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Olive oil, and a very grand aioli (Recipe: roasted fennel with potatoes and onions {vegan, gluten-free})


Last weekend, in a cooking class in my home kitchen, ten students worked together to produce a Grand Aioli, a typical harvest feast held in villages throughout Provence.

I know what you're thinking.

A French harvest festival. In the middle of May.

In Rhode Island.

Oui, oui!

In Provence, traditionally, the farmers bring their vegetables, the bakers contribute bread, the hunters might bring rabbit, the fishermen bring... well, you know. And the women of the village make the aioli, the garlic mayonnaise that is the raison d'etre for the entire meal. And there is wine, and singing and dancing.

In northwest Rhode Island, the farm stand and supermarket provided most of the food. Bread came from a local artisan bakery, fish from the fishmonger, and herbs from my garden: beautiful chives, thyme and lemon thyme, tarragon and mint. There was music, but no dancing; it was too early in the morning for wine, and maybe for dancing, too.

Ted built a fire in the fire pit and we cooked our fish on a giant paella pan suspended over the ashes. And, at the kitchen table, everyone took a turn pounding the aioli in two stone mortars; it took almost forty-five minutes to incorporate all of the olive oil, drop by drop.

Aioli in the mortar

On the platters, along with sliced red and yellow peppers, chunks of tomato and lemons, and chives from the herb garden, we arranged:

  • Potatoes, fennel, baby zucchini and red onion, roasted in salt, pepper and olive oil
  • Chick peas, sautéed in olive oil, garlic, bay leaf and herbs
  • Salmon and cod, rubbed with olive oil, salt and pepper, cooked over a fire pit
  • Chicken, seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil, cooked on the grill
  • Ditto asparagus, cooked on the grill
  • Mussels, steamed in white wine, shallots, garlic, parsley, and a little bit of olive oil
  • Broccoli and green beans, blanched, tossed with some salt, pepper and olive oil

Olive oil. The common denominator.

Oils in the pantry

When I was growing up, my mother never cooked with olive oil -- we were strictly a vegetable oil, margarine and chicken fat family -- but in my kitchen, olive oil is most often the cooking oil of choice.

Nothing fancy, no extra virginity required. Just plain old olive oil.

For dressing salads, or when I want to add a fruity finish to a dish (i.e., the oil isn't going to be cooked, or will be heated only briefly), I use the best extra virgin oil I can afford, and I keep several varieties in the pantry.

For cooking or sautéing, I use blended olive oil, which has a higher smoke point (438°F) than extra virgin (375°F). Just as you needn't use your best wine for a long-cooking stew, you don't need the most expensive olive oil for cooking.

What's the difference between the different grades of olive oil? I've compiled this list from various sources, including the International Olive Oil Council:

  • Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of the fruit of the olive tree, using solely mechanical or other physical means in conditions, particularly thermal conditions, which do not alter the oil in any way. It has not undergone any treatment other than washing, decanting, centrifuging and filtering. It must have less than 1% acidity. Most expensive; best for salads and drizzling on finished dishes.
  • Virgin olive oil, made in the same way as extra virgin, has an acidity less than 2%, and has a good taste. There can be no refined oil in virgin olive oil. Good for cooking, and often good enough for salad dressings, in a pinch.
  • Olive oil is a blend of virgin oil and refined virgin oil, containing at most 1% acidity. Mild flavor; great for cooking, but makes a mediocre salad dressing.
  • Refined olive oil, also called pure oil, is a lesser grade than virgin. No real good use for this, except as part of a blend.

Olive oil draws its flavor and color from the particular variety of olives pressed, and from the terroir. Greek, French, Italian, Spanish and California olive oils reflect the quality of the soil, air and water of each region. Some olive oils are bright green and grassy, others are spicy and fruity. 

Taste to find oils that appeal to you, and keep several in your pantry, for ratatouille, lemon-olive oil ice cream, olive oil tart crust, and linguine with garlic and olive oil. Store olive oil in a cool, dark part of your cupboard; it should last for at least two years.

For cooking, I love Trader Joe's olive oil (only $6.99 per liter; TJ's also sells extra virgin that looks almost identical, so be sure to check the label). My current favorite extra virgin is Nuñez de Prado, a lovely Spanish artisan oil that's organic, mild and a bit fruity.

What's your favorite olive oil?

Roasted fennel with potatoes and onions

A few ingredients simply prepared, this dish is the essence of Provence -- and a perfect companion to aioli or grilled chicken or lamb. Serves 6-8 as a side dish.


2 fennel bulbs, trimmed quartered, cores removed
2 medium red onions, peeled and quartered
2 lbs baby red-skinned new potatoes or Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered
2-3 zucchini, cut into 3/4-inch chunks
8 oz large black pitted canned olives
Olive oil, a few tablespoons
Coarse sea salt and fresh black pepper


Preheat oven to 425°F. In a large roasting pan (I use a nonstick heavy roaster), combine all vegetables. Add olive oil, salt and pepper, and toss with your hands to make sure all of the vegetables are coated with oil. Roast for 40 minutes, stirring once during that time, until potatoes are cooked through and crusty on at least one surface. Serve hot or at room temperature.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

Also in The Perfect Pantry:

Crusty roasted potatoes
Linguine with tomato-olive sauce
Pasta puttanesca

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Lydia, this is the type of feast I so love. It's a perfect way to celebrate food and meet with friends and people. I wish I was there too! But thanks for sharing some of it with us. The food and the aioli sounds - GRAND!

Lydia, that fennel sounds divine. I'm headed to France this week and the sights and sounds of this post have me ready to dig in!

What a great tradition! The food sounds amazing! Olive Oil is essential...thanks for the informative and interesting post!

Speaking of oils...ever heard of Sachi Inchi oil? I have been meaning to get together a post on it, your oil post reminds me!

I couldn't live without olive oil. It's definitely one of my "desert island" foods :-) I've never made aioli in my mortar & pestle, and now I think I'm glad I've never tried. I had no idea it took so long!

Yum, Yum to aioli! I have an issue making it because I was not patient enough. I guess it needs to be a two-person team !

No wonder it's called the Grand Aioli!This sounds like a wonderful feast!

Thanks for the run-down on the different grades of olive oil... I only knew about the first and the last.

I tend to prefer the fruity olive oils, though I am by no means an afficienado. The 365/whole foods brand works fine for me for the extra virgin variety.

We're an olive oil family too, Lydia! My gosh that recipe sounds divine!

Oh what a feast to make my heart sing!
Thanks for all the run down on olive oil. It is the major work horse in my kitchen in one form or another.
Love this fennel!
Aioli . . . well it's close to heaven!

Wow...I don't think I should have opened this around lunchtime. My sandwich just won't cut it. Fennel? Yum!!!

This is the kind of meal that your students will remember forever! Perfect food and company, the color of the aioli gorgeous...And the fennel recipe too. I think a very inspired idea-

I adore everything about this post and only wish I could have been there to help create, celebrate and enjoy this harvest feast. What fun you must have had!

I have no excuse not to be in one of your classes....I'm in RI for goodness sake! I must remedy that!

Wow! That picture of the finished platter is marvelous. I want to make that for my next party. I wish I could come to your class!!

Great interview! Thanks for the link.

Great interview, and great post here too! Love the olive oil into!

That platter of food makes me want to dance, as does the rich gold color of the aioli! I must confess to being a bit of a extra virgin olive oil addict.

Meeta, you are so right -- this is a great way to entertain with friends, especially if you can get them to help make the aioli in the traditional way. Wish you were here, too.

Marilyn, have a wonderful trip to France. I am jealous!

Ginny, this is actually the sixth Grand Aioli I've hosted, and each time has been a wonderful celebration. Sometimes more people, sometimes fewer, but always fun.

Gretchen, what on earth is Sachi Inchi oil? I'll watch for your post on that one -- I love to learn about new ingredients.

Ann, olive oil was #1 on the "desert island" list I published a few weeks ago. It shows that as a society we're getting healthier, I think.

Veron, it helps to have a second pair of hands, and a glass of wine by your side...

Julia, a couple of years ago, Alejandro + Martin, an olive oil distributor sadly out of business now, put together a four-oil sampler that was a great way to taste and discover the flavor profiles that work with different types of foods. I always have more than one olive oil on hand -- sometimes including the 365 brand from Whole Foods.

Ivonne, thanks -- roasted fennel is heavenly.

MyKitchen, we always have such a wonderful time putting together the large platters of foods, knowing everything is designed to hold up the luscious aioli.

Chris, that's how I feel when I read your pastry posts first thing in the morning!

Callipygia, the students definitely enjoyed this class -- it was completely participatory, and we did it all without benefit of any wine at all.

Sandie, it would have been so much fun to have you here.

Lisa, please do -- I'm teaching two tagine classes for RISD in October.

Sher, a grand aioli (even if it's a small one) makes a wonderful "theme" for a party in the summer, especially when there are wonderful veggies at the farmers' markets.

Aimee, thank you. And thanks to Marilyn at Simmer Till Done for asking to interview me.

Kalyn, many thanks.

TW, there are worse addictions than olive oil! I love the process of aioli-making, watching the transformation from oil to emulsion, and from dark color to a light golden hue. It's always a bit like magic.

Oh Yummy, I love the simplicity of roasted vegetables! I always toss mine with a little Herbs de Provence, it adds a wonderful taste and fragrance! Wish I lived closer so I could come over and take a cooking class!

Your post made me teary eyed...but in a good way, remembering the fmily feasts of my childhood! Aioli was my favorite gathering of all.

Oh, that was a work of art, almost too good to eat. I normally can't abide olive oil mayonnaise, with just this exception. We very often have this mayo for fish and chips, all homemade of course.

My favourite oil? Can't split it between walnut and hazelnut oils.

Fabulous post Lydia.

Well, I don't know about bringing over a rabbit or a whole fish, but I can certainly bring my appetite the next time you decide to hold one of these Aioli feasts! Neat post. And, like you, I prefer not to cook with extra virginity. It just burns up too quickly. :-)

Adore the simplicity of this feast. And love fennel that's been in the oven...usually I use it with sliced onions as a bed for my roast chicken, letting it catch all the dripping loveliness.


hahah i love that idea. what fun!! looks and sounds delicious!!!

Jason, herbes de Provence would make a good flavoring for many of the components of the grand aioli. Wish you could take a class here; I'm sure you'd have a great time.

Tartelette, your comment warms my heart. I think our grand aioli had great spirit.

Neil, sometimes I think the mayonnaise is there just to hold the garlic!

George, thank you.

Ms. Glaze, I can see that I'll have to organize a super-grand aioli so we can all feast together!

Jasmine, I love the idea of using fennel as a base in the roasting pan. Slow-roasted fennel is my favorite -- so sweet.

Aria, wish you could have been here.

Interesting harvest feast - it is like potluck. Just that, everyone brings their ingredient and together, put up a feast. I like the idea. :)

I wish I could come to your class!!! Great food, friendly instructor. Btw, I'd go crazy for dipping this aioli with potato.

I attended a village aoili compeitition in France one summer and it was a very serious event - with much heartache over the winning entry.
Will be trying this out at home - inspired by your post.

The feast (and accompanying photo) sounds like a lot of fun and like a great time. And kudos on making the aoili!

Also, that fennel sounds delicious

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