A Winter Olympics event to warm you: the raclette

February 23, 1992|By Madeline Davidson | Madeline Davidson,McClatchy News Service

I had a feeling I wouldn't have to wait too long.

After all, we're talking France here. And you can't tell me that the French would let a culinary opportunity whisk by. I mean, the mountains are high and the downhill course is always murder, but not every Winter Olympics takes place in the Mother of

Western Cuisines.

I was snooping around Olympic television coverage when, only three days into the proceedings, bingo.

Yep. Monday night a week ago, there he was on CBS sandwiched in between the luge and the Tower Turn: Jacques Pepin. One of the contemporary French cooking swells. Albeit probably more familiar to Americans as a teacher and cookbook author than to the French. Jacques (Jacques is easier to say than Pepin, which requires that you hold your nose before pronouncing it) was seated in that chalet dining room, telling us all about his plate of raclette -- that's a melted cheese and potato dish, not a piece of sports equipment -- and dried beef, specialties of Savoy, the Olympic playground and a province of eastern France that butts up against Switzerland.

This culinary interval was supposed to add glamour and local color like the TV essays on strawberries and cream at Wimbleton, but the appearance of raclette is to strawberries and cream as Julia Roberts is to Jack Palance.

Besides, whoever directed the scene for CBS didn't have Jacques' best interest at heart. (The luge is just a teensy bit more exciting to cover, n'est-ce pas?) The white-on-white of the potato and cheese hardly made a splash against the white plate and a white tablecloth. As for the beef, it looked like so many slices of shoe leather.

But Jacques is so cute. He comes with a smile as broad as a speed-skating track, and his accent is adorable. He gets my attention. Doubtless, raclette did not get yours.

Too bad. Because some years back, I was party to a plate of raclette in a little Swiss bistro, the kind lit by tiny lamps with pleated silk shades, in Interlaken. The bubbling, scrumptious cheese, oozing across the plate like lava, burying the boiled potatoes, was joy in a dish.

Raclette, named for the cheese used in the dish, isn't just warmth and nourishment, it's an event. What you have is a sort of housebroken fondue, in which you don't have to abandon lost food in a hot pot of cheese. According to a friend, who has more raclette experience than I do, there is such a thing as a raclette-melting machine, but she wasn't enthusiastic.

In France or Switzerland, raclette is made by placing a hunk of the cheese in front of a fire, and when it begins to melt, the melted section is scraped onto a hot plate with the potatoes.

An imported cheese, raclette is not inexpensive. It sells for around $13 per pound. You can substitute another cheese, such as Emmantaler or Jarlsberg, but said my expert, do so at your own risk; your raclette will not taste like raclette.

Raclette

Serves 4.

1/2 pound imported raclette cheese, cut into 16 slices, each 1/8 -inch thick, 5 inches long and 2 inches wide

4 new potatoes, boiled with their skins on, kept hot

4 to 8 small sour gherkins or cornichon pickles

4 to 8 pickle onions

Heat oven to 450 to 500 degrees.

Place four 8- to 10-inch oven-proof dinner plates in the hot oven for 3 to 5 minutes. (If the plates aren't very hot, the cheese won't melt.)

When ready to serve, remove the plates from the oven, arrange four slices of the cheese in the center of each plate, overlapping them slightly. Place the plates in the oven on a rack set in the first slot above the heat source. In 2 to 5 minutes, the cheese should melt to a creamy, bubbly mass.

Remove it from the oven (do not allow it to brown), place a potato and 1 or 2 gherkins and onions on each plate.

Recipe from "A Quintet of Cuisines, Time-Life Foods of the World."

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