A Good Appetite: A Little Nostalgia, a Long Fork and Lots of Cheese
January 23, 2008
By MELISSA CLARK
ONE chilly afternoon, my mother dropped by with a small shopping bag filled with fondue forks.
“I thought you might find a use for these,” she said before rushing out the door.
But wait, I called after her, what happened to the fondue pot?
“Oh, I used it to plant an amaryllis,” she said.
I think she meant for me to use the forks for tasks like removing the last olive from a tall, narrow jar, or spearing a stray cherry tomato that had rolled onto the oven floor.
But I had another idea. Why not make fondue?
Although I hadn’t made fondue since graduate school, when I lived with a friend and her parents’ vintage fondue pot, I remembered the recipe being as simple as a toasted cheese sandwich, but more satisfying. After all, be it an oozing wedge of baked Camembert, the puddles of mozzarella atop a pizza, or a bubbling Welsh rabbit, few foods are as compelling as melted cheese.
But did fondue always have to be the centerpiece of what inevitably comes off as an I Love the ’70s theme party? What if I wanted to make fondue for two? Would we have to wear bell-bottoms?
And, most pressingly, could I substitute another pot for the one currently housing my mother’s flowering plant?
I called Terrance Brennan, the chef at Artisanal, where fondue is on the menu year-round. He was reassuring. “You can use any pot for fondue, as long as you eat it fast enough, before it gets cold and hard,” he told me.
I told him I doubted that would be a problem. Besides, a heavy, enamel-lined cast-iron pot, like the ones at Artisanal, would retain heat far longer than my mother’s lightweight fondue pot, giving me plenty of time to devour a fittingly gluttonous portion before the melted cheese lost its allure.
Mr. Brennan assured me that almost any cheese could work in a fondue. After all, fondue isn’t one particular recipe. I’ve seen it on menus to describe any number of preparations, including a lush blanket coating snails at Anthos and a thick sauce for apple salad at One Sixtyblue in Chicago.
As long as it is primarily made from copious quantities of melted cheese (the word fondue comes from the French fondre, to melt), then, at least to me, it qualifies.
But I did want to start with something fairly classic, so I searched my shelves for a Swiss cookbook. I eventually came across a chapter on Switzerland in a 1970 Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook titled “A Quintet of Cuisines,” a wide-ranging farrago that juxtaposed chapters on Bulgaria, Poland and all of North Africa.
Its fondue recipe called for an equal amount of Gruyère cheese, for its depth of flavor, and Emmenthaler, for its supple texture; a shot of kirsch, for its cherry aroma and alcoholic oomph; and a little garlic, for bite.
The recipe came with a warning: do not drink any cold beverages with fondue, or the cheese will ball up and wreak havoc on your intestines.
The information sounded suspect. So I called my Swiss informant in New York, Ralf Kuettel. At his restaurant, Trestle on Tenth, one can order pizokel, traditional Swiss dumplings, and any of 10 Swiss wines, but conspicuously not fondue. “I’m trying to avoid the stereotype,” he explained.
And what about that ban on cold liquids?
“That’s what people always say, but then, most people drink fairly cold white wine with fondue, so it’s a dish that’s full of contradictions,” he said, adding that he never encountered any intestinal distress from the combination.
He approved of the recipe, though. So that night I made it in my trusty cast-iron Dutch oven. It took all of 15 minutes, and emerged as magnificently creamy, smooth and velvety as custard, but with a funky, deep flavor that dazzlingly enriched anything I dunked in the pot: bread cubes, apple slices, clementine sections, nuggets of salami, pretzels, tofu. It was even marvelous spooned onto a romaine lettuce salad in place of dressing.
When the cheese started to cool and congeal, which took a good 30 minutes, all I did was stick it back on the stove, stirring until runny.
Although I had gobbled the better part of a fondue dish meant for four, days later I was ready for another. A friend was coming to dinner, and I couldn’t think of a simpler or more inviting dish to serve on a winter night.
This time I used a good extra-sharp Cheddar cheese and stirred in a little Irish whiskey in place of the kirsch. We devoured it in minutes, and my friend didn’t even notice the absence of a Sterno can beneath the pot.
When the pot was nearly empty, I put it on the stove to brown the thin layer of cheese that remained. It became as crisp and salty as a potato chip. Called la religieuse, according to my multi-culti sourcebook, it made an appropriately miraculous finale. My friend was unduly awed by my culinary prowess; I never mentioned that fondue was one of the easiest company dishes I’d made.
After those accolades, I realized that most people are charmed by a vat of gushing, aromatic cheese. Fondue became my go-to dinner party hors d’oeuvre, and I tried to concoct every possible combination.
I played with whatever was left over in the cheese drawer, and it was all divine. I used a port wine once instead of a white to make a delectable, shockingly purple rendition. Beer, dry red wine and cream also worked as the liquid component. I gleefully tossed in herbs and extra garlic, fennel seeds and cumin, caramelized onions, chipotle chilies, chopped pickle.
Remembering that I once dined on an extraordinary Stilton and Sauternes fondue at Artisanal, I made a variation with Passito di Pantelleria and Gorgonzola. I even reached out to fondue’s molten sisters and whipped up a chorizo-laden queso fundido and an elegant white-truffle-oil-suffused fonduta with a good, pungent fontina. It seemed I couldn’t fail.
Until the day I did. I watched, horrified, as a mass of gorgeously nutty, aged Gouda seized and curdled into a stringy, unappetizing mass. What had gone wrong? I phoned the cheese maven Max McCalman, an author of books on cheese and a consultant to Artisanal.
He wasn’t surprised. Crumbly, dry cheeses don’t melt as readily as smooth, semifirm ones, he said. But, he added, a little bit of acid, like a high acid wine or lemon juice, will do wonders in smoothing out intractable curds.
So I gave Gouda another try, this time using a two-year-old chunk (the first one had been aged for three years) and a bright, high acid wine. I also threw in some caraway seeds because I love few things more than melted Gouda on rye.
Yet again, the fondue gods were on my side. It was bubbling perfection: rich, pungent, resinous from the caraway and buttery from the runny cheese.
As I was lapping up the last few drops, my mother called. Her amaryllis died. Did I want the fondue pot?
I thought about it for a minute, then declined. I had everything I needed already here.
vendredi, janvier 25, 2008
you had me at "cheese"
"Molten cheese" may just be the best word pairing in the English language. I'm gonna have to make fondue. Soon.