In the context of a food lab, meanwhile, mayonnaise is recognized as an emulsion of oil and water, two substances that don’t normally mix. They are coaxed into forming a stable partnership with the help of an emulsifier, which, in the case of mayo, comes in the form of various molecules in the egg’s yolk. The resulting emulsion has a thick texture and a fleshy body that’s sturdy enough to stand in a glorious, three-dimensional dollop.
As has been demonstrated by the toned bodies of Just Mayo and others like it-including my favorite fake mayo, Vegenaise-it is possible to make a fantastic oil in water emulsion with pea and soy-based emulsifiers rather than yolk-based. These vegan emulsions are nearly as impressive is the ones formed with eggs. The one discernable shortcoming being the vegan emulsions need to be refrigerated in order to retain their form, while mayo, amazingly, can hold its form at room temperature.
In practice, mayonnaise is less about the specifications of the product, and more about a niche that needs to be filled. More than almost any other edible item, mayonnaise embodies lubricity, a quality that facilitates the chewing of food. Can you imagine trying to eat tuna salad without some mayo to lube it up and send it down smoothly? Plus, you need creamy stuff on your food, because…creamy stuff on food.
Yet despite its all-around awesomeness, mayo is humble, mild mannered, and doesn’t try to steal the show. It is literally the glue behind the glitter of whatever dish its in, quietly getting the job done, dollop by dollop, on the noodles, on the meat, and even in the soup.
There are some rare cases when there’s actually no need for mayo. With Middle Eastern food, for example, hummus fills the niche. Hummus isn’t an emulsion, doesn’t contain eggs, and isn’t usually very thick. But it’s got the creamy lubricity we need from mayo, and everything it touches-or better yet, everything smothered in its silky embrace- becomes more delicious.
Along these lines, in the mountains of Bahia, Brazil, a chef named Jeu made a vegan potato salad that was held together by a substance that she called carrot mayonnaise. Even the Hellmann’s lovers at the table couldn’t protest, so busy we all were at wolfing down this dish.
Jeu agreed to show me how its made. It’s much easier than samba dancing, that’s for sure.
Potato Salad with Carrot Mayonnaise
5 medium-sized carrots, chopped into rounds
1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup olive oil
Optional: 1 Tbsp. or so of herbs, such as oregano or thyme (omit if using herbs on the potato salad, as discussed below)
Steam carrots until soft. Let them cool to room temperature. Add garlic to a blender or food processor, along with salt, oil and herbs (if using). Blend, adding the carrot rounds, one by one, letting each round liquefy before adding the next. If it’s not making a smooth, moving vortex add more olive oil.
The resulting sauce, especially if left overnight in the fridge, has the core strength to stand tall, rather than puddle. There are emulsifiers in the garlic and carrots, and they are at work in carrot mayo, binding oil and water as best as they can.
This flavorful binding lubricity, added to potato salad, is a winning combination. Sitting on the dining hall bench of a commune, after pulling weeds and funky yoga moves all morning, we happily gobbled it down. But if you’re stuck in more of an uptown mode, perhaps looking to impress or one-up a dinner guest, I suggest serving this potato salad deconstructed, as an artful pile of roasted potatoes alongside a dollop of carrot mayo.
Alas, bathing a bunch of potato chunks in a yellow aura that makes everything look a bit out of focus isn’t necessarily the most aesthetic way to serve it. But by dipping the potatoes in it as you eat, like you would catsup with French fries, you can get the same flavor in prettier fashion.
Roasted potatoes, bronzed and seasoned, can stand alone on the plate or in your mouth, and can hold their own next to a bright dollop of carrot mayo. Toss in olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs. Roast them at 350 until chewy on the outside and soft on the inside. Plate the potatoes next to a sexy dollop of carrot mayo, and serve.