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Hold Your Nose and Pass the Cheese

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Raichlen is the author of "High-Flavor, Low-Fat Vegetarian Cooking" (Viking, 1995)

The French and Swiss Alps are home to one of the world’s greatest live-fire dishes, an apres-ski classic: raclette.

Raclette describes both the dish and the cheese used to make it. The latter is a large (3 inches thick, 13 to 17 inches in diameter and 13 to 17 pounds) disk-shaped, semi-firm cow’s milk cheese with 45% butterfat. A nonedible, dark-beige rind covers a pressed, cooked, softly firm curd.

Raclette’s most distinguishing feature is its aroma, which might charitably be described as pungent. (Actually, it smells like something left to rot for a few months in a gym locker filled with dirty sweat clothes.) In its natural state, raclette’s aroma will be off-putting to all but the most ardent devotees of Limburger.

But melt the cheese next to an open flame and the infamous odor disappears. The cheese becomes as creamy as butter and as mild and sweet as fresh mozzarella. The traditional way to eat raclette is to scrape silky globs of the melted cheese over boiled potatoes and pickles. The name comes from the French verb racler, meaning “to scrape.”

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In its earliest incarnation, raclette was made by placing a half- or quarter-wheel of cheese on a stone in front of the fireplace. As the cheese melted, it would be scraped onto plates to be enjoyed with such traditional Alpine fare as crusty bread and boiled potatoes, sliced country ham or bundnerfleisch (Swiss air-dried beef), tangy pickled onions and cornichons.

Heidi fans may remember her grandfather melting the cheese in front of the fireplace in Johanna Spyrie’s immortal novel. Cheese authority Evan Jones captured the spirit of raclette in his book, “The World of Cheese” (Knopf, 1995): “It boils like pale-gold lava on a sizzling hot plate.”

Today, most restaurants use electric raclette melters instead of the fireplace, but the rich, creamy flavor of the melted cheese is almost the same.

If you have a fireplace or wood stove, you can melt the raclette in front of it. Build your fire with hardwood, not pine, which would impart a resinous taste. Place next to the fire a half-wheel of cheese lying flat on a rock, on a couple of bricks or on the bottom of a heavy pot that has been turned upside down. With a knife, scrape off swaths of cheese as it melts. Alternatively, you can stand the cheese upright in front of the fire.

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You can also melt the cheese on a hot barbecue grill by holding a one-pound wedge of it over the fire with tongs. For an even richer smoky flavor, place the cheese directly on the grate and scrape it onto plates as it melts. You’ll need to be super-attentive with the direct grilling method so that the cheese doesn’t burn and fall through the grate.

You can also melt chunks of the cheese in a roasting pan under a broiler. For absolutely fuss-free raclette, arrange the potatoes, onions and pickles in gratin dishes or on heat-proof plates and place slices of raclette on top. Run the dish under the broiler until the cheese is melted and bubbling. This is the easiest way to serve raclette, although it lacks the fireside theatrics of the traditional preparation.

Raclette is widely available at cheese markets and gourmet shops. You won’t have any trouble locating it; just use your nose. Raclette is made in France and Switzerland; in the former, in the Franche-Comte, Savoie and Haute-Savoie regions; in the latter, in the canton of the Valais. The best raclette is made with unpasteurized milk.

When buying raclette, Steven Jenkins, author of the “Cheese Primer” (Workman, 1996) recommends cheeses from the towns of Bagnes, Conches, Gomser and Orsieres in Switzerland and from Brunnerois and Perrin in France.

Who says you can’t enjoy live-fire cooking in the winter? Never did something that smells so bad taste so good.

RACLETTE

1 1/2 pounds small red boilingpotatoes, scrubbed

Salt

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24 pickled onions, drained

24 cornichon pickles, drained

6 thin slices black forest ham, optional

6 thick slices rye or country-style bread

1 (2-pound) piece raclette cheese (or 1/3 or 1/2 of a whole cheese)

Cut potatoes into 1-inch pieces and place in pan with cold salted water to cover by at least 3 inches. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain in colander. Rinse with cold water and drain again. Arrange potatoes, pickled onions, cornichons and ham on platter.

If melting raclette next to fireplace or wood stove, build brisk fire and let it burn down to red glow. If using charcoal or gas grill or broiler, heat to high.

Toast bread in front of fire, on grill or under broiler. Have guests place 1 slice bread, 1 slice ham, several potatoes, onions and cornichons on their plates. Using tongs, hold cheese next to fire (or place it on rock next to fire) until surface begins to melt. Scrape melted cheese over bread, ham and vegetables. Return cheese to heat and continue melting until all is used up.

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Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

848 calories; 875 mg sodium; 167 mg cholesterol; 50 grams fat; 48 grams carbohydrates; 51 grams protein; 0.78 gram fiber.


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