I love tomato aspic. It only took me twenty years to figure it out.
You see, as much as I've lauded the cooking of the American South, the culinary traditions of my mother's family and many others stretching across Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Texas, I'm afraid it's easy to romanticize things. Somewhere in the past half century the ease of open-a-can-of-this-and-combine-with-a-can-of-that has crept into the vernacular. Like kudzu vine, culinary traditions have been entangled in processed cheese and smothered in creamed soup. Sometimes it's scary.
Don't get me wrong, the barbeque's still great, there's real cornbread and fresh shucked oysters and plenty of pie. But one year we were in Tennessee for the holidays, doing the usual rounds of Christmas parties and visiting. Everywhere people were pressing little cheese biscuits and pecan tassies in your hand, all of them delicious, but after awhile I was starting to crave a vegetable. Or just something, anything, that resembled its fresh natural state. At the dreaded bank Christmas party, amid the ladies in their Christmas sweaters, I looked in desperation for something not slathered in mayonnaise or cream cheese. Finding nothing, I resigned myself to another ham biscuit.
This is how I came to discover tomato aspic. Aspic is just a fancy word for a savory gelatin; aspics were popular in the fifties (think of those molded salads), but in my family and many others' across the South aspic never went out of style. Specifically, tomato aspic. There is no family gathering to be had without tomato aspic, my family is so passionate about it. It was always on every dinner and buffet table growing up but I had never actually eaten it. Few things could be less appealing to a child than a wobbly block of solidified tomato juice.
Then came the holiday of vegetable depletion, and as I surveyed the buffet I saw the tomato aspics my aunt had made, perfectly shaped in Christmas tree molds and decorated with green olives for the season. I took one, along with a heaping salad, and promptly fell in love. It's hard to describe what's so wonderful about tomato aspic, even now I can't really put words to something which sounds, on paper, so unappealing. Maybe you have to be born into the tomato aspic tradition, but I didn't discover it for the first twenty years of my life, so I think there's hope for you too.
Today, tomato aspic is one of my favorite foods. As often as fresh sliced tomatoes make up my lunch in the summer, a wedge of tomato aspic is sure to be on my plate in the winter. I've even packed a whole tray of it in ice to take to the refrigerator at work so I can have it all week long. But more than that, those funny red blocks remind me of home and the holidays, my mom always has a plate of aspic in the fridge when I'm coming to visit. Sometimes it's decorated with green olives or scallions, other times it's plain, simply tomato juice spiced with a bit of Worcestershire and spice. We're headed to Tennessee next week where I'll be eating ham biscuits and bourbon balls and where my aunt is already getting out the molds, so that when the need for a vegetable strikes, the aspic will be ready. In my family, it wouldn't be the holidays without it.
I've made this with both 2 and 3 packages of gelatin and I prefer the firm yet melting aspic that comes from using 2 packages. However, if your aspic will be part of a buffet or sitting out at room temperature for a while, I'd recommend using 3 packages for a very firm gel.
4 cups tomato juice, preferably low-sodium
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 bay leaf
1 cup chopped onion and celery
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
dash of Tabasco or other hot sauce, optional
1/2 teaspoon salt (omit if not using low-sodium tomato juice and use your judgement)
2 packages (1/2 oz.) gelatin
2 tablespoons mild vinegar, like apple cider vinegar
optional: chopped scallions or sliced pitted green olives
for serving: butter lettuce leaves, homemade mayonnaise
1. In a large bowl, combine 1/2 cup of the tomato juice with the gelatin and the vinegar, stir to combine and set aside.
2. Place the remaining tomato juice, lemon juice, bay leaf, onion, celery, worcestershire sauce, and salt (to taste) in a sauce pan. Bring the mixture to a boil, then let simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Pour the tomato juice through a sieve into the bowl with the gelatin, discard the vegetables. Stir the tomato-gelatin mixture well so that the gelatin is completely dissolved. Transfer the mixture to a 9 inch pie plate or decorative molds and place in the refrigerator to set. If using olives or scallions, press them into the aspic after about 30-45 minutes (when the gelatin is half-way set), so that they are suspended in the aspic. Refrigerate the aspic at least 4 hours before serving.
4. Serve the aspic chilled, on a bed of lettuce leaves, with mayonnaise on the side. Aspic keeps well in the refrigerator.