Macaroni and cheese was the perfect dish to eat while moving into this new home, but a few weeks ago I fixed another of my favorite cheese dishes -- Raclette.
Raclette is a pungent Swiss cheese somewhat reminiscent of Gruyere. It's typically softer and a bit more oily than Gruyere. The French also make a Raclette, but in my experience it's milder than the Swiss variety and not as good. It's worth noting that the primary difference between the Swiss and French versions is which side of the valley the cows grew up on as the region where it was developed predates both countries.
To make the dish, you boil potatoes, then hold up a large chunk of Raclette to a fire. As the cheese melts you scrape it off (the word "raclette" comes from the French word "racler," which means "to scrape") and put it on the potatoes. The characteristics of the process means that Andre gets some cheese on a chunk of potato; the wheel is again exposed to the fire and, when suitably melted, Michele gets the next helping of cheese; the process is repeated and Guy gets some cheese; this rotation continues until everyone has had enough.
In the meantime, as everyone waits their turn, they munch on assorted pickles, olives, and sliced meats such as salami or cold ham. This approach makes for a great, lingering meal filled with munching and conversation. You can find electric Raclette machines that imitate the traditional fire (and so lend themselves to eating in rotation), and others that melt individual portions of cheese. The machines aren't necessary. I typically place slices of cheese over boiled potatoes in ramekins and then broil them in the oven. Not as much fun, but cheap and convenient.
Raclette is most available in the late fall and early winter. You can usually find it in specialty cheese stores, occasionally in supermarkets, Trader Joe's sometimes has it, and if all else fails you can order it over the Internet. Again, I recommend the Swiss variety, but the French Raclette is still good. If you can find neither, Alpenzeller is a good substitute.
Raclette cheese (about 1/3 lb per person)
Assorted pickles (Cornichons, which are tiny dill pickles, are addictive and traditional and I usually include sweet gherkins and pepperoncini)
Sliced meats (salami, summer sausage, and cold roast beef, ham, and turkey)
Firm-fleshed potatoes (12 oz per person -- I recommend small red-skinned potatoes)
Freshly ground black pepper
Boil unpeeled potatoes in salted water until tender. In the meantime, make up a platter of pickles, olives, and meats.
Place potatoes in individual ramekins and, using a fork, break up potatoes into bite-sized chunks. Slice cheese and layer generously over potatoes. Place ramekins in oven beneath broiler and cook until cheese melts and bubbles. Generously grind black pepper over melted cheese (or allow each individual to do so) and serve.
Ideally this should be served with a crisp, fruity white wine. But a hard apple cider would also be good. Pick a cold snowy or rainy winter night, build a fire, and enjoy it as it was eaten originally in an impromptu picnic on the floor.
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