Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Low Tech Cooking

Call me a Neo-Luddite, but much of technology is just downright scary. Take Google’s latest product, now in beta testing: Google Glass. Isabel, my seventeen year old, brought this to my attention after some of her friends were raving about it, saying that they can’t wait for it to hit the market. Thankfully, Isabel herself is skeptical and concerned about Glass’s ramifications. To me, it seems not very far removed from the 1991 Wim Wenders sci-fi film Until the End of the World, in which people become addicted to glasses that allow them to view their own dreams, as society collapses around them. I’m aware of the irony in my writing this blog post on a Google platform, using technology that didn’t exist in the not so distant past….

How does this relate to food, you may wonder? I’m a low tech cook. I don’t tend to own a lot of fancy kitchen gadgets or appliances, in part because I don’t like clutter, but also because I’m of the belief that they don’t necessarily make food taste better. Most of the time, in fact, the opposite is true. If you start with quality ingredients, the less you fuss with them, the truer they taste. Elaborate preparations often just mask a food’s essential flavor with an inferior flavor.  

Eating at restaurants that specialize in molecular gastronomy is an interesting experience, but I haven’t found the food to be especially delicious. It tastes a bit bizarre, to be honest—sauces frozen into little spheres with liquid nitrogen, gelatinous cubes of mushroom essence and the like. The novelty of it is entertaining, but I really would prefer to sink my teeth into a quality grilled cheese sandwich. It’s hard to improve upon good old melted cheese and bread.

Which brings me to one of my favorite cold weather dinners—fondue. (And yes, we’re still having cold weather at the end of March here in Vermont.) 

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love fondue. My mom had a little metal fondue pot (currently retro chic) that she would pull out when she had “the Bridge Group” over, and it was a thrill to sneak a scoop of runny cheese while the adults were otherwise occupied. When I was studying in France in college, I had authentic Swiss fondue in Geneva with my friend Susan, and we got so engrossed in the experience that we almost missed our train back to Dijon. More recently when I was living with my family in Paris two years ago, we liked to go to a little fondue restaurant around the corner from our apartment. It had hot plates built right into the wooden tables. Why is it that there are countless fondue restaurants in Paris and I’ve never seen a single one here in the US?

Fortunately fondue is simple to make at home. We don’t own a fondue pot, but a double boiler (called the much nicer sounding bain-marie in French) works just fine. Again, my kitchen is very low tech.

I like to use Vermont cheese as much as I can and one of my recent favorites is Cowgirl Creamery’s Reading Raclette. Made in copper vats using traditional methods, it’s meaty, pungent, and melts luxuriously.

I pair this with Thistle Hill Farm’s Tarentaise, an organic cheese also made in a copper vat and that reminds me of Gruyère, one of the classic cheeses in fondue. It’s milder than the Raclette, with buttery, grassy notes.

Finally, for the sake of Swiss authenticity, I grate in some Emmentaler, the other classic fondue cheese. 

Eaten plain, it’s nothing special, but it adds depth and stretchability, which is imperative to excellent fondue. Setting the whole double boiler, pot and all, on the table keeps the cheese warm, but as the water cools the cheese becomes thicker and stretchier. The last third is the best part.

Crusty bread is also imperative to good fondue. A baguette from Red Hen does the job stupendously. A salad of mixed baby greens balances out the meal, dressed in a vinaigrette. I have to admit that one kitchen gadget I couldn’t live without is a salad spinner. That’s about as high tech as I get.

Fondue à la Vermont

1 clove garlic, halved crosswise
1¼ cup  dry white wine
8 ounces (about 3 cups) Reading Raclette, grated
8 ounces (about 3 cups) Tarentaise, grated
8 ounces (about 3 cups) Emmentaler, grated
1 T cornstarch
Freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground white pepper
1 baguette, cut into 1 inch cubes

Put water in the bottom of a double boiler so it reaches the base of the upper vessel. Rub the inside of the vessel with garlic. Pour a cup of wine into the vessel and heat it over a medium burner. When the wine is warm, add the grated cheese by the handful, stirring after each addition, until it’s melted and combined.

Stir the cornstarch into ¼ cup of wine and mix until it dissolves. Add this to the cheese mixture and stir until it’s smooth and slightly bubbling, about 3 minutes. Season with nutmeg and pepper.

Transfer the double boiler to the table (be sure to put a hot pad under it). Serve with the baguette. Kebab skewers work well for dipping.

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