Comforting Fondue

Winter is a great time for prodigious amounts of cooking and eating! ;) The cold air really gives us an appetite and thus a desire to get into the kitchen; soups and stews never tasted so good. A friend who contributes to the blog Vinoteca recently posted on comfort wines. That got me thinking about the soothing dishes I go to especially when the winter months roll around. Many are tied to my southern upbringing and my grandmother’s table. Today, though, I’m making cheese fondue which I associate with junior year abroad when I met my husband. As soon as the weather gets cold, we both get a yearning for the festive Swiss national dish!

First, you need the right cooking vessel: un caquelon, or a ceramic fondue pot. You’ll also need some kind of heat source to keep the mixture warm once you get it to the table. Those small gel-type warmers like Sterno which have little more strength than a candle are not sufficient for this job. We have a spirit burner that I found at a neighborhood yard sale; you just have to keep replenishing the denatured alcohol that fuels it. After you have assembled the necessary equipment and cubed French bread, you need to get started on the cheese: a mixture of a half-pound each of aged emmentaler and gruyère. (You can increase the proportions if you're serving more than two.)

I have had only one failure making my own fondue—but it was a colossal one! Don’t make my mistake or you will end up with a huge glob of cheese for supper. The cheese cannot be cubed, thinly sliced, or any way other than grated. You can buy a bag of the two grated cheeses at Price Chopper and probably at other supermarkets around the country. We have a nifty cheese grater that you crank and the job is quickly done. Next, mix 3 tablespoons of flour into the one pound of grated cheese and you’re 10 minutes away from eating!

Cut one clove of garlic in half lengthwise and rub the cut side inside the pot. (I also chop up a bit of the same piece of garlic and throw it in as the cheese starts to melt.) Then pour 2 cups of dry white wine into the cooking dish and set it over medium high heat. When small bubbles begin to form over the bottom of the pot, squeeze in about one tablespoon of fresh lemon juice. Now you’re ready to put in one handful of cheese, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon making 8s for about 20 seconds or so until it melts. Keep adding a handful of cheese at a time until it is all used up. Stir in a dash of pepper and a grating of nutmeg, plus a tablespoon or two of kirsch. (The recipe also calls for a little salt, but I tend to think it's salty enough with just the cheese.) It’s now ready to serve. I normally make a green salad to go along with it.

There is some debate about what to drink along with fondue as seen by a recent article that appeared in the Times Union. I would strongly discourage beer or red wine. Classically, the drink of choice is white wine which matches an ingredient in the dish. Anyway, I hope you’ll try it.

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A Simple Meal

One of my sons always used to point out that I say that everything I cook is easy. Maybe now that he's on his own he realizes that it’s true. Many of my meals have few ingredients and take thirty minutes or less to prepare. Like anything else, of course, with practice your skills improve and you can turn out a dinner in no time flat. Not only that, you also develop what the French call “le pif” (literally, slang for “the nose”)—a flair, an intuition for what tastes good. In my mind, some of my best dinners have been only loosely based on a given recipe.

I’ve mentioned in a previous blog that I appreciate a quotation from Chef Paul Bocuse that good cooking does not necessarily imply something complicated and expensive; that the best meals are simple ones. Take last night’s completely oven-cooked dinner as an example. Our local fish store has some good crab cakes which I heated up for about 10 minutes and served as a first course with an impromptu dollop of mayonnaise mixed with fresh lime juice, and a touch sambal (Asian chili sauce) for added spice.

Since I am infamous for serving a combination of cuisines in the same meal, I decided to follow the appetizer with a Greek-inspired menu. To this end, I first visited a friend’s blog, French Fries on Wednesday, which has a huge listing of Greek and other recipes at the bottom of the first page under “Labels.” Lisa’s “Greek Potatoes Patates”—which are peeled, cut into wedges, topped with butter, a little chicken broth, olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, and onion—were just delicious. You do have to bake them for about an hour in the oven, but they are well worth it if you have the time. (Otherwise, rice, pasta, or bread would do fine as a starch.)

Next, I got out my Treasured Greek Recipes cookbook published years ago by the women at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Albany for its “Haddock Oliviano.” Using the fresh fish I had also purchased yesterday, I put the fillets in a buttered casserole dish and topped them with olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, salt, parsley, and a little oregano. All you have to do is bake the fish for the last 20-25 minutes of the potatoes' cooking time.

To round out the meal I made a modified Greek salad. I nearly always have feta cheese on hand which I crumble over lettuce, along with black olives, a tomato, onion, oregano, garlic salt, olive oil, and vinegar. Served along with a dry white wine, it was a simple, satisfying meal which is basically Mediterranean-based and heart healthy. Try it; you'll like it! Bon appétit!

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Keeping or Getting Fit

All of the over-indulgence associated with the holidays at this time of year makes me think of weight gain and working out. For ages my New Year’s resolution every January 1st was to get more exercise. That always lasted about a month at best, but I have gotten better recently. For one thing, I finally realized that the whole three times a week idea simply did not work for me. I was always changing my schedule and found some way to put off exercising. My latest thing is to plan for at least some kind of physical activity every single day. Now, don’t get me wrong…this is not two hours of hard labor at the gym that I am referring to. A mere twenty to thirty minutes of activity with a cardio component is sufficient in my mind.

By far, the top Cheapo way to keep fit is by walking. A comfortable pair of shoes is all the “equipment” that is necessary and you don’t have to become a member of a gym to get the job done. When it’s warm out, there’s nothing more invigorating and beautiful than a fast-paced walk along the river, the canal, the bike path, or even in town. During the cold weather one can bundle up for a quick jaunt around the neighborhood. I knew someone in Vermont who would go out every night after dinner, even if it was snowing, to get some exercise. If you have the time, you could also join the mall walkers, which is not bad at all. There are people and things to look at which makes the time go by fast and at one of the larger shopping centers you can get in your time without retracing your steps.

What I like best in a walk is to have a purpose to it, a destination. The problem here in the United States is that very few suburban areas have sidewalks, which can make getting to the local pharmacy, for example, a traumatic experience. In Europe, of course, people walk all the time. I remember going out with our children on a Saturday the year we spent in Lyon and not thinking twice about walking for three hours downtown. Trying to walk to a near-by supermarket upon our return to the States nearly got us all run over! Sometimes my husband and I create destination walks on the weekend. If we have to go to the bank, say, we plan an itinerary, park the car in an urban area, and walk the round-trip. You can get creative with this and see new sections of the city while getting in your exercise and doing your body some good.

Naturally, as with any type of activity, boredom is the enemy here. What I like least about working out is if I have to go round and round in a limited area like the gym. Even having a partner to talk to doesn’t really make up for the inherent monotony of this type of exercise. With a little imagination, I have found, I can work out, feel more relaxed, and sleep better as a result.

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