July 16, 2013

Island Cooking: Rediscovering gelatin salads


I’ve been reading the delightful essays of Julia Reed, a rip-roarin’ Southern woman whose life has been filled with experiences more exotic and wonderful than most of us could ever even imagine!

Having grown up in comfort in the Mississippi Delta, Reed represents the quintessential Southern belle of our era.  Bright, ambitious, and accomplished, she is also pretty and dresses very well.   She loves to entertain generously and can cook and dine (and party and drink) with the best of them. 

She was raised at a time when entertaining was elaborate and frequent and the food, unpretentious and abundant.  And women really did wear hostess gowns when they entertained at home!

Her personality is oversized.  I wish I knew her!

According to her biography, she is a contributing editor at Newsweek, where she writes the “food and drink” column.  She appears regularly on CNN and is a contributor to Garden and Gun, Condé Nast Traveler, Elle Decor, The New York Times, and Vogue.

To date, she has authored four delightful books with equally delightful titles – “Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns and Other Southern Specialties: An Entertaining Life (with recipes),” “Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena,” “But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria: Adventures in Eating, Drinking and Making Merry,” and her latest, “The House on First Street, My New Orleans Story.”

What I really love about her stories is her humorous, down-to-earth attitude about life and food, despite her privileges and they are many!

She has inspired me to concentrate my efforts of late on the traditional foods of the abundant southern table that even includes unsophisticated gelatin salads -- because I remember that they tasted so good and were refreshing in summer’s heat.  Plus, if they are good enough for Julia Reed, well...

The first chapter of “Ham Biscuits” is tantalizingly titled “Miss Congealiality.”  Let’s see where that leads.

According to Reed, congealed items were a “staple” in their diets as “This was in the Mississippi Delta, after all.”  She noted 51 salad recipes containing gelatin in “Gourmet of the Delta” cookbook and 23 in “The Memphis Cookbook.”

She tells of a four-day house party her mother held where she served “an almost exclusively gelatin-based menu” mainly so she could prepare the food in advance.  Some are sweet and some, savory.

After the second day of the house party, the guests had consumed, “... a crabmeat mousse, a strawberry mousse, two kinds of tomato aspic, and a Charlotte russe.”

Then there are the condiments!

It was a revelation that one could serve mustard mousse with ham or slices of horseradish mousse with roast beef.

While a chilled congealed dish is delightful for a summer meal, summer is not the ideal time for making jellies.  In fact, they rose to popularity only after the introduction of air conditioning. 

Come to think of it, they are often on the holiday table even in the north.  When I began researching congealed foods, I came across at least one “Christmas salad” in every old cookbook I could find.  Needless to say, they make great use of green and red ingredients and there are lots with cranberries.

I have been trying out gelatins dishes.  You do have to take a little time with them, but the transformation of the ingredients is like a science experiment -- one day a can of V-8 and tomato soup and a packet of gelatin and the next, a shimmering jewel on a plate!

The Red and White Supermarket in Hatteras sells some pretty scalloped disposable tins that are good for aspics.  Lightly spray with oil to facilitate unmolding.

From ‘River Road Recipes’

1 package lime gelatin
1 package lemon gelatin
2 cups boiling water
1 No. 2 can crushed pineapple, drained
1 carton cottage cheese
1 cup mayonnaise
1 can condensed milk
1 cup finely chopped nuts (I used pecans)
2 heaping tablespoons horseradish
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt

Dissolve the gelatin in hot water and let it stand until cool; add pineapple.  Blend cheese with mayonnaise until smooth and add to gelatin mixture.  Add all other ingredients and stir until mixture begins to congeal.  Pour into molds and place in refrigerator overnight.


This recipe was derived from numerous entries in old, local Southern cookbooks.  Every book has at least one so I took ingredients from several and added some of my own, and this flavorful gelatin salad is the result.

1 can tomato soup
12 ounces V-8 juice
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
3 packages plain, unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup water
1 cup mayonnaise
3/4 cup chopped bell pepper
3/4 cup chopped celery
1 small onion, chopped
1 avocado, diced
1/2 pound shrimp, cooked, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons hot sauce
1 tablespoon horseradish
Enough drops of red food coloring to make an appetizing shade of red
Salad greens

Heat soup and juice with cream cheese.  Melt and beat lumps out. Dissolve gelatin in water and add to soup mixture. Add salt, Worcestershire, hot sauce, horseradish, to taste.
Stir in rest of ingredients and chill.
Serve with arugula, watercress, or lettuce and a dollop of mayo.

(Lynne Foster lives in Hatteras village with her husband, Ernie. Together they operate The Albatross Fleet of charter boats. They actively support the sustainable practices of the island’s commercial fishermen and the preservation of Hatteras Island’s working waterfront.  Both love to cook seafood and entertain friends, and Lynne loves to experiment with recipes for locally caught seafood.)

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