By J.M. Hirsch
The Associated Press
CONCORD, N.H. - It has been roughly 20 years since I've eaten raclette, a luscious dish of potatoes and pungent melted cheese, but I've always been convinced we had the Germans to thank for this wonderful culinary creation.
Then I picked up a copy of James Peterson's voluminous Glorious French Food (Wiley; $45), wherein lies an explanation of raclette that set my mouth watering. But French?
Clearly, I'd never given the origins of the word much thought. Blame that on being introduced to the dish as a child in Germany - by Australian neighbors, no less.
Nevertheless, Peterson says raclette is French (a derivative of racler, meaning to scrape), and anyone who can write a 742-page tome on the glories of any cuisine likely knows best.
According to Cooking.com, the dish originated with Swiss shepherds who melted rounds of cheese on flat rocks near their campfires. When the cheese melted, the shepherds scraped it off the rock and served it over roasted potatoes.
Raclette hasn't changed much over the years. Raclette cheese is so strong when it's solid that it is nearly inedible; but it becomes luxurious when melted, usually served draped over steamed or boiled new potatoes. It's that simple.
In Germany this cheese was sold by the kilogram in large leathery hunks. Only in recent years has raclette cheese been widely available in the United States, hence my two-decade lapse in partaking of it.
Raclette - the word is used for both the cheese and the dish - is the perfect meal this time of year; cooking at the table keeps it social, and the cheese and potatoes make it hearty.
Though variations exist, it typically is served with a heating element, often a hot plate, at the table. This is used to both melt the cheese and keep the potatoes warm.
In Germany, my family skipped the rock by the fire and opted for a raclette machine, a two-tiered hot plate. A bowl of steamed potatoes went on the top tier. On the bottom were individual trays which sat directly beneath electric heating coils.
Each person placed several slices of cheese on a tray, which then were slid into the machine. Once the cheese melted, a few tender potatoes were flattened with a fork on one's plate, and the oily, oozing cheese was slid over them.
Though raclette retains the social nature of the related cheese fondue, it's much easier and cleaner to prepare.
If you don't have a nifty raclette machine, a hot plate or portable gas burner set on medium-low with a griddle does nicely, though you'll need a spatula to get out the melted cheese.
Can't find raclette cheese? Complain to your grocer, then try Swiss Gruyere, Fribourg, Comte or Cantal cheeses, which Peterson says make fine substitutes.
As for those who don't do dairy, they're kind of out of luck. This is a dairy-intensive dish that doesn't fare well without the real thing. Some soy cheeses will melt and taste fine over potatoes, but none is likely to replicate the flavor of raclette.
1 1/2 to 2 pounds raclette cheese
3 pounds small red or white new potatoes
1 white or black truffle (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the potatoes in a pot with enough cold water to cover by several inches. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Drain the potatoes when the potatoes are easily pierced with a knife, roughly 15 to 25 minutes.
The potatoes can be peeled or left as is. Place them in a heatproof bowl and keep warm either on a raclette machine or in a 200-degree oven.
Cut the cheese into 1/4-inch slices and arrange on a plate at the table. Provide a means for melting the cheese, either a hot plate with a griddle or a raclette machine.
To serve, diners should place several slices of cheese over the heat. When it has melted, put 1 or 2 potatoes on each plate and scrape or drape the cheese over them.
Shave the truffle over each serving, then season with salt and pepper. Makes 6 to 8 main servings.
Adapted from "Glorious French Food" (Wiley; $45.)
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