Treat for a winter's evening
Cozy fireplace, cold wind from the north, cheese melted over a potato ah, heaven

February 23, 2005

It's just a dish of melted cheese, after all. Kind of like a grilled cheese sandwich, without the bread.

It's got no added beer or wine or kirsch, like a fondue or a rarebit; no additional cream or spices like chile con queso, no crispy crust and spicy toppings, like a pizza.

Even its name seems ordinary, from the French "to scrape," because that's how they serve it they hold the cheese up to the fire until it starts to melt, then scrape it off onto a plate.

Yup, raclette is pretty much just a dish of melted cheese. But what a cheese it is creamy, gooey, slightly stinky, an intensely heady puddle of molten gold. Eaten with some steamed new potatoes, it is comfort food extraordinaire.

I remember first reading about raclette in a cooking magazine nearly 30 years ago. The article conjured up Swiss alpine villagers gathered round cozy fires, dining simply and well on bubbly cheese and sizzling sausages. I was smitten right away. Raclette seemed to break all the food rules I'd grown up with, where melted cheese was a topping that required you to eat some of the more pedestrian food underneath. That one could make a meal out of melted cheese alone was like getting to eat a dish of frosting or whipped cream. How indulgent could you get?

For all my yearning to try it, it was years before I got the chance, until one trip to Paris, when I stumbled onto La Maison du Valais, on the rue Royale. The building doubled as the regional tourist office for the Swiss Valais region. Upstairs, away from the tourist brochures, was a rustic-looking restaurant that served local foods raclette and fondue, various types of air-dried beef and sausages, superlative tarte tatin, and crisp white wines.

We sat at booths, on prickly white and black spotted cowhide seats that looked like they could still be standing in the fields, chewing cud. Crocks of steamed new potatoes graced every table, and dishes of cornichons and a relish that seemed equal parts pickled onions and nose-stinging mustard. A brazier glowed red in the corner, where waiters settled big half wheels of cheese into metal holders. When it began to bubble, they scraped the melted portion onto our plates and explained how to eat it scoop up some of the cheese, with a bit of potato, a little relish and a chunk of pickle.

It was every bit as good as I had known it would be.

Going to La Masion du Valais became a part of every visit we made to Paris until two years ago, when it disappeared. We walked up and down the street a few times, just to be sure we hadn't mistaken the address, but it was truly gone. We'd become dependent on our yearly raclette fix. We were bereft without it.

Fortunately, these days a good raclette meal doesn't require you to get on a plane. Tabletop raclette machines are now widely available, where cheese can be melted in little trays under a broiler, and sausages can be grilled above on a griddle. In a pinch, you can melt slices of the cheese in the oven or a microwave, and slide them off onto a plate. Even the cheese itself is easily available locally.

The cheese you use for raclette is important. Even though I have a raclette cookbook that says you can use all kinds of cheese for this dish, you really can't. Some cheeses melt greasy the oils separate out and leave a chewy mass. One of the beauties of real raclette is that it melts into a gentle, homogenized pool of cheesiness. There are some substitutes, like a real French Morbier, but it's hard to get good versions of that here.

Raclettes are made in both France and Switzerland, and the tastes can vary from mild and milky to big and beefy. The ones I have found here are a little milder, and I am guessing they are made from pasteurized milk. If you can find ones that say "au lait cru," grab them, but in order to be sold in the U.S., they will need to be older than 60 days. Bloomingfoods carries a good French brand and Trader Joe's, up in Indy, carries a nice Swiss version. The supermarkets in town sometimes carry raclette, too. It is mild and OK, but not as good as the other two.

If you really want to splurge, good French cheeses can be delivered here from France by a company called fromages.com. They overnight them to you in a refrigerator pack. I have gotten excellent cheeses from them in the past but, oddly, the raclette I ordered for this column was a little too mild for my taste the ones from Bloomingfoods and Trader Joe's were better full bodied and strong.

An evening of raclette is an incredibly easy way to entertain (or just to feed yourself). You need the cheese, of course, and new potatoes, steamed, and some crusty bread. Cornichons (the tart little pickled gherkins often served with pate) are wonderful accompaniments as are pickled onions (I chop them up and stir in some Dijon mustard to approximate the relish at La Maison du Valais.) Grilled sausages or thinly sliced dried beef or Prosciutto (or all of the above, if you are having a crowd) can fill out the menu along with some tangy, crispy vegetable salads. A caramelized apple tart is the perfect finish. The only thing you'll be missing from an authentic raclette meal is the cowhide seats. Perch on a few Gateway computer boxes, and you are there.

Here are a couple of nice accompaniments for your raclette.

Grated Carrot Salad

1 pound carrots, peeled and shredded

1 clove garlic, minced

2 tablespoons tarragon, minced (or 1 teaspoon, dried)

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice (or more to taste)

salt and pepper to taste

 

Toss grated carrots with tarragon. Make dressing by whisking together oil, lemon juice, garlic and salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Dress salad, serve immediately.

Roasted Cauliflower and Broccoli Salad

1 head cauliflower, washed and cut into bite-sized florets

1 bunch broccoli, washed and cut into bite-sized florets

olive oil

salt and pepper

1/4 cup oil (a rich, smoky oil like Moroccan argan oil or pistachio oil is great here, but olive oil will be fine)

1 tablespoon mild curry powder (preferably a sweet version, like Malaysian curry powder, available at Sahara Mart)

2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar, or other white wine vinegar (more to taste)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Toss vegetable florets with olive so they are well coated. Arrange in a single layer on two large baking sheets. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Roast vegetables till tender but not mushy, and beginning to brown and crisp. Stir once if necessary to help them brown evenly. This should take 10-15 minutes at the most.

Whisk together oil, vinegar and curry powder. Toss warm vegetables with dressing, adjust seasoning and serve warm or at room temperature.
 

An evening of raclette

Ingredients

Raclette cheese (since this is the main part of the meal, figure 5-7 ounces per person.) It helps, though it is not essential, to have an electric tabletop raclette grill. These are available at Sur la Table (by mail or in the Carmel store) beginning at $89.95.

Small new potatoes, steamed until cooked through, about half a pound per person

Cornichons

Picked onions, chopped, mixed with mustard

Thinly sliced Prosciutto and cured beef

Grated carrot salad (see recipe, D4)

Roasted cauliflower and broccoli salad (see recipe, D4)

Crusty bread

Apremont (a light white wine from the Savoie region of France, available at local stores that sell wine, including Big Red Liquors)

An apple tart for dessert

You can (and should) do all the work for a raclette dinner in advance.

Slice the cheese in thin slices, about 1 ounce portions. Pile onto a serving plate.

Prepare the potatoes and keep warm in a ceramic crock or in a dish on top of the raclette grill. Make the salads and set out the meats and relishes so guests can help themselves.

To serve, if you have a raclette machine, have guests heat their own cheese portions until melted, scooping them out onto the potatoes on their plate. This way they can pace themselves and eat as much as they want.

If you don't have the machine, you are going to need to take more control of the process. You can run back and forth from your broiler with individual portions, but this isn't much fun and the cheese can toughen. Probably the best thing to do in this case is to slice potatoes onto ovenproof plates and cover with several cheese slices at a time, running them under the broiler and delivering to guests. This can work in the microwave, too. You don't want the cheese to brown, just to become a molten pool over the potatoes.