A cool shimmer of gelee catches the light, and suspended beneath its glassy sheen like a summer mosaic is a perfectly poached egg, an asparagus tip, some fresh peas, slices of carrots, pieces of tender green beans and sprigs of herbs. Spoon into it, first breaking into the smooth gelee and then into the rich, velvety egg.
One bite, and the flavor of the gelee shines through, bright and refreshing and citrusy -- because it’s made with Sauvignon Blanc. It’s the white wine gelee that makes this classic French dish appealingly modern. Traditionally, oeuf en gelee is set in aspic jelly made with a clarified veal stock. But using white wine gelee in lieu of a veal aspic turns it into something altogether new.
White wine gelee is perfect in summer -- it’s cool and smooth and delicate. Pair cubes of it with fresh berries in a stemmed glass or layer it with panna cotta. Use it to garnish poached chicken or salmon. Put a thin layer of it over canapes.
A gelee is simply liquid set with gelatin. Traditionally, the liquid for a savory gelee is fish or meat stock that’s been reduced to concentrate the flavor and clarified because it “must always be crystal clear and a light, golden color,” according to “The Art of Garde Manger,” published by the Culinary Institute of America in the 1970s. Add white wine to the mix and the flavor is brightened, sharpened, more focused.
It’s sort of an elaborate process, but the result isn’t fussy -- it’s coolly beautiful, a literally sparkling layer or base for more dishes than you’d think.
A terrine of chicken liver pate, spiced with a touch of nutmeg, begs for a layer of gelee, which gets a sort of honeyed voluptuousness from the addition of Monbazillac, a sweet wine from southwest France. Start with chicken stock, preferably homemade; it’s worth it for the depth of flavor, but you can use commercial chicken broth as a substitute. To clarify the stock or broth, simmer it with a couple of egg whites and egg shells. The egg whites coagulate to form a “raft” and draw impurities from the liquid. Discard the raft and what remains is clear stock. Add softened gelatin to the stock, along with the Monbazillac. Decorate the top of the pate with chives, then gently spoon the gelee, set just to a syrupy stage, over it. Finally, chill the pate until it’s completely set.
Eggs in gelee are common in French charcuteries. Rows of them are lined up in refrigerated cases, decorated with sunbursts of tarragon leaves or sprigs of dill or wrapped with slices of ham or smoked salmon. Served with toasted brioche, they’re perfect for brunch.
Once you make the vegetable stock (which you don’t need to clarify) and add the gelatin, chill it, stirring gently, in a bowl over ice water so you can see when it begins to thicken (it will happen quickly). Then stir in the blanched vegetables -- they should be suspended in the gelee -- and assemble.
Or for dessert, make a gelee from the juices of crushed poached grapes and white Port. Once cooled and set, cut it into cubes and scatter them atop fresh figs poached in white Port with a little vanilla and lime peel. It all comes together with a drizzling of the figs’ poaching syrup.
What could be cooler?
Wash the grapes and remove the stems. Place the grapes in a medium saucepan and add 1 cup water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes to soften and slightly cook the grapes. Remove from the heat.
Lightly crush the grapes in the pan using a potato masher or pestle. Pour the grapes and the liquid into a glass or nonreactive bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Pour the grapes with the juices into a sieve lined with several layers of dampened cheesecloth over a large measuring cup or a bowl. Allow the juice to drain from the mashed grapes into the bowl. Let the juice drain naturally, about 5 minutes; do not press the grapes as this will cloud the juice. You should have about three-fourths cup juice. Discard the grapes.
Place the juice in a small saucepan and stir in 2 teaspoons of sugar, or to taste (it should be a bit tart). Heat the juice over medium heat to just below simmering. Taste again and adjust for sweetness. Remove one-fourth cup of the juice to a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the juice. When the gelatin is moistened, add it to the rest of the juice, stirring until it is dissolved.
Stir 2 tablespoons of the Port and one-half teaspoon of the lime juice into the gelee mixture. Pour the mixture into an 8-inch loaf pan and refrigerate until set, about 45 minutes.
Poach the figs while the gelee is setting up. In a large saucepan, combine two-thirds cup sugar and 2 cups water. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the saucepan and drop in the pod, along with the lime peel. Heat the mixture over medium heat to simmering. Stir in the remaining one-third cup Port wine. Add the figs cut side up, and simmer about 10 minutes, or until tender. Remove the pan from the heat, cover and let stand until the figs cool to room temperature, about 45 minutes.
Once the figs have cooled, remove them from the poaching liquid with a slotted spoon and set aside. Strain the syrup through a cheesecloth-lined fine-mesh strainer. Pour the syrup back into the pan and heat to simmering over high heat. Reduce the poaching liquid to a syrupy consistency (to about two-thirds cup), 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool to warm.
When ready to serve, arrange two fig halves on a serving plate. Cut the gelee into three-fourths-inch squares and arrange three squares of gelee on top of each fig half. Drizzle the fig syrup around the figs on the plate. Repeat with the remaining figs.
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