What? You've never heard of a "wine gel"? Relax. You have lots of company. Wine gels are not something you run across every day.
In the first place, in spite of its beautiful appearance, a wine gel is neither a dessert nor a molded fruit salad. Jell-O it is not. It has just a touch of sweetness, largely from the wine and liqueur used in its preparation, although most recipes do call for some sugar.
So now you're back to square one. You know what a wine gel isn't, but you still don't know what it is.
Think of it as a condiment . . . a relish in an unusual form. For that, by and large, is what a wine gel is. Essentially, it's made from a base of wine and unflavored gelatin with a small amount of sugar and lemon juice. The secret to its success lies in your own artistic ability, for the thing that makes a wine gel special is the design of simple fruits and vegetables you "paint" in it. That may be nothing more than a simple flower composed of a few thin strips of celery as a stem and some berries. Or you may choose to chop the set gelatin and artfully arrange just a few colorful berries over it. Whatever you do, don't overdo any visible additions. The true charm of a wine gel lies in its simplicity.
With the emphasis today on lighter eating, a wine gel can remove all doldrums from a basically boring meal. There is nothing quite so unappetizing looking as a platter filled with opaque pieces of cooked, skinned and boned chicken breasts or fish. They may fit perfectly into a healthful diet, but no one will dispute that visually those foods need help. That's where a pretty wine gel can rescue a simple menu and turn it into a stylish feast. Not only will it be a conversation piece, it can add just the right amount of extra flavor needed to punch up bland dishes.
By changing the type of wine called for in the basic recipe and adding a tablespoon or two of a fruity liqueur, you can change the flavor of the mixture to complement whatever meat or fish you are serving. A nice light red wine combined with a hint of triple sec can produce a wine gel that will add a delicious cool, minty spark to some simple lamb chops. Or make the gel with a clear apricot wine and serve it with broiled chicken or roasted duckling. The possibilities are limitless once you try your hand at making one of these offbeat condiments. The only thing that will hold you back will be the scope of your own imagination.
And don't overlook the possibilities of serving a wine gel as part of a cheese course. Make it with the same wine you plan to serve with the cheeses, then sit back and watch the fun as your guests find still another way to enjoy wine and cheese together.
With the holiday crush absorbing every spare moment right now, this is an easy do ahead dish whose good looks and flavor will fit into a festive feast beautifully. Here is a good basic recipe that can be adapted to almost any type of meal by simply changing the wine and liqueur suggested.
To ensure success in your endeavor, pick a clear wine--preferably a white, blush or rose type, although some of the lighter reds work very well. If you want to use a dark Burgundy, it will look better when the set gelatin is chopped and served garnished with a few fruits. BASIC WINE GEL
3 envelopes unflavored gelatin
6 cups white, blush or rose wine
3/4 to 1 cup sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons fruit or other flavor liqueur
Garnishes of choice
Sprinkle gelatin over 2 cups wine in saucepan. Heat, stirring gently, until gelatin is dissolved. Add sugar and stir over low heat until dissolved. (Don't stir so hard that bubbles form.)
Remove pan from heat and gently stir in remaining 4 cups wine, lemon juice and liqueur. Chill mixture until gelatin begins to thicken. Spoon 1/2-inch layer of gelatin into bottom of 13x9-inch clear glass serving dish.
Arrange garnishes over gelatin in dish in attractive design. Chill until almost set. (Keep remaining gelatin cool, but do not refrigerate or it will set.) When base layer of gelatin is almost set, spoon 4 cups remaining thickened gelatin over it. Chill until completely set.
Spoon remaining thickened gelatin into 8-inch square glass dish and chill until set. At serving time, finely dice gelatin in square dish and spoon around edges of serving dish as garnish. Makes 12 to 16 servings.
Variations: To serve with lamb, combine clear light red wine with 2 tablespoons white creme de menthe. For chicken, combine dry white wine with 2 tablespoons raspberry liqueur. For pork, combine Riesling-style white wine with 2 tablespoons amaretto liqueur. For fish, combine pale pink blush wine with 2 tablespoons triple sec liqueur.