Agrestada v.1: Cooked lemon mayonnaise

Contrasts of flavor, color and texture are an integral part of Sephardic gastronomic tradition – of others, too, of course, though by no means all (where I live, the food is mostly mushy, bland and tending toward weirdness), and to varying degrees among them. One of our signatures is a sour sauce, agrestada, or agristada (from the Spanish root word agrio: sour).

Agrestada is an egg and lemon mixture that’s either blended right into a hot dish as a finishing touch, exactly as the Greeks do avgolemono (which means egg-lemon), or cooked separately to yield a luscious lemon mayonnaise. The light note – and that’s all it is supposed to be – of sourness, of piquancy, wakes up the taste buds with a pleasant, lemony tingle, not a shock.  It’s intended for specific dishes, to bring out the flavors it accompanies, not to compete with them, to create a ‘whole’ experience; a gastronomic yin and yang. Which means the lemon flavor should be easy to discern, but it shouldn’t twist up the mouth like a fistful of Sweet Tarts, or whack you – or the food it’s eaten with – senseless. For that we’ve got an annual bitter herb ritual at Passover, although in truth, the Sephardic version of ‘bitter’ herbs is no more dramatic than a piece of romaine lettuce. We say hold the horseradish. This is not to imply our food is bland. Hardly! It just tastes best when approached with a lighter hand. And yes, that is my very biased opinion. And that of my entire, rather large, Sephardic family.

Understanding this sensibility before you begin will make your work a lot easier and help you get the balance ‘just right’.  For one food you’ll want a more intense lemon presence but for another you can lighten up.  There’s no hard and fast rule, just that sensibility.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Agrestada v.1: Cooked lemon mayonnaise

  1. Love your description about overdoing it with the lemon sauce. Although I often cook Sephardic food, somehow I have never tried making agrestada before.

  2. Elyse

    Funny you posted this today. Last night I de-glazed the skillet of a vegetable/chicken stir-fry with a little lemon juice before adding tamari (instead of using chicken stock as per usual), and Don — who does not particularly like lemon — said it was the best stir-fry I’d ever made…

  3. Once again, a masterful Jewish adaptation to kosher laws. This sauce produces a rich, thickening effect in soups and stews that is completely parve, where cream, butter or animal fat would have been used in the non-kosher version. And, like a lot of Sephardic culinary innovations, I often find agrestada, or some form of it, very far afield from specifically “Jewish” contexts.

    • Janet Amateau

      Your observation about agrestada is right on target, Mark. Many Jewish classics are enjoyed outside of the context of our culture; Jewish cooks have made many, many creative contributions to world gastronomy. As for history, except for eras when race laws were in place, people of different faiths broke bread together without giving it a second thought, and shared one another’s tastes and techniques. And why not? Absent the political context, good food is good food!

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