Tomato Aspic with Cherry Tomatos and Thyme/Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Aspic: Aspic is clear gelled liquid, usually stock, commonly used in haute cuisine.  It can be diced or chopped and used as a savory garnish.  It is a kind of tool that holds ingredients in place within a mold—diced vegetables (vegetable terrine), an egg (oeuff en gelée), pork (headcheese).  In a pâté en croute, it fills in the space between the cooked pâté and the crust.  Food dipped in aspic will take on a lacquered finish for a fancy presentation.  Certain meat stocks, especially those that have included a calves foot or pig skin, will contain enough gelatin to set completely when chilled.  Other stocks such as those made from fish or vegetables require the addition of gelatin.  Aspics can be delicate, in which they hold their shape, but are very tender, on the verge of collapse.  Or, if they must hold ingredients together in a terrine, they can be made firmer, into what’s sometimes referred to as a sliceable aspic.  Any clear liquid—consommé, the clear strained juice of tomatoes, called tomato water, or clarified vegetable stock—can be transformed into aspic.  A general rule for a liquid with no natural gelatin in it is to add, for a delicate aspic, 1 teaspoon of powdered gelatin per cup of liquid and for a sliceable aspic, 1 tablespoon of powdered gelatin.  If you’re unsure about the strength of a meat-stock aspic, pour a couple tablespoons onto a plate and chill it quickly in the refrigerator to evaluate its strength.

There is of course much more to be said about aspics, more nuance regarding when and how to use them well.  The reason I posted it today is that when I came across this shot Donna took of a tomato aspic it halted me (double click on it for correct proportions–this format somehow is squishing it).  Tomato water heated with aromats—mint and jalepeno and garlic and lemon grass—and just enough gelatin to delicately enclose other ingredients and hold its shape when unmolded, would become a provocative focal point for a summer salad with watercress and arugula.  I’d been wanting to make a tomato aspic ever since Eve Felder described one in garde manger class—she’s from South Carolina where, I believe, tomato aspics are gelled tomato juice.  This is clarified tomato water, looks flavorless but is in fact powerfully flavored, and considerably more intriguing than gelled tomato juice.

This picture makes me think of the end of summer when tomatoes are plentiful and the smooth driveway is hot on my feet and puts me am at ease, and the air smells of grass and leaves and not cold mud, sleet stinging as I walk the goddam dog.  It’s winter now, but this picture of aspic makes me feel hopeful.  Isn’t that what people say when they hear the word aspic, that it makes them feel hopeful?  Well, it should.