Tuesday, December 22, 2009

So Fond of Fondue

Right out of college, I went backpacking through Europe with friends. In addition to wanting to bring home Christmas ornaments from every country I visited, I was looking forward to sampling the specialty foods of each place, from crepes in Brittany to Wiener schnitzel in Vienna to moules/frites in Brussels. So of course, one night in Geneva, I found myself at a small restaurant in the student section of town, enjoying my first cheese fondue.

Of all of the wonderful food I sampled, cheese fondue was the easiest to recreate at home, and so it became one of my favorite winter company dishes. I used a recipe I found in Wines and Spirits, the wire-bound recipe booklet that accompanied the Time-Life Cooking of the World volume of the same name. Not having a fondue pot, I always made it in an electric wok, which made it easy to control the temperature and prevent the cheese from burning. Back then, I offered the traditional dippers: a baguette, of course, but also apples or pears.

Now, cheese fondue is a once-a-year-treat. We still make it in that electric wok, but the concept of dippers
has evolved. This year, we used a ciabatta from Beach Pea, a wonderful artisinal bakery in Kittery run by Thomas and Mariah Roberts, instead of the traditional baguette, and we had some apples from our Winter CSA from Heron Pond Farm. But the real revelation was moving beyond bread and fruit into meat and vegetables.

We had a lot of leftover ham from our holiday party, which dipped in cheese with a little bread, was like eating the most amazing ham and cheese sandwich ever. In a flash of inspiration, we also decided to blanch some broccoli -- after all, it's at its best with cheese sauce, right?  What a revelation! I think that cauliflower or Brussels sprouts would also be delectable, as would steamed baby potatoes.

For cheese, we used  our traditional combination of Gruyère, Emmenthaler, and Appenzeller, which we grated in the Cuisinart to make things easier.

I long ago lost that little wire-bound book with the recipe in it. Just for fun as I was writing this -- and to be able to give some more accurate ingredient amounts -- I googled "Cheese Fondue Recipe from Time/Life cookbooks 'Foods of the World". Up popped this recipe from Melissa Clark of The New York Times. It's a good approximation -- though I'm pretty sure the original called for flour to dredge the cheese, which is what I use. And as you'll see in reading her article, the fascination with new dippers and new versions is not mine alone.

Classic Fondue
Melissa Clark, New York Times
January 23, 1008

1 small garlic clove, halved
1 cup dry white wine
3/4 pound Gruyère cheese, grated
3/4 pound Emmenthaler, raclette or Appenzeller cheese, grated
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch (I prefer flour)
1 to 2 tablespoons kirsch (optional) (To me, this is essential, not optional)
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste (optional) (Ditto)
Crusty bread cubes; steamed broccoli or cauliflower; carrot, celery or fennel sticks; cubed apple; seedless grapes; clementine sections; cubed salami, soppressata or kielbasa; roasted chestnuts and/or dried apricots, for serving.

1. Rub cut side of garlic on inside of large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed saucepan, preferably cast iron, rubbing the bottom and halfway up the sides. Add wine and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.

2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, toss cheeses with cornstarch. Add a handful at a time to simmering wine, stirring until first handful melts before adding next. Reduce heat to medium and stir constantly until cheese is completely melted. Add kirsch, if using, and heat until bubbling, about 1 to 2 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, if desired. Serve with crusty bread and other accompaniments.

Yield: 6 main course servings or 10 appetizer servings.

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