By Sara Bir
Gelatin is so badly maligned a substance that people commonly think of it as a wiggling edible cartoon rather than actual food. This is a sorry state, for gelatin began its life as aspic, a labor-intensive delicacy.
Back in the day, chefs made aspic by simmering gelatin-rich cuts of meat (such as calves' feet and veal bones) for hours and hours before clarifying the mixture with egg whites or ground lean meat. This procedure yielded a liquid that, when chilled, set into a glossy, glistening mass. Aspic embedded with exactingly placed garnishes often coated cold pieces of poached or roasted meats, game or fish. Called chaufroid ("hot-cold") for the manner in which they were served, such dishes were often part of banquets for upper classes and royalty, and even today most old-school chefs know how to knock out an aspic to coat a terrine.
The time, energy and product required to produce even a small volume of aspic made it a food reserved for special guests and events. In the 1800s, women were able to purchase sheets of gelatin, but they needed to be clarified before use. In 1845, the industrialist Peter Cooper obtained the first patent for a gelatin dessert, but he didn't market it much. Then, in 1890, Charles Knox developed the world's first pregranulated gelatin, an event that, according to the Kraft company, "began to revolutionize gel cookery."
Jello, however, didn't make it on the scene until 1897, when Pearle B. Wait developed a fruit-flavored version of Cooper's gelatin. Wait's wife named the innovation "Jell-O," and its first flavors were strawberry, raspberry, orange and lemon.
Today we see gelatin salads as kitschy relics with dubious culinary value, but in their heyday, they synthesized elegance and sophistication with ease of preparation. And they still can; while indeed kitschy, a carefully composed gelatin salad can be attractive, refreshing and charming. This odd hybrid of our American culinary heritage is dying off, but we don't have to let it go without a fight.
Don't let the double-entendre of the name mislead you! Tomato aspic, perhaps the most enduring of once-popular savory jelled salads, is a refreshing classic that makes prefect light luncheon fare on a hot summer afternoon--imagine a virgin Bloody Mary in gelatin form. In her recent book Lost Recipes, Marion Cunningham suggests serving tomato aspic with soda crackers and deviled eggs. I concur. This particular recipe comes from Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, circa 1960.
4 c. tomato juice
1/3 c. roughly chopped onion
1/3 c. roughly chopped celery, with leaves
2 tbsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 small bay leaves
4 whole cloves
2 tbsp. (2 envelopes) unflavored gelatin
3 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
Place the 2 cups of tomato juice in a large bowl and sprinkle with the gelatin granules. Set aside to let the gelatin swell ("bloom"). Meanwhile, place the remaining 2 cups of tomato juice in a small saucepan with the onion, celery, brown sugar, salt, bay leaves and cloves. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for five minutes. Strain the mixture into the bloomed gelatin, discarding the solids. Stir the mixture until the gelatin is dissolved. Pour into a 5-cup mold and chill, preferably overnight, until set. Makes about 8 servings.
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From the August 3-9, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.