A few years ago, I had my first exposure to raclette. I was travelling in Europe, and some friends from San Francisco happened to be on vacation at a 'summer house' right on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to stop in and join them for a few days. The house happened to have a raclette set (something I'd never heard of before) and my hosts graciously introduced me to this meal. This is how it went:
-- A bowl of boiled potatoes was passed around the table. One hostess insisted that, by tradition, they should be peeled. The other insisted that, for the sake of health and convenience, the skins should be left on. On this instance, peeling won out. We put a few potatoes on our plates
-- We were each given little individual pans, on which we placed either vegetables or meat. A generous plate of a distinctive melting cheese called raclette was passed around. We layered the cheese on top of the vegetables or meat, and then stuck our individual little pan under a central broiler -- the crux of the raclette set.
-- After our cheese was melted, we slipped our raclette out onto our boiled potatoes and ate it together.
-- This we did over and over again with vearious fillings until we were completely stuffed.
I loved it.
When those friends returned to San Francisco, they decided to get a raclette set, and told me they would be happy to share it. They invited me and my partner over for a raclette dinner, and my partner loved it as much as I did. Their set has a grill on top, which is great for cooking raw grillable things like sliced mushrooms, baby leeks, onion slices, and sausages or other meat.
Recently, we took them up on their generous offer to borrow the raclette set, and we have been on a raclette marathon. We've had four raclette parties already, and a fifth is scheduled for this week. We're averaging raclette once a week.
I've learned a few things along the way about what works well and what doesn't. Here are a few raclette do's and don't's based on my now copious experience...
-- DO invite a mixed party of vegetarians and omnivores -- this is a perfect meal for these two groups to share. Everyone gets to pick what they want to eat.
-- DO have four to six people. DON'T have fewer than four (it's not as much fun or as worth the trouble); DON'T have more than six, it's just too hectic. Four is the perfect number.
-- DO have an assortment of vegetables, but DON'T have too many. I'd say 3-5 different veggies is a good range. These are my favorites:
sundried tomatoes (reconstituted) in winter, fresh heirloom tomatoes in summer
raw sliced mushrooms slaked with olive oil (I've used large shiitakes and criminis -- both good!)
steamed asparagus (in early spring -- like right now!)
homemade sauerkraut (one of my favorites -- I make mine from red cabbage and the color is gorgeous!)
sliced rings of cippoline or other tender onion, slaked in olive oil
baby leeks, sliced in half and slaked in olive oil
in summertime, sliced baby summer squash and zucchini will be fabulous, as will tender young eggplants
-- DO have two different kinds of meat available. I always like to have Niman ranch ham sliced thinly. Other good options are:
pork chops, brined or marinated and sliced (about 1/4 inch thick)
skinny lamb sausages like the ones The Fatted Calf sells. (The Merguez moroccan sausages)
-- DON'T offer regular big sausages (unless they're smoked) because they don't cook fast enough. Last night I had big sausages but none of them cooked in time on the grill to be eaten! They are now in the fridge waiting to be eaten in some other meal.
-- DO serve a mellow white wine with raclette -- we've enjoyed both Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.
-- DO have some little cornichons available. They go very well.
-- DON'T bother making a salad or anything else. The meal is confusing enough without it -- focus on the cookable vegetables instead!
-- DO offer a good quality dark chocolate for dessert. That's all you need.
-- DO consider disconnecting your smoke alarm -- if you are doing lots of grilling you can set it off.
-- DO buy real raclette cheese. The raclettes I've been offering from my local cheese shop are both cow's milk raclettes from France. One is cave aged and costs $24/lb. The other is not cave aged and costs $14/lb. There are also goat raclettes available but I haven't tried them. The pricey cave aged stuff is worth the splurge if you can afford it -- the flavor is much more complex. If you can't get raclette cheese you can substitute gruyere.
-- DO figure about 1/3 lb of cheese per person.
-- DON'T fret about whether to peel the potatoes or not -- they're good both ways!
-- DO serve the potatoes warm but DON'T butter them
-- DON'T worry about salting everything... The cheese lends the salt. You might want to use a pinch but don't go overboard.
I would love to hear others experiences with raclette! After next week I think we'll return the set, but sometime we'll borrow it again and go on another marathon. It's just too much fun.