If you stepped into my kitchen over these past 6 weeks and pried open the refrigerator door, there would be a good chance that you’d see gelatin flexing its mass in some form or another on a plate. During this short span of time, this glutinous protein kept infiltrating my thoughts and reinventing itself in my mind before making its final appearance in physical form. Going further back to childhood, Jell-O mesmerized me. It is cheery kinetic food sculpture and one of my first realizations that food can engage on many levels. Jell-O is a sort of beginner’s sensory tutorial. The bright colors generally evoke a pleasing mood, it can be molded into many different shapes, it wobbles, rolls and tumbles at various tempos; it can be juggled, caught and eaten. It is a protean substance that has many gustatory possibilities.
The first time around, it started with the faint remembrance of Knox Blox, those fruity pre-gummy squares that kids would bring to school for snack. I imagined an intense blueberry chew with a jammy granular texture resulting from hours of slow cooked condensed fruit. Since I short cut the “bushels of blueberries cooking over a fire in a copper kettle” to one bottle of Knudsen’s juice; I got good color but poor intensity. I learned that gelatin from an envelope is nevertheless a powerful force to be reckoned with. I have the sense that all that fibrous protein rendered down from bone, cartilage and tendon keeps the flavor particles in gluey suspension away from one’s taste sensors. Therefore when working with powdered hooves, flavor really needs to be intensified.
From there I moved on to Tofu Panna Cotta as a good will gesture towards almost sugar free eating. This recipe involved pureeing a box of space age Mori-nu tofu with some soy milk, adding gelatin, a bit of sweetener and flavoring. The whole concoction was then poured into an odd collection of smallish containers and refrigerated until firm. As a result of some shameful dulling of my once killer cooking instincts- 4 envelopes of gelatin were bloomed instead of one; yielding an almost impervious substance. In the effortful gyrations of extracting the tofu mass from a rather dainty tea cup; the dessert broke free, bounced and became air borne before landing in the warm crook of J’s arm. Every attempt to have the obstinate substance succumb to my spoon was thwarted so J, partner-in-crime seized the bounty and threw it into the microwave. Eight seconds was enough to subdue the tofu beast and it partially melted down to a gently sloping mousse mound surrounded by a creamy tofu sauce. It was delicious- even though the whole process felt like something out of a weird science experiment. I must admit that the procedure kind of thrilled me and so the hungry chase began again with ideas involving tomato, dill and some shrimp…
(a momentary interruption)
When I was in college I was fortunate to be seated behind a guy named Dean who happened to be a talented cartoonist. He had a passion for his craft and from an early age experimented with various techniques to advance his skill. His creative self motivation fascinated me since I moved about life in straight angles- uniformly, a strict follower of outside direction. My studio mate would offer up his sketchbook to me with quiet intensity explaining his process. I an eager student trawled for inspirational tidbits to feed my newly discovered creativity. One of the studies that influenced me most was his Popsicle mark sketches. Dean would randomly break a Popsicle stick and plunge it into a bottle of midnight blue black India ink. He would drip, scrape, mark and skittle a page with various lines to instigate a jump off point. With each line, he challenged himself to see an image within and then set off to complete the idea. Not only were the resulting drawings fantastic: pirate skulls aflame with scarlet blooming roses, flying bicycles streaming a banner of stars, a full figured woman jogging in pantaloons and curlers; but the initial lines also were beautifully expressive. Who knew that a generic Popsicle stick could yield a thousand kind of skinny strokes, several hundred angry strokes and six hundred and thirty five curious strokes? Dean’s drawings succinctly taught me through a series of mesmerizing moments, what our design Profs laboriously tried to drum into our close boxed brains over five years-- how to see freshly and follow the elusive scent of inspiration…which gently leads me back into the kitchen and the next incarnation of gelatin fantasia. In this final rumination, the culmination of my previous lessons: we have a multi layered, texture contrasting, taste exploding nouveau tomato aspic. Picture a velvety red bombe atop a creamy mousseline pedestal with a hard boiled egg poised in perfect pirouette. The gelee would introduce the lemony tang of V-8, the bite of horseradish, the aroma of dill, the delicate succulence of sweet shrimp; which would meld into a pillow cloud of cream and the collapsing rich yolk of egg. I drew diagrams on the side of my grocery list to beef up my confidence in the execution of my creative direction. I carefully purchased all appropriate players for the team. I reviewed the sequencing of instructions in my head and even broke down the tasks into tiers that could be done at earlier intervals. I do not know if I was having an off day or if Mercury was in retrograde but the shrimp looked and smelled kind of fishy and when it was time to pull out the pre-cooked eggs, J pulled out strange bits of yolk and white out of Tupperware. Vision A morphed to plan B which was a consolidation of several hasty rearrangements and reversals of plan C. As you might imagine, I decided against the smoked salmon rose and cucumber leaf garnish for the photograph. V-8 Jell-O Plan B nearly didn’t make it onto the lettuce leaf runway, but finally and alas, we got a hasty appearance. While it wasn’t a raving success, it was neither a horrible disaster. It was simply the coming together of a lot of well intended decisions that never made the mark. I extensively trouble shot the dish with J-Bird one of my keenest taster friends around. I believe she has the answer: V-8 and sour cream horseradish layer on the bottom with a delicate seafood white wine consommé flecked with fresh tomato bits and the encased shrimp on top. While this idea gestates on the back shelf with all the other half baked plans for awhile, I did see a simple recipe for passion fruit gelee with basil cream-- and so it goes.