Sunday, February 21, 2010

Raclette Night

                              After a day on the ski slopes or bundled up by a cozy fire, try this sophisticated dinner that combines the practical elements of a grilled cheese sandwich with the convivial atmosphere of fondue.

My father did business in Switzerland when I was a teenager and he frequently brought back new culinary treats and techniques for us to try, chief among them, Raclette.  Raclette means to scrape in Swiss dialect and on wintry nights around Lake Geneva and along the eastern border of France, shepherds melted their buttery, fruity local cheese and scraped it over potatoes and pickled vegetables.  All three components keep well during the winter, as do cured meats, which also came to be part of the dish known for its cheesy main ingredient, Raclette. 

When my parents announced we were having a Raclette Night, we knew we were in for a fun evening.  Each of us would concoct our own meal suited to our individual tastes matching melted Raclette cheese with an array of delicacies.  The smallest waxy potatoes my mother could find were boiled with their delicate skins left on.  An expensive jar of French pickles, cornichons, with little onions stuffed alongside the gherkins was opened.  Cured meats, grilled mushrooms, a hearty baguette and some sliced pears filled out a platter and the melted cheese experiments began.

Fondue has been back in style in the U.S. for a few years now and perhaps those electric non-stick pots with matching multi-colored skewers were never really put away. Now that Raclette is far easier to find at your local grocery than it used to be, try a Raclette Night of your own.  It’s quite easy to put together and is not a bad way to use up a few leftovers (like ham) and pantry hangers-on (break open that jar of giant caper berries).

In restaurants on the continent, half and quarter wheels of Raclette are brought to the table and the cut side is melted under a hot burner or under an electric grill.  (To see some of the professional equipment follow the links at the bottom of this post.)  Each diner scrapes the melted, bubbly cheese onto potatoes while the next layer of cheese cooks.  Diners keep scraping until everyone has had their fill.  Some restaurants use a specialized grill with individual pans to melt and serve the cheese to guests.  These are available for home use but suffer from the one-use appliance curse. 

My mother came up with a method that was easy and used equipment most of us have in the kitchen.  She cut away the rhind and placed slabs of sliced Raclette on stainless steel steak platters and melted the cheese in a very hot oven, 450˚F for 2-3 minutes. The cheese is so buttery that it stays melted on the hot plate with time to toss cooked hot potatoes and cornichons on the side.  She was able to serve up to eight people at the same time.  Use a fajita or steak pan that can withstand high oven heat and has a matching holder or wooden plate to avoid scorching the dining room table.  Metal pie plates (event the disposable ones), roasting pans and cookie sheets also work.  Don’t worry about whether you pans are not “non-stick;” Raclette is high in fat and will slide off of most surfaces. 

Either a Swiss or French Raclette is perfect for Raclette Night and available at markets that house a specialty cheese department.  Several brands are made from raw milk and aged a minimum of 60 days to kill off any harmful pathogens.  Raw milk versions have an excellent taste however , if you can’t find Raclette, try Swiss Emmenthal and Gruyere cheese.

Raclette is a buttery cheese with a fruity flavor that is complimented by smoked and sweet-salty foods.  Along with the de rigueur boiled potatoes and cornichons pickles served with the melted Raclette, lay out cured meats like prosciutto, spec, bresaola plus pickled onions and to compliment the fruity notes, add some sliced pear to your platter.  There is room for some experimentation as well so check your cupboard for ideas.  Other pickled vegetables like okra, asparagus, green beans, caper berries, marinated artichoke hearts and olives are options.  Grilled mushrooms and even sweet grilled onions (like tiny cippolini cooked whole) and roasted peppers.  French bread doused with a bit of black pepper also compliments the cheese. 

Wine, Beer and Non-Alcoholic Matches
Experts and Raclette fans seem fairly evenly split over red or white wines with the meal so experiment and try one of each.   Beers and sparkling wines also fit the category and can be chosen based on what you are serving at your Raclette Night.  Lots of cured meats and smoked fish may point you towards beer or perhaps an Alsace or Riesling kabinette. 

A paired down pure Raclette Night with potatoes and cornichons calls for a local wine that plays off the cheese’s fruity nature or cherry kirsch, which is not sweet. Try a white that is moderately fruity with a mineral twist.  Whites made from the chasselas grape (called fendant in Switzerland) are a specialty of the regions that produce Raclette (the Savoie in France and the region around Lake Geneva on the Swiss side).   Look for a Vin de Savoie for a great pairing.
A classic red is often enjoyed with Raclette.  Cabernet Franc, Beaujolais or even Bordeaux that bend toward a merlot blend is a nice match if you are serving grilled meat and earthy vegetables like mushrooms. 

Beer
Belgian pale ale like Duvel and if you can find it, a cherry beer.  At our house a wheat beer is the beer of choice.

Non-Alcoholic
For the children of the household, apple cider served hot or cold will provide a complimentary note to the meal. If the elders are enjoying something sparkly, serve a  sparkling grape juice with a shot of pomegranate juice to bring out the fruity flavors of the cheese.

Dessert?
Continue dipping pears and other sliced fruit into melted gooiness. Try a chocolate and butterscotch dip then roll your fruit in chopped nuts.  Or serve a dessert of fresh cherries drizzled with a little Swiss chocolate.

For more on Raclette:
This Raclette Suisse website (http://www.raclette-suisse.ch/fr/meta/home.html) is based in Berne in Switzerland.  Even if you don’t speak French or German (Swiss German), the languages on the site, you’ll enjoy the videos of people at Raclette parties. Clips show how the cheese melts, even the ideal thickness of the cheese slices and many foods to serve alongside.  There is also a substantial recipe section with photos for other ways to use Raclette cheese, melted or not, in appetizers, main dishes and desserts.  A fun site.

To see the melting equipment restaurants along the Swiss/French border territories use, check out Raclette Corner at http://www.raclettecorner.com/melter.