It is time for some winter comfort food. Before the big rush of the holidays, we just want to have a casual dinner with a few friends. One thing that comes to my mind when the cold weather hits is raclette. Raclette is the name of a cheese, and the name of a dish made with it. The name comes from the French verb “racler,” which means “to scrape,” which is what you do to the cheese as it melts.
Although there are a couple of stories about the origins of the dish, the place of the origin is not disputed: first in the Swiss Alps in the canton of Valais, spreading to the French Alps in the Savoie region. Depending on which legend you believe, it was created by shepherds taking their meal of bread, some cold potatoes and cheese that they heated over the fire they had built to keep warm in the fields. Or it was first cooked by grape harvesters taking a break from their tiring work. One of them stabbed his cheese with a knife and held it up to the fire to warm, scraping off the melting cheese.
My sister Cindy, who teaches French in Knoxville, introduced me to raclette. Several years ago, she went to study in Annecy, in the French Alps, about 20 miles from Switzerland. One of her favorite restaurants had all-you-can-eat raclette one night a week during the winter. There would be a big wheel of raclette cheese near the fireplace just melting enough to get soft. The waiter would scrape off the cheese onto small warmed plates, and would bring you as many platefuls as you wanted. Cornichons (French sour pickles) and pickled onions would be in jars on the table. Also on the table would be boiled potatoes wrapped in towels to keep them warm and a platter of sausages and ham. According to her, before you realized it you had eaten WAY too much, but it was SO good!
I had never had it, since I had usually gone to France in warmer weather, and spent most of my time in the south, rather than in the mountains. Then for Christmas a few years ago she got a raclette machine. It has eight little individual pans that slide in under a heating element. The top can be used to heat the sausage, ham or salami. There’s another type that holds a full half wheel under a heating element, so that each person can scrape off what he wants. Both are pretty pricey unless you plan on using them a good bit. I was fortunate enough to find a brand new one for myself at an estate sale, a real bargain. But if you don’t have one of these machines you can still enjoy the raclette experience.
This is definitely a winter dish (think apres-ski), and one to share with a small group. If you would like to give it a try, get your raclette cheese (available at cheese shops and gourmet markets); about 8 ounces per person should do it. The cheese itself is a full flavored cheese, very aromatic but not strong and smelly. If you can’t find raclette, Appenzeller or Gruyere would be almost as good.
Here’s the plan: Boil small unpeeled redskin or Yukon Gold potatoes and keep them warm. On a platter, arrange the sliced meats: ham, prosciutto, salami, smoked and fresh sausages. Put out bowls of cornichons and pickled onions and a loaf of crusty bread. Optional (and definitely not traditional) are slices of tomato, steamed broccoli florets, slices of red bell pepper and sautéed mushrooms. You might want a little pot of Dijon mustard, too.
Slice the cheese about 1/4” thick. In a buttered shallow baking dish that can go to the table, place one slice of cheese (rind removed) per person. Slide into the oven about 4” below a pre-heated broiler. Watch carefully and when it just starts to melt and look a bit crusty, take it out. Meanwhile your friends will have filled their plates, preferably pre-warmed, with the condiments. Scoop a slice of the cheese onto each plate and dig in. Repeat until the cheese is gone and everyone is full and happy.
The only side dish you might want is a green salad with a simple white wine vinaigrette (2 tbsp white wine vinegar, 1/2 cup olive oil, 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, salt and pepper to taste, whisked together).
I have a friend who makes this with a pizza stone set on the hearth right in front of the fireplace, with the cheese resting on the side with the rind. I haven’t tried this, but it would be a fun way to do it, with everyone gathered around the fire, and would lend an authentic slightly smoky flavor.
For dessert, a dish of sliced oranges, sprinkled, if you like, with slivered fresh basil and a touch of honey does the trick. If you’re more ambitious, make it a fruit salad with the addition of thinly sliced apples and pears, and sprinkle with toasted walnuts.
So who cares if the weather outside is frightful...raclette is SO delightful!