Mention gelatin and most people think of Jell-O. But for an easy-to-cook, light and healthful dish, think "aspic" and conjure visions of a savory molded salad or soup. What better time than summer to serve food so cooling and refreshing?
To make a savory aspic, use unflavored gelatin (an animal product produced from the bones and tendons of beef). Because gelatin itself is colorless, odorless, tasteless and has little food value, it's a good idea to boost its flavor and nutritional profile by using homemade soups and liquid salads (such as gazpacho) for the aspic base.
You can make aspic by simmering gelatin-rich foods such as calves feet, veal knuckles, poultry bones or fish trimmings with seasonings, which is what my mother used to do. In fact, one of her specialties was an Old Country dish: calves-foot jelly made with lots of garlic and eaten with hot mustard and vinegar.
But these old-fashioned aspics do take time. More quickly prepared are aspics produced by adding powdered gelatin to homemade or good-quality canned beef, chicken or fish broth. Squirt in a few enlivening drops of sherry, Madeira, port wine, brandy or lemon juice or add a pinch of fresh herbs.
Also delicious are aspics made from wine, brandy or even water flavored with intense fresh herbs such as dill, rosemary or basil. Throw in some vegetables, cooked shrimp, crab meat, scallops, flaked whitefish, or chicken slices for texture. And if you want the chunks of vegetables or meat to swim rather than sink, wait until the gelatin partially sets before adding them.
Cooks in a hurry can speed up jelling by pouring the aspic into a chilled mold rinsed with cold water. Place the mold in a bowl of ice water, stir until the liquid is cool and stick it in the freezer until partially set. Add the solids and then refrigerate.
The only trick to achieving properly set gelatin is to dissolve it before heating it. Sprinkle a one-tablespoon packet of powdered gelatin over one pint of water, let it stand five minutes and heat it while stirring until no granules are visible.
For sparkling clear aspic, clarify the hot stock with beaten egg white; then strain it. Pour the hot aspic into a jellyroll pan and let it set in the refrigerator into a layer of jelly that you can cut into decorative shapes or chop up for use as an edible food garnish.
Most attractive of all is a shimmering gelatin mold. The easiest way to unmold is to set the container into a bath of hot water for about 10 seconds, loosen the edges of the gelatin with a sharp knife if necessary and turn the mold out onto a serving platter.
BASIC SAVORY ASPIC WITH VARIATIONS
4 cups clear beef, veal, chicken or fish stock
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
Soak gelatin in 1/2 cup of cold stock for 5 minutes. Heat remaining stock and stir in gelatin. Cook, stirring constantly, until gelatin is completely dissolved. Cool.
At this point, variations are practically endless. To use as a garnish for cold foods, pour aspic into a jellyroll pan and chill until set. Cut into triangles, squares or other shapes or chop.
If using chicken broth, try adding fresh lemon juice to taste while the gelatin is still hot and about 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill (or 1 teaspoon dried dillweed) when it is partially set. After unmolding, decorate with lemon slices and fresh dill sprigs. For more crunch stir in the chopped meat of a small cooked chicken breast, a chopped celery stalk and a couple of chopped mushrooms along with the dill.
For easy tomato aspic, substitute tomato juice for chicken stock and add freshly ground black pepper and fresh lemon juice to taste. When the gelatin is partially set, stir in 1 cup coarsely chopped tomatoes, 1 tablespoon chopped chives and 2 tablespoons chopped green pepper. Another idea is to add cooked bay scallops, tiny shrimp or crab meat. Serve with mayonnaise, remoulade sauce or salad dressing.
If using beef, veal, fish or vegetable stock, add chopped or shredded vegetables such as celery, radishes, mushrooms, carrots or onion. Serves four to six.