Rösti

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Because one cannot have enough potatoes during these dreary winter months, I bring you Rösti – a potato masterpiece from Switzerland.

Similar to a tartiflette, sort of its French counterpart and equally unphotogenic, this potato dish is extremely hearty and satisfying. It would be a perfect meal for avant skiing, as well for après skiing. Not that I ski, but I can imagine how good it would be for carb loading, as well as for replacing precious calories burnt after such an exuberant day on the slopes.

I first enjoyed Rösti in a teeny village somewhere in the Berner Oberland of Switzerland. I have vivid memories of everything about the dish, just not, unfortunately, the name of the village. I remember that we stayed at the only hotel in town, which was quite lovely. Actually, there was no real town. Just a little country road, and the hotel.

For lunch one day, my family sat outside the hotel and enjoyed Rösti and beer. I wasn’t trying to carb-load, although we went hiking after lunch. I just wanted to try the local specialty.

Occasionally cows were led by; they all had cow bells around their necks, which I’d never witnessed before. It turns out, there’s quite a bit of history and cultural importance in Switzerland with their prized local cows and the cow bells as well.

Every year after the snow melts, the cows are taken to high pastures to graze on meadow grass, which is supposedly why the local cheese made from their milk is so tasty. At the end of the grazing season, the cows come home. There is a celebration called the Alpaufzug, which is the procession when the cows return to their villages. It takes place, understandably, in the fall. We were visiting Switzerland in May. Some day I hope to go back for Alpaufzug, because I just have a love affair with beautiful cows.

I got to see the local cows and hear their bells ringing from around their necks, just from them walking around, but the cows don’t always wear their fancy cow bells. These are saved for the Alpaufzug as well as other celebrations. You know the Europeans – there are celebrations for everything and anything throughout the year. But these fancy cow bells can weigh a hundred or so pounds, if I remember correctly. We saw some displayed in various restaurants and hotels throughout the Berner Oberland – giant bells hanging from tooled, leather harnesses. Some of these cow bells go back multiple generations in history; they are very prized and proud possessions for these Swiss people.

Here’s an example of the Alpaufzug from this photo I found online. People actually put flowers on the cows.

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Don’t you wonder what the cows are thinking? But I do love that the Swiss truly love and worship their cows.

Myself, I only found one gal in a field, who didn’t have on a cow bell. But they’re beautiful cows, aren’t they?

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This photo was taken near Interlaken. If you’ve never been to this part of Switzerland, well it’s everything you’ve ever heard or read about it. The mountains, rivers, and valleys are stunning. And if you take the train all the way to the top from Lauterbrunnen, you get to Yungfraujoch, with stunningly icy views, like these:

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I’m actually surprised my camera didn’t freeze, but I wasn’t outside long.

So I’ve gotten a little off track discussing Rösti, but the cows are an important factor because cheese can be part of a Rösti, as well as ham or bacon.

What I ate in Switzerland was classic Rösti – crispy grated potatoes – similar to what the Americans refer to as hashed browns. As much as I try not to google about food, I was really fascinated by what is considered traditional Rösti. And, not surprisingly, I came up with so many versions, depending on the village in Switzerland, and if the village was Swiss speaking, or German speaking.

I came across this interesting tidbit: In Swiss popular consciousness, rösti is eaten only in the German-speaking part of the country. It is portrayed as a stereotypical identifier of Germanic culture, as opposed to the Latin one. The line separating the French and German speaking sides is jokingly called the Röstigraben, literally the “rösti ditch”.

I love how food can be a political divider in countries. I mean, it’s just potatoes! But oh, such good potatoes.

So I decided just to wing Rösti on my own, following no recipe. I might have actually made something very much equaling a traditional dish somewhere in Switzerland – you never know! But I did decide to included Gruyère along with the potatoes. Gruyère is an aged version of what we know in the states to be Swiss cheese, and it’s a product of the milk of those lovely cows chomping away at the alpine grasses during the summer months in Switzerland.

So here’s my version of a perfect, cold weather dish – I bring you Rösti! (pronounced roosh-tee, sort of)

Rösti

7 medium-sized potatoes, peeled ( I chose floury, baking potatoes)
Olive oil or duck fat, not butter
Salt
Pepper
Approximately 8 ounces Gruyère, grated

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
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Grate the potatoes, and then cover them with paper towels to absorb any excess liquid. This will only take about 5 minutes.
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Heat some oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. You will need a generous amount to avoid any sticking.

Place about half of the potatoes on to the bottom of the skillet. Season them generously with salt and pepper. Using the back of a wooden spoon, pat down the potatoes.
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Cover the potatoes with the cheese.

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Then cover with the remaining potatoes. Pat down as before. Drizzle a little bit of olive oil over the potatoes.

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Cook the potatoes, uncovered, over the same heat, until you can tell there’s some browning. This should take about 15 minutes. Make sure that the heat isn’t too high to cause excessive browning or burning.

Now, if you could trust yourself to not spill, you could manage to flip the Rösti over and return it to the pan, cooked side up, but I decided to use my oven to cook and brown the top side instead. But either way will work.

Place the skillet in the oven and bake the potatoes for about 15-20 minutes, or until there’s some equally good browning on the top.
My Rösti ended up being about 1″ thick. If yours is thinner, less time in the oven will be required.

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Remove the skillet from the oven and set it aside to cool slightly. Don’t use a lid, because Rösti should be crispy, not mushy.

Slide the Rösti out onto a serving dish, and slice in wedges to serve.

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Serve hot or at least warm.

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You could serve a fried egg on top of the potatoes, or serve them with some fried sausages. I chose to serve the potatoes with some smoked salmon.

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This made a fabulous meal – I highly recommend it!

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Raclette

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Raclette is not only a name of one of my top five favorite cheeses, but it is also a way to eat. I should say it could be a way to live, because if I could get away with it, I’d eat this way every day! Let me explain.

My family and I took an extended trip through Eastern France about ten years ago, and thankfully, we visited Chamonix. It’s a most magical and picturesque Alpine town, situated at the base of the Alps.

One evening we were wandering through the village trying to pick out our dinner spot. We’re very picky about such things. And then I smelled it. That undeniable smell of warm, stinky cheese. I followed my nose to a restaurant with outside seating – all woodsy and cozy. Even in May, it was chilly at night. Then I noticed these strange contraptions on diners’ tables. This is when and where I discovered Raclette.

Raclette is a cheese – cows’ milk variety – that comes from the Rhones-Alpes region of France. It’s a bit cow-y, but not strong like Reblochon, see tartiflette. I prefer French raclette over Swiss raclette, but that’s just a personal preference. Raclette has an inherent, specific viscosity. If you have noticed, hot cheeses can be thin and runny, or barely move at all – like rubber. Melted raclette is pourable, but not runny.

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The verb “racler” in French means “to scrape.” So this is what you do when you raclette (verb): the raclette (noun) melts because of a heat source, then you scrape the melted cheese onto your bread or potatoes. Originally, the wheels of raclette were melted over or in front of an actual fire.

The contraptions I noticed on the tables of this restaurant in Chamonix were mini versions of traditional fireplace-styled raclettes. A rustic arm of sorts held the piece of cheese, with a fire source underneath, and diners scraped away at the cheese!

After returning home, you can bet I researched raclette, and lo and behold! There were electric raclette makers!!! Not as provincial as sitting around a fire waiting for your blob of melted cheese, but that’s ok. I’m talking about having the most fun you can imagine cooking yourself a dinner that revolves around cheese!!!

In general, there are two kinds of raclette makers. The one on the right is extremely expensive, and not really that much fun I wouldn’t think. It holds a quarter wheel, but I’ve seen similar ones that hold a half wheel. Too much waiting for the cheese to melt.

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This one, shown below, from Williams Sonoma, is very similar to the three I now own. They cost much less and are way more fun, because you can melt your cheese in the little dishes down below, there are eight of them, and grill meats and breads on the upper granite slab. Yes, I now own three raclette makers – I mean, the more people, the merrier!

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Unfortunately, I can’t refer you to the brand I own because I can’t find them anywhere. I guess after years of inviting friends to raclette with me, all of the grills were sold! I would recommend purchasing the grill with the highest rating from a respected company, like Williams-Sonoma, or Amazon.

Raclette cheese wheels are about 15 pounds, but it’s possible to purchase a quarter wheel from igourmet.com, and that will probably get you through the holidays, depending on how many people want to get in on the fun.

So here’s what to do if you want to have a Raclette night, my way.

Raclette Menu for 2 people*

2 filet mignons
Olive oil
2-4 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt
Raclette, about 2 pounds
1 loaf of good hearty bread
Salad Greens
Salad toppings such as tomato, mushrooms, and hearts of palm
Vinaigrette of choice, I recommend a beet-apple vinaigrette**
1 cooked potato, sliced into quarters, lengthwise
Cornichons
Pickled onions

Set two places at the dining table. You’ll need a small plate, a knife, and a fork. The grill comes with the dishes for the cheese, plus the little scrapers with which to remove the cheese from the dishes. I also recommend tongs to pick up the cheese, as well as the other goodies you’re going to have on the table.

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Thinly slice the filets and place the slices on a plate. Blend together the olive oil, garlic, and salt until smooth. Pour over the filet slices and set aside. The marination can also be done the day before; bring the beef to room temperature before beginning to raclette.

Cut up the Raclette (cheese) into about 2″ squares, about 1/3 ” thick. Place on a plate and set on the table.

Slice the bread into 1/4″ slices; place in a bowl or basket and set on the table. If you prefer, grill them ahead of time.

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Divide the salad greens into four bowls. Divide the salad toppings between the four salads. Put these four bowls next to the four plates already on the table.

Place the vinaigrette in a serving bowl or carafe for self-service.

Divide the quartered potatoes among the plates.

Place the cornichons and onions on a little plate on the table.

The electric raclette maker goes in the middle of the table. One raclette maker will easily work for four people at a square table.

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Turn on the raclette. Give it a good 15 minutes to heat up properly.

Place a piece of cheese in a dish to start the melting process. Place a piece or two of the marinated beef on the top to grill. If you wish, add a little butter to the top and grill a few pieces of bread; that’s optional. Add some vinaigrette to your salad, and help yourself to the cornichons and pickled onions.

As the bread grills, place it on the plate. Using the scraper, scrape the cheese out of the dish and onto your bread. Cook your beef how you like it. Eat as is, or place it on your salad. Eat, cook, continue.

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* For more people, just double or triple the menu suggestions. I’ve had eight people raclette with the three raclette grills, and it worked great!

** The beet-apple vinaigrette goes really well with the sweet, creamy cheese. If I were to use a more basic vinaigrette, I would include sliced beets on the salad.

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note: On experiencing raclette, I have only seen raclette on menus in the states at restaurants in ski towns, but only served during the ski season. But I have had raclette at the Burrough Market in London, a very large farmers’ market, at different times of the year. So I’m not really sure about the rules on raclette and when to expect it. Nonetheless, I would recommend trying it whenever and wherever!