Fondue is “Cool” Again

February 4, 2010



Bring that fondue pot out of storage: It’s time to take the plunge once more.

By Anna Herman

For The Inquirer

Remember fondue?

Those hot pots of melted cheese were so ubiquitous in ’70s American culture that every newlywed couple opened at least one fondue pot among their wedding bounty.

By the early ’80s, the fad had faded, and most pots were stowed away.

But a desire for simple home entertaining has led many of us to rediscover those pots from the past. No longer exotic, fondue now feels comforting and nostalgic, with added appeal as an easy-on-the-budget, festive food that’s quite versatile.

If you serve chocolate fondue for two, it’s romantic. Serve cheese fondue during the week – even after school – and it’s a special occasion. Serve fondue in courses for company and it’s a party.

Fondue Night has become a tradition at our house. We were inspired initially by the menu of an expensive and now defunct fondue restaurant to create our own (higher quality and much less costly) version of a three- or four-course fondue meal.

The menu feels stylishly retro, is completely kid-friendly, and is a convivial way to gather and feed a group.

Invite a few couples or families together – in front of the fireplace if possible – around a pot of gooey cheese fondue with sliced baguette, apples, and sliced vegetables to dip. Offer cocktails or beer and wine, and some cider or spritzers for the kids.

Next, move to the dining room and find a place across from a simmering pot of seasoned broth. Spear thin-sliced beef, or marinated duck or tofu, and chunks of veggies and cook to order in the hot, savory liquid.

You can make a big salad, or, once all the meat and veggies are cooked and eaten, add a quantity of julienned vegetables, greens, even noodles or dumplings to the still-simmering broth for an easy, flavorful third course.

Later – back by the fire, perhaps – put out cordials or tea and coffee and several small pots of warm dessert dips with fresh and soft dried fruit, cake, and homemade marshmallows or graham crackers, to end the evening.

Any one of these courses is enough to offer – and on a snow day or for an early weeknight dinner, it can be more than enough.

The word fondue comes from the French fondre, “to melt” – an apt description of the melted cheese and wine mixture first served in French-speaking Switzerland. Now the term is used for not only warm cheese mixtures, but also for simmering liquids and hot oils in which to dip or cook food communally.

Each Swiss canton has its own classic cheese combination, and many cheese shops throughout Switzerland offer a proprietary blend of grated Alpine cheeses such Gruyere, Emmentaler, Appenzeller, Raclette, and Vacherin. Most cheese fondues cook a blend of cheeses in seasoned wine or beer, with some starch to bind. The right blend of cheeses ensures a good mix of nuttiness, sharpness, and complexity and also balances melting and textural qualities. I especially like sharp aged Cheddars, Fontinas, and nutty aged Goudas in my own proprietary blend.

Many other cultures have long traditions of warm dips and bubbling broths or oils in which to cook foods to order. Chinese “hot pots” have been served for more than 1,000 years. Various meat and seafood broths served in the center of the table allow diners to choose from sliced meats, seafood, and poultry, dumplings, and vegetables artfully arranged on platters. Selections are cooked in the broth and served with additional dipping sauces. This broth-style preparation is quite flavorful, light, and low fat. A small amount of tender meat can be sliced into many portions. I generally avoid chicken – even though it cooks quickly – because of the risk of cross-contamination from raw poultry.

There are many high-quality fondue pots available at almost every price. But if you keep your eye out at yard sales, and ask your friends, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to gather a collection of slightly used or completely unused fondue sets very cheaply or free. Any heavy-bottomed saucepan – copper or cast iron – with some sort of warming stand and chafing burner works.

The easiest setup I’ve used is simply a nice saucepan held up by three bricks set in a triangle, with a can of sterno in the center underneath. Up to eight good friends can take turns around one cheese fondue pot – but for bubbly broths cooking meat, poultry or seafood, try to have enough pots going so no more than four to five people are sharing one cooking vessel.

Use your heaviest pots for the easy-to-scorch cheese fondue; the thin-walled decorative fondue sets are good for keeping the broth simmering. For cheese fondue I go directly from stove to warming ring with a heavy copper pot. Smaller ceramic, terra cotta, or copper pots are good for the very delicate and easy-to-burn chocolate and other dessert mixtures, which need only a candle to keep warm.

Experiment with different cheeses, meats, vegetables, and chocolates. I think you’ll find that on these cold and dreary winter days, a warm aromatic pot of delicious food to share is never out of fashion.


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