“Aspic” can refer to a specific type of snake (as in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, when a Roman guard notes, after Cleopatra is found dead, “This is an aspic’s trail”)—that is, an asp. It can also mean a savory jelly of meat or fish stock—ostensibly because the color of plain aspic is reminiscent of the color of the asp. (Mmm—snake-colored food—how appetizing.)
It’s a good bet that gelatin, the defining component of aspic, was discovered the first time someone boiled meat and then left it out in cold weather. The lovely, flavorful jelly that results would not go unnoticed.
Aspic has long been used to hold together meat or fish dishes. Though called calidus-frigidus in ancient Rome (“hot-cold,” a concept that lives on in the French chaud-froid), dishes of meat in jelly have been unearthed at Pompeii, indicating that, even though the term “aspic” didn’t arise until later, the concept has long been with us.
Alternatively, aspic is used to garnish pâtés and cold dishes. Antonin Carême, the superstar chef of the Napoleonic age, loved aspic and used it extensively in great showpieces. Of course, part of this garnishing, at least before refrigeration, was because gelatin could effectively seal a dish so that air couldn’t get in, therefore lengthening shelf life.
That the first jellies were savory makes perfect sense. It’s not easy to clarify the gelatin obtained from meat, hooves, and bones to a point where it is so flavorless that adding fruit is an option. So for most of gelatin’s history, it was aspic, and not Jell-O.
Aspic was utilized throughout the Middle Ages (though it might also appear on the menu as gele or gely), and a detailed recipe for it is found in Le Viandier, a cookbook written in the 1300s. By the late 1700s, the term had come to mean a whole dish made with aspic, and not just the aspic itself.
The use of gelatin in savory dishes may sound odd, as we don’t use a lot of aspics these days (unless you’re pursuing a career in garde manger), but a lot of tremendously elegant dishes used aspic or were called aspics, from the elegant galantine of chicken to aspic de saumon to the molded salads that were so popular up until just a few decades ago.
Aspic seems to have vanished from the common household repertoire (though it lives on in some high-end eateries), but when I was growing up, aspics were common. While we enjoyed the occasional galantine or a refreshing bowl of consommé madrilène, by far the most common aspic we had growing up was tomato aspic. Traditional tomato aspic simply substitutes tomato juice for fruit juice in the basic “fruit gelatin” recipe on the Knox Gelatin box. Mom usually used V8 or bloody Mary mix, for added zip, and served it with a dressing made of sour cream, sliced radishes, sliced scallions, and chopped green pepper. For parties, Mom made the tomato aspic in a large ring mold, served it on a bed of lettuce, and placed the dressing in the center of the ring. It was an elegant, easy salad alternative that was especially welcome during the considerable chunk of the year that tomatoes were out of season.
When I started reflecting on this once-common dish, I decided to create my own updated version, using fresh salsa. It was great: spicy, crunchy, cold, slippery. It would make a nice side dish for grilled chicken or tuna salad, or anything else you wanted to zip up a bit. You can increase the recipe as much as necessary to fill a larger mold than I used. Enjoy.
Salsa Fresca Aspic
1 package unflavored gelatin
½ cup broth (chicken or veggie)
1½ cups fresh salsa
Put the broth in a small saucepan. Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold broth. Over low heat, stir the gelatin until dissolved (about 4 or 5 minutes). Add ½ a cup of the salsa, and keep stirring until salsa is hot and is completely combined with gelatin. Turn off heat, and add the rest of the salsa, stirring thoroughly to make sure gelatin is well distributed.
Pour into a container or 2-cup mold (or four half-cup molds), and put in refrigerator for a couple of hours, or until fully gelled. You can simply scoop from the container, or dip mold in hot water and invert onto a plate, to unmold the aspic. Serve on a bed of lettuce leaves (a slice or wedge of aspic if using a bowl or 2-cup mold; entire aspic if using individual molds) in lieu of salad. You might want to make it a bit fancier by drizzling with a little creamy cilantro dressing (Trader Joe’s has a good one). Or you could use it as a base for something like a bit of chicken salad. Lots of possibilities.
This works best if the salsa really is fresh, and not cooked down and sauce-like. My favorites are the Salsa Fresca from Sam’s or the fresh salsa from Whole Foods. You may find others, but this is the kind of bright, fresh, crunchy salsa I favor in this recipe.