Some of you will remember, as I do, parties and potlucks from decades past: the shimmering mounds of emerald Jell-O studded with canned fruit cocktail, the elegant curves of tomato aspic trimmed with egg slices and green onions. Remember, too, the picnics in the sunshine, with jellied salads slumping into their serving dishes and pooling on the paper plates of the diners. Recently, they seem to have come back into vogue, with a not-so-subtle difference: nowadays, the jelly shapes remain steadfast in the heat, because they aren't made with gelatin anymore. The magic ingredient, new to most North American palates but familiar to Asian cuisine for centuries, is agar agar (the name is Malaysian), or agar 2.
Although the product jells liquids, its texture is slightly different from that of gelatin and so is its preparation. Anything that you might create with gelatin, you can make with agar 2, and you won't be eating hooves and bones, either (the source of gelatin), but nutritious sea vegetable.
It is available as powder or flakes at your local health-food store or Asian supermarket. I prefer using the flakes, as the powder, made according to the package directions, doesn't jell smoothly enough for my palate.
It is important to completely dissolve the flakes for good results. Soak them for 10 to 15 minutes in whatever liquid you are making your jelly with, then bring the mixture to the boil over low heat and simmer it for five minutes, stirring continually, until the liquid is completely clear and smooth. A tablespoon of agar 2 will jell a cup of liquid. As it sets at a higher temperature than gelatin (which means it doesn't melt at the picnic), you need to add anything else that's going into the recipe while the agar 2 mixture is still warm.
Try this interesting alternative to gelatin in the appetizer recipe below, adapted from The Urban Picnic, my book with Straight staffer John Burns (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004). It makes 12 small pieces, enough to serve four to six people.
Shrimp in Rosy Agar Agar Aspic With Wasabi Cream
180 grams cooked salad shrimp
1/2 cup clear fish or vegetable stock
1/2 cup rosé wine (dry)
1 squeeze lemon juice
1 tablespoon agar 2 flakes
Using a mini-muffin pan with 12 cups or an ice-cube tray with deep rounded cups, place a garnish detail in the bottom of each cup, a tiny edible flower or a colourful petal or two, maybe a few snippets of chive. Then divide the shrimp among the 12 cups. Put the tray of shrimp in the fridge until needed.
Mix the stock (needs to be cool), wine, and lemon juice in a small bowl and stir in the agar 2. Follow the directions above to dissolve the agar 2 completely. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. As soon as the liquid is cool, retrieve the shrimp and spoon the mixture over them in the small moulds, enough almost to cover them. Refrigerate until serving time.
4 tablespoons wasabi powder
1 tablespoon water
5 teaspoons mayonnaise
Mix the wasabi powder with water according to package directions, then blend in the mayonnaise and adjust for flavour. Makes about three tablespoons. To serve each shrimp mould, top with a dab or a piping of Wasabi Cream on the wide end of a Belgian endive leaf, in the bowl of a Chinese spoon, or on a thin slice of cucumber.
Here's a light and frothy dessert using agar 2. It's a delightful way to end a summer meal.
2 teaspoons agar agar
1/4 cup water
4 lemons, juice and zest
6 large eggs, separated
1 cup sugar, divided
Put agar 2 and water into a small saucepan and leave to soak. Mix lemon juice and zest with egg yolks and a half-cup sugar in the top half of a double boiler. Cook over simmering water, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. Heat agar 2 and water according to instructions above, then stir into the thickened egg-yolk mixture. Simmer for five more minutes in the double boiler, stirring. Remove from the heat. Beat egg whites until they form soft peaks, then beat in the remaining sugar gradually. Fold the whites into the cooling yolk mixture. Pour into a pretty glass bowl or individual dishes. Chill, then decorate with fruit, whipped cream, et cetera as desired.