When Cowgirl Creamery breaks out the raclette on weekends in San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace, people float into the store almost trancelike.
“They smell that aroma coming down the hall in the ferry building and they’re drawn to it like a cartoon,” Sue Conley, co-founder of the San Francisco-based cheese company, says of raclette — the name of a cheese, as well as a dish and the machine used to make it.
Consider it a more sophisticated answer to fondue. Raclette — which derives from the French word meaning “to scrape” — involves melting the surface of a wheel of semi-soft raclette cheese, then scraping the gooey part onto boiled potatoes and other accompaniments. A tradition of the Swiss Alps, raclette is still little known in the United States. But that may be changing.
The pungent cheese has been made in Switzerland for centuries. Its most distinctive feature is that it becomes creamy and smooth when melted. The Swiss eat it as a meal, accompanied by boiled potatoes, cornichons and pearl onions, with liberal drafts of white wine or tea. Raclette also makes great street food, served on a slab of bread.
In the United States, it’s hard to find outside high-end cheese shops, markets such as Whole Foods and the occasional very, very cool party.
Raclette should naturally appeal to palates weaned on grilled cheese. But a number of obstacles have slowed its rise. Raclette traditionally has been imported, which can make it both expensive and hard to find. While most raclette still is imported, a number of American cheese makers have begun producing it.
“Even the imported Swiss and French raclette aren’t really marketed and there are only a few producers in the U.S. making it,” says Nora Weiser, executive director of the American Cheese Society, based in Denver. “It’s a matter of awareness in many cases. If awareness is raised and more people try it, I think people will get into it.”
Which may already be happening. It’s no longer hard to find a raclette machine. A trip to the mall and retailers like Williams-Sonoma will do. They also are readily available online.
But raclette aficionados say even equipment shouldn’t stand in your way.
“You don’t need a fancy oven,” says Rene Weber, master cheese maker and vice president of operations for Emmi Roth USA. “You can just cut a quarter-inch slice, put it in a Teflon pan, and heat it up and when it melts you put it on a plate. That’s how the Swiss eat it at home.”
NEW YEAR’S EVE RACLETTE
For the potatoes:
2 lbs. new or fingerling potatoes
For the marinated vegetables:
½ cup rice or sherry vinegar
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. smoked paprika
½ tsp. ground black pepper
2 tbsp. chopped fresh thyme
1 cup frozen peeled pearl onions, thawed
3 red bell peppers, cored and sliced
1 lb. green beans, trimmed
12 oz. small button mushrooms
For the accompaniments:
4 oz. prosciutto
4 oz. dry salami, sliced
1 lb. cooked, peeled shrimp
½ cup marinated artichokes
½ cup gherkins or cornichons
2 lbs. raclette cheese, sliced
Heat the oven to 200 degrees.
To prepare the potatoes, fill a large pot with the potatoes and enough salted water to cover them by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high and cook for 15 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork. Drain the potatoes, then return them to the pot, cover and place in the oven to keep warm.
While the potatoes are cooking, start the vegetables. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the vinegar, sugar, salt, paprika and black pepper to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt.
In a large bowl, combine the thyme, onions, red peppers, green beans and mushrooms. Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the vegetables then set aside, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.
To serve, follow the product directions for heating and using your raclette grill. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the marinated vegetables to a platter. Arrange the accompaniments in bowls or on plates. Guests can heat vegetables on the top of the grill and melt cheese using the grill’s broiler according to product directions. Top potatoes with the vegetables and melted cheese.
Makes 8 servings.