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A PhD in Gelatin

August 08, 1996|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

If Jell-O is the preschool of gelatin preparations, Patrick Healy's gelatin technique is post-doctoral. Healy, the chef at Xiomara in Pasadena and consulting chef at West L.A.'s Buffalo Club, trained in France and shares the French person's affection for jellied things.

"The French love gelatin and eat it a lot," he says. "They'll make a rich beef gelatin, chop it up and eat it with a salad of good country greens."

Americans, he's found, are less enthusiastic. "Gelatin is allowed only a small, complementary role here."

In a rabbit terrine, for example, Healy says the French like lots of gelatin and just a bit of rabbit and they don't mind bones; Americans want all meat, no bones and as little gelatin as possible.

In the course of an afternoon, Healy demonstrated advanced gelatin technique as he jelled a rabbit, made port wine aspic to eat with a country pa^te, and somehow transformed 16 baskets of fresh berries into a single shimmering burgundy-colored loaf whose cross-sectioned slices resembled a series of tiny, luminous oil paintings.

"I wouldn't serve any two of these dishes at the same meal," he advises. "Too much gelatin."

To produce gelatins as lovely and flavorful as Healy's, a certain level of sophistication and knowledge is required. Here are some of his cooking tips, from using sheet gelatin to clarifying stock to selecting the right knife for slicing gelatin.

SHEET GELATIN

I half-expected Healy to boil bones for hours, but he values swiftness and convenience as much as any cook. He uses processed gelatin, which also, he says, offers more control. Healy does prefer sheet gelatin to the granulated stuff. These 9x5-inch shiny clear rectangles look like the thinnest glass and are available in restaurant supply houses.

To use sheet gelatin, soak the sheets in cool water about 10 minutes. When the sheets have softened, squeeze out any extra water lest it dilute your recipe. Dissolve the sheets in hot stock or juice.

BROTH/STOCK

Because gelatin tends to dull flavors, it is important to make the most flavorful broth or stock possible. To make a flavorful broth, sweet or savory, always start the cooking in cold water. Cold water pulls out flavors; hot water seals them in.

TOOLS

Cheesecloth and a chinois are helpful for straining juices and broths and necessary for clear, cloud-free gelatin dishes. A chinois is a very fine, cone-shaped sieve said to have been named for its resemblance to the straw hats once worn by Chinese workers. They are available at such specialty kitchen shops as Williams-Sonoma.

CLARIFYING BROTH, STOCK

Even after a broth has been strained, it is slightly cloudy. For a perfect gelee, then, it is necessary to clarify the broth. Eggs and egg whites do the clarification; however, as they pull the impurities from the broth, they also pull some of the flavor.

"The idea is to replace whatever it is you're taking out," Healy says. Therefore, for a savory stock he finely chops shallots, carrots and onions in the food processor and adds them as extra flavor to the lightly whipped egg whites and crumpled egg shell.

The broth to be clarified must be simmering, just under a boil, when the eggs and vegetables are added. As the egg whites cook and take hold, they will bind everything together and float to the top to form what's called a "raft." When the raft has formed, make a hole in it in the center; "So it has a place to boil," Healy says. Indeed, if the broth is kept at a low boil, it will push froth up through the hole. Keep an eye on the raft to make sure the hole stays open.

Simmer the broth with the raft for about 15 minutes, then strain through a cheesecloth and a chinois or fine strainer. Don't push or mash the solids as you strain.

TIMING

Allow 4 hours for these gelatins to set. In a rush, pack them in ice. Under no circumstances should they be put in the freezer.

MOLDING AND UNMOLDING

Be sure the mold to be used is clean, so there is nothing the gelatin can stick to. If you wish, run the mold under cold water before filling, so the walls are wet.

To unmold, set the terrines or loaf pans briefly in warm water. Sometimes, it's necessary to run a knife around the sides to loosen the terrine.

SLICING GELATIN

For slicing terrines, there is nothing better than a "fine slicer," a long, thin, unpointed knife with muted serrations. The fine slicer cuts through meat and berries alike without tearing, so each slice reveals a beautiful composite cross-section of ingredients.

TERRINE OF RABBIT IN HERB ASPIC

Here is Healy's version of lapin en gelee. It is a variation of a dish he learned in France from Roger Verge, whose terrine contained rabbit with bones and a higher proportion of gelatin.

STEW

1 (3-pound) rabbit

1 carrot

1 onion, cut in half

2 shallots

1 stalk celery

1 bay leaf, optional

1 sprig thyme, optional

2 cloves garlic

3 quarts chicken stock

Cut rabbit in three pieces: shoulders, saddle, legs.

Cover whole carrots, onion, shallots, celery, bay leaf, thyme and garlic with cold chicken stock in large pot.

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