Chef Transforms Our Retro Gelatin Salad into a Poached Tuna Salad

It might be time to close the cookbook on this vintage recipe.

The concept of a gelatin salad might sound a little shocking to us now, but they were popular in the 1950s (and because they required refrigeration, they were also seen as a status symbol). In this episode of our Then & Now series, chef Alexis deBoschnek tackles a gelatin-based Iceberg Ring recipe from a vintage BHG New Cook Book, then uses the recipe as inspiration to create her own modern dish.

Iceberg Ring with Tuna Salad
Shirley Cheng

Then: Gelatin Iceberg Ring with Tuna Salad

The first step calls for adding shredded lettuce and chopped scallions to the strikingly green, lime gelatin mixture (which Alexis does reluctantly). "When I think of Jell-O I think of something sweet," she says. "So I think maybe if there was a sweet filling in this, perhaps I would feel differently." However, a throwback tuna salad goes into the center of the mold.

After chilling in the fridge, Alexis successfully removes the gelatin ring and scoops the tuna filling into the middle to finish it off. Moving on to her version, she goes for a contemporary tuna salad.

Poached Tuna Salad
Shirley Cheng

Now: Poached Tuna Salad

Moving on to her revised version of the gelatin salad, Alexis demonstrates how to make a contemporary tuna salad using similar ingredients to the vintage BHG recipe.

To cook her tuna steak, Alexis poaches it low and slow in olive oil along with a bay leaf, crushed garlic, peppercorns and a lemon peel. While she waits for the tuna to get pink, she whips up the dressing: mayo, sour cream, and gelatin powder "to pay homage to the recipe before me." She also adds a grated clove of garlic, lime zest and juice, paprika, salt, and pepper.

"Whenever I'm making a salad, I try to think about balancing something fatty and acidic and adding some crunch," she explains.

As decoration, Alexis uses scallions and cucumber (just like in the vintage recipe). She breaks up the tuna into small pieces and layers it onto romaine leaves along with the dressing and toppings. She describes the dish as a "hand salad," which simply means you can actually pick it up and eat it with your hands.

The Taste Test

"I really love the contrast between these two salads," Alexis says. While they have similar components, there are obviously some major differences. She digs into the gelatin iceberg ring first, taking a bite of the gelatin combined with the tuna filling. She concludes that while the recipe was fun to make and very creative, the lettuce goes unnoticed and the gelatin flavor is very sweet with the tuna. When she tastes the tuna separate from the salad, however, she describes the tuna's flavor as "good" and adds that the iceberg lettuce and scallions "add a nice crunch to the gelatin." Overall, the contrasting flavors of the tuna and gelatin together didn't work for her, but she added, "If you're into sweet things, this recipe might be up your alley."

She moves onto her tuna salad and visibly breathes a sigh of relief. The flavors work together and feel more balanced, and there's no overpowering gelatin to get in the way.

In the end, she concludes that she would choose to make her poached tuna salad again vs. making the retro gelatin salad recipe again by saying, "I think we can pay homage to the '50s, say thank you for your service, and take it to 2022 in a more inventive way."

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