It was a relief when I stepped out of the house this morning and noticed there was still a strong chill in the March air. I'm just as ready for Spring as anyone else in New York, but tonight, balmy temperatures can wait. I'm making raclette.
While fondue enjoyed a brief celebrity moment in the 1970s, its Swiss cuisine cousin, raclette, has never experienced the same level of stardom in the States. Having eaten both dishes on many occasions while living in Switzerland, I still favor the less popular of the two cheese-based dishes.Traditional fondue makes a delicious meal, but becomes fairly monotone in flavor as you continue to eat hunks of baguette dipped inkirsch-scented gruyere. Raclette, on the other hand, has the same comfort food-quality and do-it-yourself fun, but with a wider variety of tastes. Always a fan of multiple flavor combinations within a single dish, I opt for raclette every time.
To host a decent raclette party, you need a few essential ingredients: a warm bowl of small boiled potatoes, a platter of dried meats (such as prosciutto and viande sache), cornichons, pickled pearl onions and slices of raclette cheese, a semi-firm cow's milk cheese traditionally from France or Switzerland. For the authentic effect it's necessary to have a steady blaze going in your fireplace that you can hang your wheel of raclette cheese next to, and serve it on plates to your guests as it melts and sloughs off (in this scenario, it's also helpful to have a cabin in the Alps). But, for most of us, a raclette machine will do (or, if truly breaking tradition, a microwave, stovetop or other cheese-melting device).
Once you have your ingredients in order, the process is simple. Guests can put any combination of potatoes, meat and pickled vegetables on their plates. Then, if you have one, they melt slices of cheese in the raclette machine's individual warming trays. Once the cheese is sufficiently oozy, they scrape the cheese on top of their other ingredients with a wide wooden stick. The dish's name derives from this finishing touch, as racler means 'to scrape' in French. It's a beautiful, cheesy mess on the plate, with each bite offering a different possibility – nutty raclette, the pleasant saltiness of dried meat, the acidic brightness of pickled vegetables and warm potatoes, a soft backdrop to the intense variety of flavors. To complete the meal, serve a simple green salad on the side and plenty of good riesling (water is a sacrilege at raclette parties, as it’s said to harden the cheese in the stomach and create indigestion).
In the end, the bulky, square raclette machine on your dinner table might not be as sexy as a retro red fondue pot, but what it delivers is far better.