sad part is, I would have overlooked this recipe entirely if Brandon, in his diligent, good-citizen, news-reading way, hadn’t e-mailed me a link to the article last Wednesday. I was sitting at my desk, reading something far less important, when it landed in my inbox. There was no accompanying commentary - just the link - but I knew what he was saying. I promptly stood up, walked to the fridge, removed the requisite butter, and set it on the counter to soften, and that night, I made cookie dough. (This is, incidentally, part of a top secret strategy I am developing called Kill Him with Kindness and Cookies and Maybe He Will Clean His Closet Without You Having to Ask Him Again. Don’t tell Brandon. So far, it’s not working very well, but I still have hope.)

I won’t attempt to paraphrase the article here, because you really should read it. David Leite, its author, is a wonderful writer, and those of you who like to bake will find it very informative. (Plus, it quotes Shirley Corriher! I love Shirley Corriher.) What I will say about it, however, is that it adds up to a very fine, very fetching cookie. In fact, it is, without a doubt, the best chocolate chip cookie that I have ever made at home. It is also the best chocolate chip cookie that I have ever eaten. It scares me a little to make such a bold statement, but I have decided to do it anyway.

Leite’s recipe, which was adapted from Jacques Torres, produces a model specimen: big and plump and nubbly, with plenty of those endearing cracks and folds that form on the surface as the dough softens and spreads in the oven. The cookies are soft and chewy at the center, but their edges are nicely crisped, and then you’ve got their flavor, which develops over 36 hours (don’t skimp! it’s worth it!) of rest time that the dough gets before baking. The flavor is classic chocolate chip, of course, but it has an unusual depth and complexity and, for the clincher, a sprinkling of salt on top. You know how, in Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte writes “SOME PIG” over Wilbur’s pen? Well, we’ve been seeing a lot of spiders around the house lately, and these cookies are sufficiently good that I half-expect to see the words “SOME COOKIES” appear, written in spider silk, in one of the corners of our kitchen. They really are some cookies.

Before I shoo you away from your desk and into the kitchen to make a batch, I want to share a few thoughts about the recipe. David Leite clearly went to great pains to make it very specific and thorough, but I couldn’t help but make a few tweaks, mainly for convenience’s sake. First, I didn’t bother with the fancy chocolate disks or fèves that he calls for. I like nice chocolate as much as the next guy, but I had to draw the line on this one. I didn’t want to get in the car. Maybe next time, I’ll pick up the fancy kind, but for now, I will use my standard chocolate chip of choice, Ghirardelli 60%. I think it’s perfectly delicious.

Second, I didn’t use a mixture of cake and bread flours, as the recipe suggests. Leite’s article failed to explain why the use of two flours is important, and I don’t know, it just seemed like a fussy complication. I have no doubt that it probably does something, texture-wise, but I was willing to take a risk, so I skipped it. Instead, I used a local flour that we’ve been trying lately. It’s called Stone-Buhr Northwest-Grown All-Purpose Flour, and if you can find it, I highly recommend it. Otherwise, you might try your regular brand of all-purpose flour, or, as Leite recommends, a combination of cake and bread flours.

Lastly, after the dough had its 36 hours in the fridge, I let it soften a little bit at room temperature before I tried to scoop it. It was very hard when freshly chilled, but with about 30 minutes’ to one hour’s rest on the counter, it was more readily scoopable. Don’t let the dough get warm, though; you want to bake it while it’s still cool, and even tending toward cold. Updated on June 15, 2011: I have changed the way I do this. I now scoop the dough before chilling it. Much easier. See below.

Anyway, however you do it, MAKE THESE COOKIES. And then heed my warning: unless you have a large household, give at least some of them away to friends and next-door neighbors, or else you will eat yourself silly. In a good way. And a bad way. I took a few to our neighbor, gave three to Olaiya, and delivered a half dozen to our friends Ben and Bonnie, who live conveniently nearby. None of them complained, and in fact, Olaiya stopped by this morning to ask for more. Which, I think, means that I should make another batch.

P.S. You do know, right, that you can click on any photograph here and view in a larger size? I know that bigger can be better sometimes, especially when it comes to cookies.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from The New York Times, David Leite, and Jacques Torres

If you have a kitchen scale, I highly recommend using it here. This recipe is written in both volume and weight, but I chose to use the latter, so that I wouldn’t have to mess with measuring cups. It was unbelievably quick: just put a bowl on top of the scale, tare it to zero, and go.

2 cups minus 2 Tbsp. (8 ½ oz.) cake flour
1 2/3 cups (8 ½ oz.) bread flour
1 ¼ tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 ½ tsp. coarse salt, such as kosher
2 ½ sticks (1 ¼ cups; 10 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
1 ¼ cups (10 oz.) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. (8 oz.) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 ¼ pounds bittersweet chocolate chips or chunks, preferably about 60% cacao content, such as Ghirardelli
Sea salt, such as Maldon

Combine flours, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Whisk well; then set aside.

Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars until very light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the vanilla. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Reduce the mixer speed to low; then add dry ingredients, and mix until just combined. (Unless you have a plastic guard that sits around the rim of the bowl, this will make a big mess at first, with flour flying everywhere. I found that carefully holding a dish towel around the top of the bowl helped a lot.) Add the chocolate chips, and mix briefly to incorporate. Using a standard-size ice cream scoop – mine holds about 3 fluid ounces, or about 1/3 cup – scoop the dough onto a sheet pan or large platter, or anything that will hold about two dozen dough portions in a single layer. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and chill for 24 to 36 hours - and up to six days.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat.

Place six mounds of dough on the baking sheet, making sure to space them evenly. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt, and bake until golden brown but still soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then transfer the cookies onto the rack to cool a bit more.

Repeat with remaining dough.

Note: I may be the only person in the world who feels this way, but I like room-temperature chocolate chip cookies better than warm ones. (Yes, I fully expect to be burned at the stake for saying this.) When they’re warm, they taste too rich to me, and some of the nuances of their flavor get lost. I suggest that you try these cookies both ways and decide for yourself.

Yield: About 24 (5-inch) cookies.


Hot and sweet

I regret to inform you that we have now reached, it seems, the time of year when I can hardly motivate to cook a single thing. Uh oh.

Maybe you know the feeling? I hope so. For me, the problem is not so much the heat, although that’s certainly part of it. Here in Seattle, it only occasionally gets too hot for the stove, but when it does, it’s memorable. Last week, I was working on developing a recipe for pâté de campagne, and I can now say with a good deal of authority that pork fat is not at all pleasant to work with when the ambient temperature of your house is approximately 80 degrees. Also, though sweat is not a traditional ingredient in country pâté, mine contained a decent amount of it. It’s a good thing I went easy on the salt.

But heat aside, the main reason for my near-complete lack of desire to cook is that summer doesn’t want me to. Its best foods - all the fruits and vegetables at the market right now - want little in the way of preparation. They want to be left alone, allowed to do what they do. Today, for lunch, I ate tomatoes and mozzarella and olive oil, and for dessert, I had some raspberries. In just a minute, I might have some cold peanut butter on a spoon. For dinner, we’re going to make a salad, and I’m not sure what else. This is a little bit troubling, especially when I’m supposed to show up here with a recipe for you.

Luckily, our friends Matthew, Laurie, and Iris invited us to dinner on Saturday night, and Matthew, by some miracle, actually cooks in the summertime. He is a very good friend to have. He also, incidentally, writes an excellent blog and is a contributor to Gourmet.com. If you haven’t read him yet, do. For our dinner, he made a Thai green mango salad, gai lan in a brothy peanut-coconut sauce, mackerel with ginger and other aromatics that I ate too fast to identify, and rice. (For my part, I brought along some pâté, albeit not the one that I sweat into. Only the best for my friends!) Everything was delicious - this bite spicy, the next bite rich, the third one a little tangy - but I was especially smitten with the mango salad. It was cool and sour, hot and sweet, and utterly refreshing. Brandon declared that he wanted to eat it every day until the end of summer. So, before we left, I asked Matthew if he would share his recipe, and he generously agreed.

Aside from julienning the green, unripe mango, which can be a bit tricky at first, this salad is as easy as it gets. If you’re accustomed to doing any sort of Thai or Vietnamese cooking, you might even have some of the ingredients already on hand. Basically, you just toss julienned mango with scallions, bird’s eye chilis, and macadamia nuts. (This last ingredient is an unconventional tweak that Matthew invented - peanuts, I think, are the norm - but it’s absolutely delicious.) Then you make a traditional dressing of fish sauce and lime juice in equal parts, sweeten it with a modicum of sugar, and toss it into the mango mixture. It’s a bit monochromatic, as you can see in the photograph above, but it makes up for its lack of color with loads of flavor, which, the way I see it, is a perfectly fair trade. (Anyway, if you want to gussy it up, just serve it with a few shrimp curled on top; that’s very pretty.) We made it last night, and seeing as Brandon just came home from running errands with another green mango, we’re apparently making it again tomorrow. I cannot complain.

P.S. A number of you have written to inquire about the absence of my column from the August issue of Bon Appétit. I apologize for the scare! For a number of reasons, the August issue just had to be a bit shorter, that’s all. I’ll be back in the next one.

Green Mango Salad with Macadamia Nuts
Adapted from Matthew Amster-Burton

You can often find green, unripe mangoes at Asian grocery stores. Here in Seattle, we bought ours at Uwajimaya. Choose specimens whose skin has no (or few) wrinkles, and that feel hard as rocks. When you peel them, their flesh should be pale yellow - if it’s orange, Matthew warned me, they’re too ripe - and when you taste a piece, it should be firm and crunchy.

This salad scales up easily, if you want to serve more people. You could also try playing with other additional flavorings, such as Thai basil, cilantro, or dried shrimp. Every recipe for this salad seems to differ a bit, so I imagine it would be hard to go wrong.

For the salad:
2 green mangoes
2 scallions, white parts only, sliced very thinly
1 bird’s eye (also called Thai) chili, some seeds removed, sliced very thinly
1 small handful of macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped
Sautéed shrimp, optional

For the dressing:
2 Tbsp. Thai fish sauce
2 Tbsp. lime juice
1 Tbsp. sugar

Using a vegetable peeler, peel the green mangoes. At this point, you have a couple of options for how to cut them into thin strips. You can use use a mandoline fitted with the julienne attachment, for one, or you can do the following, which, once you get the hang of it, is pretty easy:

Set one peeled mango on a cutting board, oriented so that its pit runs horizontally like an equator and the stem end is closest to you. Using a sharp knife and steadying the mango carefully with one hand, make a cut down the center, running the length of the fruit. Let the knife glide all the way down to the pit. Next, make a series of similar cuts to the right of and parallel to this first one, each about 1/8th of an inch apart. (These instructions are for right-handed people; lefties will be more comfortable moving to the left.) As you get out toward the edge, where there is no pit, let the knife cut all the way through, and then set aside that piece of flesh; you will julienne it by hand in a minute. Then spin the mango around and make a series of cuts on the other side of the first one. When you’re finished, the mango should look a bit like you ran a comb very sternly down its length. Pick it up in one hand, and, with the other hand, use a vegetable peeler to shave it into strips. This works best if you start the peeler at the far end and, holding the fruit steady with the thumb of the peeling hand, pull the peeler toward you. Repeat until you reach the pit. Then flip the fruit over, make more slits on the other side, and peel again. Discard the pit, and repeat with the second mango. Then julienne the remaining pieces of flesh by hand.

Toss the mango with the scallions, chili, and macadamia nuts.

In a small bowl, whisk together the fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar. Toss with the mango mixture to taste.

If you’re not eating immediately, chill the salad for up to an hour or so, until you do. Top with sautéed shrimp, if you like.

Yield: About two servings, or enough to feed four as a small starter


Very well then

Apparently, I am a little bit fickle. Only three short months ago, almost to the day, I was singing the praises of homemade mayonnaise, and now here I am, about to offer you a recipe for basil aioli made by doctoring a jar of Best Foods. This might be a good time, I think, to call into service my favorite Walt Whitman quote:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I have eaten a lot of mayonnaise).

I am not usually a quote person, but I find that this one comes in handy in lots of different situations.

This past Saturday night, our friend Olaiya had a barbeque. The party was ostensibly to celebrate her new backyard - she moved a couple of months ago - and our newly arrived summer weather, but between you and me, I think it was just an excuse for icy drinks and corn on the cob. (Which I really can’t fault her for.) We all chipped in and brought six-packs of beer, and I made two batches of fresh mint ice cream, and once the sun went down, the tables were lit with tea lights in old jars. It was 85 degrees outside, and Olaiya wore a foxy little dress, and the night was so pretty that not even a stain on the tablecloth from spilled beer, or strawberry margarita, or whatever it was, could mar it.

Olaiya is a caterer, so she makes these sorts of things look maddeningly easy. For dinner, she made fresh salmon burgers with radishes and red onions, and she covered a platter with sliced tomatoes and slivered basil, and there was an enormous bowl of corn on the cob with butter and lime. For his part, Olaiya’s boyfriend John made some excellent margaritas, both regular and the aforementioned strawberry, and though I am a lightweight of almost comical proportions, somehow they didn’t even make me tipsy, which pleased me so much that I had to tell everyone how not-tipsy I was, which, in retrospect, probably means that I was tipsy. Either way, it was a gold star party all around. Also, when it came time to play Who Would You Rather, I managed to come up with the following doozy: Johnny Cash, or Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash? (Go ahead and take a minute to think about it. It’s tough.)

But the very best part of the evening was one of its smallest details: the basil aioli. It was the unofficial theme of the party - a benevolent sort of stealth weapon, I guess you could say, sneaking its way into everything. While we waited for the grill to heat, it served as a dip for tiny carrots, radishes, snap peas, and potato chips, and as a finishing topknot for deviled eggs. I spread some on the bun for my salmon burger, and it was delicious, too, on a slice of tomato or a bite of corn on the cob. (I even contemplated sneaking some into my bag to bring home, since it was already finding its way into everything, but I decided to be polite.) It was such a simple, subtle touch, but I couldn’t help thinking it was something that we all - you, me, everybody - should have in the arsenal.

So yesterday, I made Brandon teach me how to make it. He had made a big batch a couple of weeks earlier, for one of Olaiya’s catering gigs, and it wasn’t too hard to scale down, tasting and tweaking. Essentially, you make a slurry of olive oil, basil leaves, garlic, lemon, and salt - very much like pesto, minus the pine nuts and parmesan - and then stir it into your favorite mayonnaise.

Now, I am very partial to homemade mayonnaise. I like it so much, in fact, that I am inclined argue that it’s not even in the same species as store-bought. But sometimes I cannot be bothered. We were short on time this weekend, and our kitchen is currently very hot, so for the sake of instant gratification, and so that we wouldn’t kill each other, we used the commercial kind. (Anyway, when you’re making flavored mayonnaise, it often isn’t worth it to start from scratch, because all those soft, delicate nuances will be covered up anyway. It strikes me that this might be veering dangerously in the direction of Sandra Lee, but I think it’s perfectly fair.) Folded together with basil puree, the mayonnaise turned a pale shade of seafoam green, which looked impossibly elegant - almost Martha-esque! next up: topiaries! - on the end of a carrot. And it tasted just as you would imagine: cooling and creamy and, in a word, summery. I’m thinking burgers, here, people, and chicken salads, and grilled salmon, and tomato sandwiches, and BLTs. I’m thinking Fourth of July. I can’t wait.

Shortcut Basil Aioli

I used Best Foods – also sold as Hellman’s – mayonnaise for this recipe. It’s the brand I grew up with, and I think it has great flavor.

2 Tbsp. olive oil
¼ cup packed basil leaves
½ tsp. lemon juice
1 medium garlic clove, pressed
Pinch of salt
½ cup mayonnaise, either homemade or commercial

In the jar of a blender (or a small food processor), combine the olive oil, basil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt. Process until the mixture is smooth like pesto, pausing every now and then to scrape down the side of the blender jar with a small spatula or knife.

Put the mayonnaise in a small bowl. Add the basil mixture, and stir well to mix.

Serve as a dip for raw vegetables, spread onto sandwiches, folded into chicken salad, or dolloped on top of deviled eggs (minus the paprika and hot sauce, preferably).

Note: This recipe doubles very easily. However, don’t automatically double the amount of garlic and salt called for here; start with the quantities for a single batch, and then add more to taste.

Yield: a little more than ½ cup