I have disliked mayonnaise for as long as I can remember. It's even possible I was born hating it. My whole life I've recoiled from its wobbly texture, its eggy aroma, its mysterious ability to turn the simplest sandwich into a mess of goo. Oooh, just thinking about it is making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Yuck, people. Yuck. I literally just shivered.
As I grew older and got over a lot of the dislikes of my childhood (Brussels sprouts, mustard, parsley and oysters, all of which I adore fiercely now), mayonnaise remained the lone cowboy on the deserted plain of my food phobias. I even found a way to like cilantro, which for so long had reminded me of soap, at best, and rat poison, at worst. But mayonnaise would not budge.
The frustrating thing was that so many people whose taste in food I adore and revere seemed to love the stuff. Layered in tomato sandwiches, dolloped on top of a hard-boiled egg, set out for dragging a piece of cold cooked crab through; why, mayonnaise, when written about like that, did seem like it could be manna from heaven. Why, then, did it repulse me so?
A few years ago, when I was still editing cookbooks at the publishing house I used to work at, we got a proposal in from a woman named Andrea Reusing, the chef and owner of a restaurant called Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The restaurant specialized in a fusion of Asian cooking with local ingredients and there was a substantial amount of buzz surrounding the project. We were very interested in buying the book, but ultimately lost out to a publisher who bid more money than we did. It's frustrating when it happens, but it's part of the publishing life. I put the book out of my mind and got back to work.
A few months ago, that publisher sent me a copy of the book. As I flipped through the pages, I felt a small stab of disappointment. Despite the stunning photography (by a master, John Kernick) and what looked like good food, the design felt a little soulless to me. All those lower-case chapter and recipe titles and color blocks. (This is the curse of the cookbook editor; it's like being a film editor, you can never again look at another movie without thinking of what's happening just outside the frame.) I thought of all the ways "our" designers would have made the book sing and then I put the book on my coffee table and forgot about it.
But last week, I picked it up again for bedtime reading. I live alone for five days a week now, and the only time someone's around to get me to turn the light off so he can go to bed already is on the weekend. I slid into bed with the book in my hands, turned to the first page and started to read. And before I knew it, an hour had passed.
I read the book from cover to cover that night, falling in love with the world that Andrea writes about. She may be the chef of a high-end restaurant, but this book feels deeply, deeply personal. There are no complicated, cheffy dishes between the covers here. The recipes are easy and approachable, but the flavors that Andrea combines feel wonderfully fresh and new. I know you think you've heard this before, but, here, let me give you a few examples and you'll see what I mean.
She puts soy sauce on asparagus, cardamom on spinach and sorghum on sweet potatoes. She blends dried elderflowers into freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, coats fried chicken in rye breadcrumbs and banishes the tired old carrot-ginger soup once and for all with her carrot soup made with toasted curry and pistachios. There are pickled sour cherries and hot tomato relishes and salt-marinated cucumbers alongside pot roast and grilled mackerel and rice grits. I stopped marking which pages I wanted to cook from because, frankly, there were too many.
But aside from the recipes, the book is a beautifully written ode to the bounty, diversity and history of North Carolina small-scale farmers and Southern foodways. Essays about her favorite fish market in Carrboro, for example, or the man who supplies her restaurant with a wide array of mushrooms from his home garden or the couple who run the Chapel Hill Creamery, making a mozzarella so delicate it "barely holds together until dinner", enrich the book immeasurably and cast a spell on the reader, making you long for a life in a region that is rediscovering its agrarian roots so thoroughly that it's become second-nature for greenmarkets to offer not just heirloom tomatoes (Pruden's Purple, Hillbilly Flame, Arkansas Traveler!) and apples (Dula Beauty, Striped July, Bald Mountain!) but squash (Jumbo Pink Banana, Jarrahdale, Old Timey Pie Pumpkin!), melons (Emerald Gem, Pride of Wisconsin, Sugar Baby!) and sweet potates, too (O'Henry, Beauregard, Covington!).
Reading Cooking in the Moment made me want to start planting my own vegetables, made me mourn how far behind Germany is in all ways to the American local food movement and made me want to get into the kitchen all at once.
And (did you wonder if I was ever going to get back to the mayo?) it made me fall hook, line and sinker for homemade garlic-anchovy mayonnaise, which I whipped up in two minutes and have proceeded to eat every day since.
All you need, says Andrea, is a jar and an immersion blender. Which charms me, lazy bones that I am. You just buzz egg yolks with salt, an anchovy fillet, some minced garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice in the jar with the immersion blender before slowly drizzling in neutral-flavored oil and a bit of olive oil for flavor until you've got a few inches of creamy, palest yellow mayonnaise and your five-year-old self's mind is blown at the prospect that you are about to put this stuff in your mouth and eagerly at that.
Creamy, savory, garlic-anchovy mayonnaise, it turns out, tastes fabulous with cold roast chicken. So fabulous I ate it for lunch two days in a row. Then, when the chicken was gone, I made myself - finally! at 33! - the iconic tomato sandwich with white bread, sliced tomatoes, a healthy sprinkling of salt and more of that mayo. It was, indeed, as delicious as everyone says. The anchovy, in case you're wondering, disappears entirely into the mayo, leaving behind not a trace of fishiness. I promise. Cross my heart.
Now I'm almost down to the bottom of the bowl and I'm frantically trying to come up with reasons why I shouldn't make another batch. So far, they're all terrible.
Cooking in the Moment is incredibly inspiring, not just in terms of cooking but also in terms of its spirit. Andrea's reverence for the people growing the food she serves to her customers and to her family is infectious. It will make you want to mail-order chickens from a Kansas chicken farmer, gather your children around to help churn fresh ice cream out of fresh strawberries, buttermilk and cream (and then watch them eat it directly out of the churn) and then book a flight to Chapel Hill so you, too, can be fed by the woman who makes Indian lime pickle with citrus from Plaquemines Parish and serves it with a chickpea purée.
Andrea is that rare breed of chef whose talent for lyrical writing is as developed as her pitch-perfect taste for food and her ability to seize everyday moments and find the divine within them. Her soulful, richly textured book is a gift, for readers, for cooks and for everyone in between.
Makes about 1/2 cup
1 egg yolk
1 garlic clove, minced
1 anchovy fillet
1/3 to 1/2 cup of neutral vegetable oil
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1. Put the yolk in a wide-mouth jar and pulse for about 30 seconds with an immersion blender. Add a good pinch of salt, as much minced garlic as you'd like (I used about half a clove, which made for a pretty mild mayo), the anchovy and a big squeeze of lemon juice. Pulse again. While pulsing, slowly drizzle in the oil until the mixture is emulsified and creamy. Taste for salt and thin with a little water if necessary.