Cheese fondue from Switzerland

Loving fondue is so easy, it’s almost boring. If you love cheese, you probably love fondue. And yet every time I make fondue I love it even more. I taste the hint of wine and garlic and the nutty saltiness of the Gruyere and suddenly I feel like I’m in a cabin with a wood-burning stove in the mountains between Geneva and Lausanne where I first had fondue.

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That’s kind of a lie. The first fondue I ever had was at Fondue Fred’s in Berkeley, which was fine, but not nearly as memorable as every other fondue I’ve had since. I ended up in Switzerland not long after that night at Fondue Fred’s, visiting a Swiss friend from college with three girlfriends from California. It was August and we’d just finished our bachelor’s degrees and were traveling a bit in Europe before all heading our separate ways into adulthood.

We told Sebastien that we absolutely had to have fondue while we were in Switzerland. “Fondue? In summer???” he asked with that perfect heavy French accent. Yes, fondue in summer. It's also delicious in fall, winter or spring.

Sebastien’s family raises cows on their small farm. During the winter the cows live “downstairs,” as he says, in the village, but in the summer all the cows are moved “upstairs” to the pastureland in the mountains above the village. Sebastien’s family pays a nominal annual rent to the village to use the pastureland that also gives them the right to use a small cabin.

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Since that first trip I’ve spent many nights in that cabin, keeping warm by the wood stove, dipping bread into melted cheese that somehow tastes like so much more, drinking wine and schnaps and telling stories with old and new friends from around the world. And eventually I even tried my hand at making the fondue on that stove myself, getting tips, strangely enough, from a Russian friend who married a Swiss girl and is now quite the expert. His main advice, which echoes Swiss exhortations, is to stir in a figure-eight to keep the cheese moving and not gathered up into a ball in the middle.

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There are lots of fondue recipes out there, some more traditional than others. Wikipedia has a nice breakdown of the various cheese used across the regions of Switzerland. As Sylvie Bigar says in her piece on fondue for Saveur, “each region believes its local cheeses make the best fondue, and the choice is entirely up to the cook....Perhaps fondue resonates so well with the Swiss because variations unite the regions around the pot: a mirror of a nation of four official languages within 16,000 square miles.”

I learned to make moitié-moitié fondue, which is half gruyere and half vacherin Fribourgeois. I have found it impossible to find vacherin Fribourgeois here in California and at the suggestion of of the owner of our local cheese shop have experimented with varying amounts of emmentaler, brie and most recently a cheese called scharfe maxx, which was fantastic. For the brie fondue I upped the gruyere to 75 percent and cut the rind off of the brie.

One thing to keep in mind is that fondue does require some specific equipment. I really prefer the traditional caquelon because you can make the fondue in it on the stove and then move it to its stand on the table. You could just make fondue in a regular pot and either eat it super fast or figure out another way to keep it warm at the table, like with a hot plate. Here is a round-up of some of your fondue pot options.

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Fondue from Switzerland (a moitié-moitié adaptation)
serves 2 to 4

half a pound gruyere
half a pound slightly softer cheese (I used scharfe Maxx, but lots of cheese would work)
2-3 garlic cloves
1 cup white wine
1 teaspoon kirsch
1 teaspoon cornstarch
a baguette or other good bread that will hold up once dunked in liquid cheese

Grate all of your cheese before you start cooking. I found out by accident that using a finer grater (I use one you’d probably use for a quick grate of parmesan over pasta) almost guarantees a successful fondue. The tiny pieces of cheese melt instantaneously into the wine in the fondue pot.

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I always slice up my baguette or bread ahead of time, although Sebastien now tells me that is “bad practice” because you are “choosing” the size of bread for your guests. I will probably keep slicing it up into bite-size pieces, don’t tell!

Peel your garlic cloves and slice them in half. I think one clove is traditional, but I really like garlic. Rub the cut sides of the garlic all over the inside of your pot. I always just leave the garlic pieces in for a bonus garlic treat midway through my fondue. Then add your wine and turn the heat up to medium.

While the wine is coming to a boil, mix your kirsch and cornstarch into a kind of a slurry. Add this to the wine when all the cornstarch is dissolved into the kirsch.

Once the liquid in the pot has come to a boil, you can start adding your cheese in by the handful, stirring in a figure eight the entire time and letting each handful melt into the wine before adding the next. I keep the heat low to medium during this period. You want it hot enough for the cheese to melt, but you don’t need it bubbling all over the place.

After all the cheese is in the pot, continue cooking and stirring for another five minutes or so for it to thicken up slightly. Then I move the pot from the stovetop to the stand, light the little burner below and dig in.

Fondue is traditionally served with pickles, which cuts the richness nicely. I like to have sliced apples as well and have sometimes done a quick pickled apple to go with fondue. There’s a lot of debate over what should be drunk with fondue. I was taught white wine or black tea by my Swiss friends, but have successfully had cold water with my fondue without it turning the cheese in my stomach into a hard, indigestible ball as I was warned it would.

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Arroz a la Cubana from Spain

Before I studied abroad in Spain, the program coordinators warned the students that our living situations were simply business deals and that the Señoras who would be hosting each of us would likely be older and strict. They would provide us with our own bedroom, two meals a day and clean sheets once a week.

Thus prepared for the worst, I was shocked when my host family came to pick me up. The husband and wife were in their early thirties and they had the sweetest three-year-old with curly hair and big brown eyes. I had learned Spanish in California, where my teachers had focused on Mexican grammar, which doesn't distinguish between the formal plural you and the informal plural you. But in Spain they do use the vosotros or the "you guys" form. I had assumed I would be able to use the formal you with my all-business Señora, but this friendly couple wasn't much older than me and they refused to let me get away with that. We spent many evenings together eating delicious Spanish food and talking, talking, talking. While my classmates were out partying in the clubs of Madrid, I was having family time. It was fantastic and my Spanish improved muy rápido.

I also gained several pounds. Man, the food was so good! The wife usually worked late so the husband did most of the cooking. I'm sure it was a pain to have to cook a real dinner every night and often he would do most of the cooking ahead of time and then reheat everything. Arroz a la Cubana was one of my favorite meals and it turns out it's pretty simple to make, ahead of time or at the last minute.

As I'm learning through this project, a dish's name is not always accurate, so even though the title Arroz a la Cubana would indicate this is a Cuban dish, it seems to be more of an homage. Something along the lines of how the Spanish think the Cubans like their rice. I happen to have some close family friends who are Cuban and they had never heard of this dish, but apparently the father of the family does like a fried egg with his rice.

You heard that right. We're talking about rice, a fried egg and, in the case of Arroz a la Cubana, tomato sauce. It's delicious. And so easy to make. Most versions on the internet include a fried banana, I assume as a stand-in for the fried plantains typical of the cuisine of Cuba and neighboring countries. I don't think we ever had bananas when I would eat this in Spain, but I decided to give it a try anyway. So good, but frying the banana does slightly complicate this recipe, which otherwise is something you could probably make with ingredients in your pantry and fridge right now.

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Arroz a la Cubana
Serves 2

Ingredients:
1 cup of rice
2 cups tomato sauce (I used homemade sauce I froze last summer, but any basic sauce will do)
2 eggs
1 banana
flour
olive oil

Cook your rice however you like. I was always pretty terrible at cooking rice until my husband introduced me to rice cookers. They are a lifesaver. Perfect rice every time.

While the rice is cooking, heat up some tomato sauce. I don't remember the tomato sauce in Spain being particularly complex, just a basic tomato flavor, so you could easily make this yourself by a) seasoning some tomato puree or b) pureeing and seasoning some canned tomatoes. I made my sauce last summer with the bounty of tomatoes we got from our CSA, some onion and maybe some garlic.

Open your banana and slice it the long way once. (Sidenote: I have always been impressed by how handy non-Americans are with a simple knife and fruit. They seem to be so much better at peeling things than we are! I told my host family this and my host father proceeded to show me how to peel and eat a banana with a knife and fork. Impressive! But unnecessary.) Cut your two banana slices in half the short way. Put a couple of tablespoons of flour in a bowl or on a plate and drag your banana pieces through the flour and then set aside.

Once your sauce and your rice is ready, heat up a frying pan with a little olive oil in it. When the pan is hot enough, fry your two eggs. If you have room in the pan you can try frying your banana slices at the same time. I had to do them right after the eggs and let them get nice and brown while I plated everything else.

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Whenever we had Arroz a la Cubana, my host father used a bowl to mold the rice into a perfect little dome on the plate. I didn't have any bowls that size, so I just served it up the same as always. I put the sauce kind of to the side so each person can decide how saucy they want their rice and eggs. And then I very elegantly tossed the banana piece on there.

This is a great weeknight dinner that I'll be adding to the mix more in the future.

Königsberger Klopse from Germany

A lot of what I know about German food I learned in cafeterias. That might sound scary to some people, but mostly the food was pretty good, especially once you knew what to order.

Germans, like lots of other Europeans, still generally have their largest meal at midday, rather than in the evening. That means that universities and work places often have cafeterias that provide a range of hot meals at a pretty decent price.

I first ate Koenigsberger Klopse at the student cafeteria at the University of Hamburg, after I'd been living in Germany for about six months. After a morning of German classes I would meet my friends there for lunch, before we headed to the library to study. I was nervous that the people working at the cafeteria would ask me for a student ID or somehow figure out that I still couldn't speak German well enough to even pronounce "Koenigsberger Klopse." But somehow I blended right in and a few euros later I had a big plate of boiled potatoes and meatballs covered in this silky sauce with lemon notes and bursts of salty capers.

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Koenigsberger Klopse is not a pretty dish! Usually the sauce is a whiter than mine turned out, but I used a vegetable broth that was quite orange. I made my meatballs with a mix of ground beef and ground pork. The two meats are often mixed for preparations like this and the Germans I've asked about it have told me they think it makes a more flavorful meatball. The interesting thing about this recipe is that the meatballs are not browned in the pan but poached in the broth instead.

The name of this dish would indicate that it's from Königsberg, now known as Kaliningrad and part of Russia but once the capital of East Prussia. This author says her recipe is based on one her grandmother, who was born near Königsberg, used to make. But other sources seem less sure about the history of the dish.

There are hundreds of recipes for the dish online and many of them include ground veal and anchovies, which I'm sure would make some tasty meatballs. I used a recipe from a very fancy cookbook I have called German Cooking Today and put out by the Dr. Oetker brand. Dr. Oetker is the Betty Crocker of Germany (I highly recommend the Dr. Oetker brownie mix for a lazy treat) and this cookbook covers most of the German classics. It describes Königsberger Klopse as a "good value."

Königsberger Klopse
Serves 4

Ingredients:
1 stale bread roll (or chunk of baguette)
1 onion
1/2 pound ground beed
1/2 pound ground pork
2 eggs
2 teaspoons mustard
3 1/2 cups stock (Dr. Oetker calls for vegetable stock, but I think you could use chicken or beef)
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup flour
4 teaspoons milk
3 tablespoons capers, drained
lemon juice
salt and pepper

Soak your piece of bread in cold water for about 10 minutes. While the bread softens, peel and chop your onion. I was lazy when I made these, but the smaller your onion pieces the better.

Put the ground meat into a large bowl with the chopped onion, one of the eggs and the mustard. Squeeze out the water from the bread and tear into pieces into the bowl. Season generously with salt and pepper and use your hands to mix everything together. Again, when I made these I didn't salt them enough. I recommend cooking up a little bit of your meat mixture in the frying pan to see if it tastes good.

Put your stock into a large pot and turn the heat up. While the stock comes to a boil, form the meat into 10 meatballs. Then add each meatball to the stock and simmer uncovered over low to medium heat for 15 minutes.

A few minutes before the meatballs are done start the sauce. Melt the butter in a large frying pan. Add the flour and whisk it into a yellow paste. Letting it cook for a minute or two will keep your sauce from tasting flour-y. Keep the heat low. Strain 2 1/4 cups of the hot stock from the pot into your pan, whisking the whole time until there are no lumps.

Bring the sauce to a boil and cook for about 5 minutes. Mix the egg into the milk and then turn off the heat and move the pan off the burner. Whisk the sauce steadily while very slowly adding the milk and egg mixture. Add the capers along with some of the salty liquid from the jar, as well as some salt, pepper and lemon juice. Taste the sauce and see if it needs more flavor.

Move the meatballs from the pot to the frying pan and roll them around a bit so they get nice and covered in the sauce. Then serve with boiled potatoes or rice. Dr. Oetker suggests pickled beetroot as a vegetable accompaniment.