Did you miss me last week? No? Okay, but I missed you. I missed you so much, I made you this lovely Jellied Salad Niçoise.
These savory Jell-O recipes keep disappointing me – not because they’re so bad, but because they’re not bad enough. Jellied Salad Niçoise had so much potential, and then failed to live up to it. Just look at the motley crew of ingredients I had to assemble for this. Anchovies! Mayonnaise! Italian dressing! The only way that this could come out was “badly”.
So I got stuck into preparing it, and this was possibly the most involved Jell-O recipe I’ve done so far. It took a good two hours to put together, much of which involved chopping vegetables, although it all started off with hard-boiling an egg.
Rather than describe the whole process, I’m just going to give you a picture of the recipe, straight out of the book. Even just reading it, it sounds kind of nuts.
The weirdest part is that it requires what I think of as “a single batch” (that is, a three-ounce box) of Jell-O, with less cold water than usual. It wasn’t enough to cover the solid ingredients in the mold, and I was sure that when I went to unmold it, the whole thing would fall apart and be a complete disaster. I was pretty excited by that prospect, because I thought it would make for some good video. It’s been too long since this blog has lived up to its true potential as a sort of culinary “Jackass”, and I was hopeful, but this surprised me. As you can see from the photo, Jellied Salad Niçoise unmolded unexpectedly well. I was sure that the loose bed of chopped lettuce at the bottom would make the whole thing unstable and lead to a collapse, but I suppose by now I should have more faith in the Jell-O.
For eating, it wasn’t very good, but it could have been worse. It turned out that one chopped up boiled egg wasn’t enough to stink up the whole dish, and even the anchovy-tinged mayonnaise was less repulsive than it could have been (unless, I suppose, you’re one of those people who just hate mayonnaise on principle).
While I was in the midst of making it, Bryan strolled into the kitchen and pointed out that, if not for the Jell-O, this wouldn’t be such a terrible recipe. Indeed, the Salad Niçoise didn’t look so bad in the mold before I poured Jell-O over it and piled on the chopped lettuce. Aside from leaving out the Jell-O, I would have preferred a simpler dressing, just some oil and vinegar with a little salt and pepper, which is what I generally prefer for salad dressing. We don’t use store-bought bottled dressings, which is why I used the Good Seasons.
Needless to say, Bryan and I didn’t eat more than one portion of Jellied Salad Niçoise, and the rest went straight into the garbage disposal. A donation is being made to Action Against Hunger to atone.
I’m trying not to go too heavy on the politics here, but I’m still resisting, and for the video I wore a “pussy hat” made by my friend Donna, who has an Etsy shop and has been doing a brisk business in pussy hats lately. (She also makes other kinds of hats, jewelry, accessories, and toys.) If you like it, please check out her shop, Via Donna, at https://www.etsy.com/shop/ViaDonna.
This is going to be a quick one, as I am exceedingly busy right now, but I wanted to make sure to get this posted.
Carrot, Celery and Olive Salad. what can one say? To me it seemed a little anticlimactic, but from what I’ve seen on the internet, the idea of carrots in Jell-O sends shivers up many spines. That didn’t bother me as much as the olives. I selected what are now sold as “martini olives” for the visual appeal, but these olives are (conveniently, I suppose) marinated in dry vermouth, the flavor of which is enhanced by lemon Jell-O. The result is…. not good.
The charities are definitely getting their cut for this one. Between both Bryan and me, we only got a few bites out of one mold before giving up.
I look at it this way – 2017 can only get better from here. Let’s try to be hopeful, anyway…
Just in time for the holiday season, here’s something, um, different to do with that leftover turkey.
Turkey Soufflé Salad bears an uncanny resemblance to Garden Soufflé Salad, with a slightly different assortment of veggies and the addition of turkey. The base is a lemon Jell-O bavarian with mayonnaise as the fatty ingredient, a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice to (one hopes) cut the sweetness of the Jell-O, and some grated onion and ground pepper for (one hopes) savory flavoring.
As with Garden Soufflé Salad, the recipe says to put the liquid Jell-O mixture in a square baking pan and put that in the freezer for 15-20 minutes until it’s firm to about an inch in from the edges and still soft in the middle. Also as with Garden Soufflé Salad, it didn’t work that way; after about 25 minutes a thin coat of Jell-O was firm and starting to freeze on the surfaces of the pan, while the rest of it remained liquid. I hereby declare this technique “totally bogus”. If there is a next time, I will thicken the Jell-O over a trusty ice-water bath before proceeding to the next step, which is to whip it in a mixer until “fluffy”. Using the technique described in the book yields a still fairly liquid gelatin that would be better described as “foamy”.
As usual, I chopped up a little extra of all of the veggies, including, for the first time, pimientos. I had never encountered them outside of green olives and “loaf” before, and I was surprised to find that I liked the aroma, which made me feel a little better about this recipe.
Really the most interesting thing about making this one was the turkey. We don’t normally eat turkey here at Freak Mountain, and we certainly don’t host big Thanksgiving turkey dinners (the lack of a dining room lets us off the hook), so I had to buy turkey specifically for this recipe. Bryan and I went to the Super Stop’n’Shop the day after Thanksgiving, and I expected that I’d be able to buy a turkey breast (pre-cooked if I was really lucky) to use in Turkey Soufflé Salad. Unfortunately, I found I had two turkey options – a whole frozen turkey, or packages of cooked, deli-sliced turkey. I bought two packages of the latter, which at least had the advantage of being in nice, firm slabs that were easy to cut into cubes. One package yielded a cup and a half of cubed turkey, exactly the amount specified in the recipe.
We ate the second package for lunch in sandwiches with Swiss cheese on rye, with about the same level of enthusiasm meat-eaters have for Thanksgiving leftovers.
Veggies and turkey bits got folded into the foamy, mayonnaise-y gelatin base, poured into 1.25-cup molds, and chilled overnight. They unmolded beautifully into festive-looking servings. The photo doesn’t look so bad, but that’s because it’s not enhanced by Smell-O-Vision. To put it politely, the meat/Jell-O/mayonnaise combination does not smell appetizing.
I think it didn’t taste as bad as it smelled, but it wasn’t good. To be honest, the sandwich-meat turkey was pretty bland (which is a complaint I’ve heard about turkey generally) so mostly it added a weird texture to the salad. Meat and Jell-O together seems to be a bad idea, and I’m left scratching my head over the concept of aspic. I mean, I get the idea of using jelly to preserve meat, but why not just scrape it all off before you serve it? That’s what we always did with canned hams when I was a kid.
As it happened, on the day I was tasting this, we were planning to make a call on our friend JB–, who was sitting shiva for his mother. It’s traditional to bring food to shiva, but I wasn’t sure it would be appropriate to bring Turkey Soufflé Salad. Meanwhile, Bryan messaged JB– to see if he needed anything, and JB– responded that they were good for food, but seeing as it was us, he’d expect some Jell-O. Little did he know… I kind of hope JB– didn’t actually eat the Turkey Soufflé Salad, but I do hope he found it amusing. This is not a dish for enjoying, but rather a dish for ridiculing.
Whatever he did with it, I hope he did it quickly, because when I opened the fridge to get milk for my coffee this morning, the leftover Turkey Soufflé Salad was really stankin’ it up. This stuff ripens.
Needless to say, we didn’t eat the rest of it. Donations have been made to Action Against Hunger, Planned Parenthood, and the International Rescue Committee.
(In case anyone’s wondering, I’ve also reinstated my membership in the ACLU in support of my LGBTQ friends and others whose rights might be endangered by the coming administration.)
I have to say, after a few “scary” Jell-O recipes that turned out to be not so scary, I was really hoping that Jellied Gazpacho would turn out to be fairly nasty. Oh, yes. I had all kinds of plans for this one. First, there was the drinks pairing – my first instinct (a very wrong one, I know) was to go for Corona, or tequila, or a Mexican boilermaker. (Yes, that’s a thing.) Then I decided to look up the origin of gazpacho and found that it comes from Andalusia, arguably the most historically and culturally important part of Spain, so I didn’t want to treat it like a common Tex-Mex side dish.
I remembered that a batch of gazpacho had figured prominently in Pedro Almodovar’s 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The gazpacho had been spiked with something – my recollection was that it was vodka (which you have to admit would be pretty good), but when I looked it up I found that it was sleeping pills. That didn’t seem like a good idea, and I ended up scrapping the drinks pairing altogether.
If we’re being honest, it’s hard to bash Jellied Gazpacho for the ingredients. It’s mostly fresh vegetables and herbs. The traditional binder for this cold soup is bread (often stale bread is used, presumably as a way to avoid food waste), and that has been replaced by lemon Jell-O. Fresh garlic has been replaced here by garlic powder (the recipe calls for garlic salt, which I thought we had, but evidently Bryan bought the powder instead), but at least the flavor is there.
The one ingredient I was seriously dreading was the canned mushrooms. I’ve always disliked mushrooms, in particular the canned ones, which develop an unpleasant mouthfeel in the canning process. I’ve tried to learn to like fresh mushrooms, without much success, so I didn’t see any real reason to substitute them for the canned ones here.
Jellied Gazpacho should have been a pleasure to make, given all the lovely chopping of lovely fresh ingredients, but the prep work on this was an annoying experience. It turns out that Bryan has been slacking on the knife-sharpening duties. You see, years ago he decided that he was something of a “foodie”, and one of the foodie toys he picked up for himself was a professional-grade knife sharpening kit. We have a decent set of Henckels knives, and keeping them sharp is definitely worthwhile – but perhaps more of a commitment than Bryan was prepared to make.
To be fair, the dull knives did make the prep work feel more “authentically 1974”. Before the Food Network put professional chefs in our faces, your average mid-century middle-class or working-class homemaker probably wasn’t aware of the importance of keeping knives sharp. Knives would get dull (probably weren’t that sharp to begin with), and she’d just operate on the assumption that chopping vegetables was a lot of slow drudgery, Maybe she’d get suckered into buying the Ginsu knife before deciding that fresh vegetables are too much trouble to do for anything other than special occasions.
(Looking into this a little, I’m thinking that “the decline of knife sharpening” could easily become its own post. But I digress…)
Apart from the vegetable chopping, making this recipe is pretty simple. Once the veggies are chopped, they’re combined with the seasonings and left to sit and marinate while a double batch of lemon Jell-O is prepared and thickened. Then, the veggies and Jell-O are combined, chilled to thicken a bit more, et voila! Jellied Gazpacho.
This is a “loose” gelatin dish, which was a bit disappointing because in the back of my mind I had been anticipating another molded one, which would have been more of a challenge. Another disappointment – this one didn’t taste bad at all. I had been hoping for a nasty one to give the blog a bit of, you know, conflict, but I had been able to chop the mushrooms up finely enough that they weren’t really noticeable, and between the vegetables and the seasoning there were enough savory flavors that the sweet lemon flavor of the Jell-O was barely detectable.
The main issue I had was with the texture. The gelatin just did not add a nice texture to this cold soup, and the veggies were a bit buoyant in it, so I wound up with a fair amount of seasoned lemon Jell-O in the bottom of my bowl as I ate this. I decided to try running the Jellied Gazpacho through a few pulses in the Cuisinart, and that actually helped. The whole thing seemed to be blended better, and it stayed blended. We even managed to eat some for supper (with a fresh baguette and butter, and a Pepperidge Farm frozen chocolate cake for dessert). Still, even though I finished my portion (Bryan didn’t), I didn’t want any more.
I could see myself making gazpacho again, but with a more traditional recipe, using bread as a binder. Using Jell-O did not in any way enhance or improve on the concept. It didn’t make it all that weird or scary, either. It was just “meh”. A donation is being made to Action Against Hunger because somebody should be getting some kind of satisfaction out of this.
I’ve been taking a “staycation” this week, just hanging around the house, getting a few useful things done, and listening to my favorite NPR station. WBUR airs a lot of talk programming that I like to listen to while I do housework, and this week I’m hearing programs that are oddly relevant to me. Yesterday, it was an hour of “On Point” about the history of exhaustion. On Monday on “Fresh Air”, Terry Gross interviewed a couple who’ve written a book about food during the Great Depression.
As I listened to Gross’s guests describe the thrifty, filling, and bland cuisine promoted by the U.S. government during the Depression, I was struck by the similarity of what they were describing to the recipes I’ve been making during the course of the Project. At some point, the proverbial light bulb clicked on in my head, and I realized that The New Joys of Jell-O and its ilk are direct descendants of Depression-era cuisine.
I’ve made a number of wise-cracks about General Foods food scientists, possibly on drugs, trying to screw around with the average American housewife by coming up with bizarre recipes containing Jell-O. I feel a little bad about that now. I haven’t read A Square Meal… yet (just downloaded it from Amazon), but based on what I’ve heard so far, my theory is that even as late as the 1970s our cuisine was heavily informed by Depression-era notions about food.
To illustrate, my grandmother was a young woman during the Great Depression, and having grown up poor in a large family, she would have been particularly receptive to a style of cooking that was inexpensive, filling, and held to be nutritious by modern food scientists. Naturally she would have passed that along to my mother, and my mother, who had a fairly large family of her own to feed during the economically troubled 1970s, would have seen no reason to deviate from the old cookbook. I mostly accepted that style of cooking until I started watching Julia Child, who offered a look at how cooking could be different, and when I went to university I had greater freedom and opportunity to explore other cuisines.
Researching this further, I found this Serious Eats article about the history of the Jell-O salad. My theory is pretty good, but fails to account for WWII, when the food science that had been touted as a solution to hunger during the Depression was repurposed to feed the troops. After the war, the food processing industry was disinclined to scale back to earlier peacetime levels, so it geared up to (create, and then) meet the needs of American housewives. That had a lot to do with perpetuating that style of cooking, but I suspect it was an easier sell to people who had grown accustomed to eating that sort of food during the Depression. Otherwise, you have to wonder whether the food processing industry would have dared to foist some of their weird, bland creations on the nation.
As it turns out, the blandness and the weirdness of the recipes developed during the Depression were both intentional. For one thing, it was believed that spicy foods were stimulants along the lines of caffeine, alcohol, and harder drugs. For another, from a policy standpoint, the home economists developing this way of cooking didn’t expect people to enjoy it; the idea was to make sure that while poor people should feel full and nourished, they should also want to go out and get jobs so that they could afford better food. Perhaps the least palatable rationale from our modern standpoint, Depression-era cuisine purposely eschewed immigrant cuisines because they had no basis in food science and were “un-American”.
When I heard that, I was reminded of my parents’ general aversion to ethnic food. Not only was ethnic food not prepared in our home (unless it was, say, La Choy canned “Chinese” food, or Ortega prepackaged “Mexican”), but also, we never went out for it. When we went out to eat, it was to Mr. Steak or to Abdow’s Big Boy. In particular, we avoided Chinese restaurants, because my father claimed that one time, when doing a plumbing job at a Chinese restaurant, he’d seen workers chopping food on a piece of cardboard on the kitchen floor. (Not that my father wasn’t racist, but something I witnessed on my first trip to San Francisco in 1993 lends credence to his story.) My father also claimed that his stomach was too sensitive for spicy food (but somehow it didn’t have trouble with the scotch-rocks he drank every night after work).
Now I’m going to have to be mindful of this history as I proceed with the Project. The recipes may be weird and sometimes scary, and the photos may be rather grotesque and hilarious, but many of these recipes were originated by people who were trying to do their best, with the best information they had available to them, at a desperately difficult time. In the early days of food science, this kind of cooking was considered “high tech”. Take a moment to think about how attached we, in this truly modern era, have become to our own tech…
We’re back to the savory Jell-O this week. I wish I could bring myself to describe it as “scary”, but I’m finding that the more I delve into the world of vintage recipes, the more it takes to scare me.
I should have planned out my editorial calendar a little more carefully, because it turns out that Garden Soufflé Salad isn’t all that different from my last savory offering, Jellied Fresh Vegetable Salad. The main differences are two additional vegetables (cauliflower and watercress) and the method of preparing the bavarian base, which in this case is whipped so that it’s light and airy (hence “soufflé”).
What I’d really like to be able to do here is somehow make Garden Soufflé Salad out to be a sort of metaphor for Brexit, because that’s been so heavily on a lot of people’s minds lately (and it might be more interesting than the dish itself), but it would be an extremely labored metaphor. The confused muddle of random vegetables could represent the U.K. citizens’ confusion and working at cross purposes on both sides of the issue. The fluffy whipped lime Jell-O, enhanced by mayonnaise, could represent the government of the U.K. doing a poor job of holding everything together. But that’s all I got.
I’ve been an anglophile since I was a kid, so I continue to sympathize with the folks in the U.K., and not only because I’m afraid this is like looking into a crystal ball at November 9 in the U.S. Even so, after months of feeling obliged to try to explain the Rise of Trump to the rest of the world, I confess I’m savoring a tiny smidgen of schadenfreude. Hey, U.K., let’s hear you justify Boris Johnson! Try to explain away Nigel Farage! Yeah, Trump’s being an ass, but your Prime Minister is bailing in the wake of the Leave vote after he explicitly said he wouldn’t.
I’m just taking the piss here, though. A lot of their problems are similar to our problems, and, sadly, they don’t seem to have any better idea of how to solve them than we do. So, the way I see it, we’re all stuck in this crazy time together, and one thing that’s heartening is all the humor that’s arisen from people just trying to keep their heads up.
Maybe that’s why I wish Garden Soufflé Salad was funnier, or weirder. The main issue I have with it is that it’s too sweet. Also, watercress. What the hell? After however many recipes calling for Bird’s Eye Quick Thaw this and that, suddenly I bump into one calling for a hoity toity ingredient like watercress – which is unexpectedly available at our local Super Stop’n’Shop. And what did it add to the Jell-O dish? Well, apart from the extra sweetness, the main difference in flavors between Jellied Fresh Vegetable Salad and Garden Soufflé Salad was a sort of earthy taste. And by “earthy”, I mean “dirt”.
The really odd thing is that I’ve come away from this series of jellied salads thinking that, actually, the concept is sound. I believe that, if done right, there may be a place for the savory jellied salad in American cuisine. Go ahead – laugh…
You might be relieved to know that I was neither looking for nor finding some sort of profound insight in Jellied Fresh Vegetable Salad. It’s really just a Jell-O salad.
Not that there wasn’t an interesting side issue, of course. Over the last week or so I’ve stumbled upon a couple of internet entities (they’re on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon, and probably some other fora I’ve never heard of) that are dedicated to mid-century kitsch. One, Making It Modern, plumbs the depths of vintage cookbooks for the kookiest-sounding recipes, makes and tastes those recipes, and then re-creates them in a contemporary (i.e., more palatable) way. Another, Velveteen Lounge Kitsch-en, is mainly about cocktails but sometimes turns its attention to food kitsch.
Both entities have followers who are similarly fascinated by vintage cookbooks and scary-sounding recipes, but apparently very few of us have the cojones to actually make and eat them. Others do love to post those old, weird-looking photos, though, so lately I’ve been looking at a lot of dishes that are, to be honest, way scarier than anything in The New Joys of Jell-O.
Maybe that’s why, when I made and ate Jellied Fresh Vegetable Salad last weekend, it just didn’t seem all that weird to me.
The preparation was quite straightforward, with a couple of minor hitches. One ingredient, tarragon vinegar, was not available at my local supermarket, so I bought some dried tarragon, googled a recipe, and made my own. I think it turned out all right, though I wasn’t sure whether the aroma I was detecting was the vinegar or the photographic chemicals Bryan had been fooling with earlier in the day.
Another ingredient, two bouillon cubes, was mildly complicated by the fact that bouillon cubes appear to come in a different size than I remember from the 1970s. I misspoke on the video – my recollection is that they were about a centimeter cubed (not a half-centimeter, which would be ridiculously tiny). The cubes I found were much bigger, so I decided to just use one. That seems to have been adequate.
As with the Molded Potato Salad, the Jell-O, vinegar, bouillon and pepper are combined, cooled until slightly thickened, and then blended with the “creamy” ingredient. In this case it was sour cream, which had me craving onion-soup dip and potato chips. (Heaven help me, I think I’m going native!) In both recipes, I found it safe and beneficial to whisk in the creamy ingredients to get a smooth texture. I thickened it over a cold water bath, folded in the veggies, and put it in the molds to chill and firm up.
I had found some small vintage Jell-O branded molds at the Cambridge Antique Market a while ago, and this seemed like a good time to finally put them to use. They turned out to be a good serving size for this dish, and also a close match to the photo in the cookbook. Unfortunately, the Jell-O logo failed to imprint itself in the salad. I blame the lube for that (it will accumulate in the nooks and crannies) but it’s a step I’m not willing to skip.
I’m quite pleased with the way this ended up looking, despite the lack of logo. I daresay it looks better than the 1974 photo. As you can see, the veggies are nicely distributed throughout the mold and give it a festive appearance. My lettuce is rather more, um, assertive, but I like the color.
Now, the weird thing about this is that I actually kind of liked how it tasted. (Stockholm syndrome, maybe?) The vinegar, pepper, and bouillon almost overcame the sweet lemon flavoring, so that the Jell-O part of the salad was more like a ranch dressing. (People like ranch dressing, right?) Meanwhile, the crunchy texture of the vegetables had a satisfying mouthfeel.
I could see doing this with unflavored gelatin, some fresh herbs for seasoning, and a higher proportion and better variety of crisp fresh vegetables. Honestly, this turned out to be not so scary at all (unlike Jellied Prune Whip), though I have to confess that I didn’t eat it all, so I’ve made another donation to Action Against Hunger so that something positive can come from my waste of food.
I’ve also done a tasting video, and I’m less embarrassed by this than I was by the last one. After all my grousing about the drinking culture in New Orleans, I ended up drinking a glass of chilled vinho verde to help me chill out in front of the camera, and that worked out pretty well. (Also, I now have a better understanding of how so many entertainers wind up with substance abuse problems.) Now I just need to figure out how to set loose my sparkling personality. Heh.