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Recipes and Stories

30 July 2015: Tomato Aspic

Tomato Aspic is a perfect beginning for summer luncheons and formal dinners

One of the half-forgotten and much misunderstood delights of summer’s table in the South is tomato aspic, a cooling, velvety concoction usually made with canned tomatoes or tomato juice, even at the height of tomato season. In my youth, it was considered the quintessential first course for formal summer luncheons and company dinners, especially when that dinner, following a long-gone Southern custom, was served early in the afternoon.

Yet, as little as twenty years ago, when my first cookbook Classical Southern Cooking was published, tomato aspic was a long way from being forgotten. Right after the book premiered, I began to get letters listing things that I’d “forgotten” to include, and this aspic was on every one of those lists. One woman heatedly questioned my breeding and asked how I could even have thought of publishing a book on Southern food with so egregious an omission.

Needless to say, the explanation that I had left it out on purpose because it was a later addition to Southern tables and didn’t date back to the period that Classical Southern Cooking covered only served to fuel her indignation. But the truth was, I had run out of space and, since tomato aspic was in those days neither old nor lost, I had not felt that it needed rescuing.

Unhappily, that has changed in the twenty years since. As Southern food got rediscovered and began to be celebrated as a legitimate regional cuisine, this lovely aspic got lumped in with all gelatin salads. You know the kind: those wiggly blocks of grated vegetables incased in flavored packaged gelatin that were popular from the 1930s through to the 60s. Inevitably, tomato aspic fell victim to a kind of gourmet snobbery and lost its assured place on Southern tables and today may indeed be in need of rescuing after all.

Fellow Southern cook and historian Marcie Ferris once shared with combined mortification and amusement the day that she realized tomato aspic needed help. At a wedding reception on a sultry, Deep-South summer afternoon, one of her children pointed to a silver tray filled with bite-sized cubes of tomato aspic on lettuce leaves and exclaimed “Look, Mom! Ahi tuna!”

It was also the day she realized that, despite spending a lifetime defending her native Southern foodways, she had partly failed her own children in their culinary education. It was a graphic reminder that nothing in our culinary heritage is so fixed and certain that we can take it for granted.

Tomato Aspic with Herb Mayonnaise
Serves 6

1 28-ounce can Italian tomatoes packed with basil or 4 cups canned tomato puree or tomato juice
2 tablespoons (2 envelopes) unflavored gelatin (see note)
¼ cup cold water
½ cup boiling water
¼ cup grated yellow or Vidalia onion
¼ cup finely minced celery
¼ cup chopped cucumber
1 tablespoon finely chopped celery leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil (do not use dried)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or wine vinegar
Ground cayenne pepper or hot sauce
Salt as needed
6 romaine or Boston lettuce leaves, washed and drained
About ½ cup Herb Mayonnaise (recipe follows)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or chives, for garnish

1. If you are using whole tomatoes, seed them and strain their juice to catch any seeds that may be left behind. Put the strained juice and the tomatoes in the bowl of a blender or food processor fitted with a steel blade and puree until smooth.

2. Soften the gelatin in the cold water in a large mixing bowl for 10 minutes. Pour the boiling water over it and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved. Stir in the tomato puree, making sure that the gelatin is completely mixed in. Add in the onion, celery, cucumber, celery leaves, basil, and lemon juice or vinegar. Season to taste with a pinch or two of cayenne or a few shots of hot sauce and mix well. Taste and, if it needs salt (usually canned tomatoes are salty enough), adjust it as needed.

3. Rinse out 6 8-ounce molds or ramekins, or 8 custard cups, or one 1½-to-2-quart mold with cold water and pour in the aspic. Cover the molds with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set, about 4 to 6 hours (keep in mind that the big mold will take longer) or overnight.

4. To serve the aspic, arrange lettuce leaves on individual serving plates or, if you are using a large mold, a platter. Unmold the aspic by dipping the mold in hot water for a few seconds. Slip a knife around the edge to break the vacuum in the mold and invert it over the lettuce leaves. Give the mold a gentile tap. The aspic should slip right out. If it doesn’t, dip it again in hot water.

5. Top each serving with a dollop of mayonnaise and sprinkle with the chopped basil or chives, or if you’ve used a large mold, sprinkle the chopped herbs over the aspic and pass the mayonnaise separately.

Notes: Basil and tomatoes are a classic combination, but if you like, you can experiment with other herbs, or use chopped green onions instead of yellow ones. In that case, use canned tomatoes that don’t have basil in them. As to other seasonings, I’ve given you free rein with the hot pepper, but don’t overdo it. The idea here is to keep cool.

Herb Mayonnaise

Though handmade mayonnaise always has a luscious creaminess that food processor mayonnaise can never match, this is best made in the machine. And you needn’t confine it to the top of a tomato aspic: it’s lovely with any cold cooked or raw vegetable, or with cold roasted meat or poultry, or in chicken, fish, or shrimp salad, or as the perfect spread for sandwiches, especially tomato and BLTs.

Makes About 2 Cups
1 large egg
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, crushed and peeled
1 teaspoon salt
1 large sprig each fresh parsley, rosemary, and basil (do not used dried herbs), tough stems removed and discarded
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup vegetable oil

1. Put the egg, lemon juice, mustard, garlic, salt, herbs, and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Turn on the machine and process for 1 minute.

2. If your processor feed-tube pusher has a pin hole in its bottom, put it in place, turn on the machine, pour the oil into the pusher and let it dribble into the egg mixture. If you don’t have such a contraption, add the olive oil in a slow, very thin trickle through the feed tube. Add the other oil in a thin stream until it is all incorporated and emulsified.

3. Process for about 15 seconds more, or until the mayonnaise is quite stiff. Transfer it to a storage bowl, cover, and refrigerate it overnight, if possible, to allow the flavors to blend and mellow before using.

Recipes and text adapted from Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches, 2nd Edition (Globe Pequot Press), copyright 2014 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved.

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