REPASTS: IN PRAISE OF CALVES-FOOT JELLY

COLD FEET | August 7th 2008

jelly

"A basin of melted calves-foot jelly was, I'm sure she thought, a cure for every woe" ~ Elizabeth Gaskell, "My Lady Ludlow" (1858)

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Summer 2008

Calves-foot jelly has two forms: sweet, common in 19th-century Britain and America (likely the version Gaskell mentions above); and savoury--called petcha, a standard of Ashkenazi Jewish cooking. Both dishes start with a long braise of split cow's feet. The latter adds garlic, onion, salt and pepper, and usually retains the meat that falls from the feet; the former adds sugar, Madeira wine, brandy, cinnamon and citrus, and discards the meat. In both cases the stock is chilled until it sets, and the fat that rises to the top is skimmed off.

The key component of both is collagen--a protein found mainly in connective tissue, in which feet abound. Collagen makes meat tough, but it also makes the same cut, after stewing, silky and rich. Smart cooks have long begged chicken feet from the butcher: they give chicken soup extra body. Hot, collagen imparts richness; chilled, it turns to gelatin.

Both forms of calves-foot jelly seem wrong now: the sweet because we rarely use meat in desserts, and the savoury because we associate gelatin's wobbliness with pudding. If the thought of eating meat jelly on toast makes you shiver, reflect on the soothing comfort of beef stew served from an iron cauldron, the silky elegance of golden consommé in a white china tureen, or the beard-sticking smackiness of a well-cooked trotter. All require gelatin--and all make better use of it than those horrible, fruit-studded, 1970s jellies. ~ JON FASMAN