THINGS were not going well at all. First, the snow was so high in my driveway I thought I'd need a metal detector to find my car. On top of that, the city hadn't bothered to plow my street. And, to make matters worse, I was having company for dinner.
Then, while searching for a snow shovel in the cellar, I bumped into an old, familiar acquaintance - a dusty fondue pot. Instant nostalgia. Instant inspiration. Instant dinner! Bingo!
I had some cheese in the refrigerator and a loaf of French bread in the freezer. I even had some frozen shrimp and some tenderloin of beef. But could I really serve that dated relic from the platform shoes and bell-bottom pants era? Well, like it or not, there didn't seem to be much choice.
It was in the '60s that the popular Swiss import, cheese fondue, peaked higher than Mont Blanc. But alas, it wasn't much later that its popularity melted faster than Frosty the Snowman.
Fondue, from the French verb fondre (to melt) became the fashionable cousin of raclette, an earlier but similar dish where a hunk of cheese is placed on a board beside a roaring fire. As the cheese melts, it is scraped off with boiled potatoes and eaten with gusto.
Cheese fondue, a concoction of a Swiss cheese melted with wine and eaten with cubes of day-old, crusty French bread became the most popular winter or apres ski meal. It was quickly followed by an American red-meat invention - beef fondue, which isn't fondue in the strictest sense as nothing really melts (except the beef in your mouth if it's done properly).
Fondue pots come in a variety of materials; ceramic for both cheese and dessert fondues such as chocolate (those where food is dipped, rather than cooked), and metal pots for meat and other foods that are actually cooked in hot oil.
The pots are usually heated with canned heat (Sterno) or, even better, alcohol burners where the flame can be adjusted.
A word of caution: Use bamboo spears for cooking meats or fish in hot oil and transfer the cooked food to forks for dipping in sauces. Metal forks get as hot as a branding iron when placed in hot oil and tend to retain heat. If children are around, stick to cheese or chocolate fondue as a bubbling pot of hot oil is no place for them to gather.
Somewhere in your past (and possibly still in your attic, garage, or cellar) there's a fondue pot waiting to be rediscovered. You can actually still buy them in stores, and they are forever springing up at garage and tag sales.
Don't knock it. Fondue parties are an easy and social way to entertain. So plug in that lava light, put on the Beach Boys album, heat up that fondue pot, and take a bite out of the past.
This is an adaptation of cheese fondue that I developed for my friends. It worked well in my moment of need.
8 ounces (2 cups) American cheese, grated
8 ounces Cheddar cheese, grated
3/4 cup whole milk
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 6-ounce canned crab meat, drained and picked over
2 tablespoons capers, drained (optional)
1 clove garlic, crushed
Suggested dippers: Cubed French bread, cherry tomatoes, cooked shrimp, canned artichoke hearts
In a saucepan on the stove combine cheeses and milk. Stir over low heat until melted. Stir in lemon juice, crab meat, and capers.
Rub the inside of your fondue pot with crushed garlic. When the crab-cheese mixture is completely melted, immediately pour into fondue pot. Keep over low flame to prevent cheese from becoming stringy. Spear bite-size pieces of French bread or cherry tomatoes, shrimp, or whole bread sticks on fondue forks for dipping.
Serve with a green salad. One tossed with grapefruit, avocado, and onion would be refreshing. Serves 4.
3 pounds of tenderloin or sirloin beef
3 cups cooking oil (a combination of peanut and corn oil works well)
A variety of dipping sauces (see below)
Cut beef into 1-inch cubes and trim off all visible fat. Heat oil to bubbling in a metal fondue pot. Place a single cube of beef on a long bamboo skewer and dip into hot oil until cooked to your preferred degree of doneness. Oil should be hot enough for beef to sizzle. Cook about 10 seconds for rare, 20 to 30 seconds for well done. Transfer beef to metal fondue fork and dip into sauces. Make sure oil continues to bubble vigorously, but doesn't splatter. If oil cools, slow down and wait for oil to come up to temperature.
Let your imagination loose when it comes to preparing sauces. A blend of mayonnaise (homemade is best), ketchup, or mustards can be mixed with a variety of herbs or seasonings. A few simple ones are mayonnaise and curry; teriyaki; Dijon mustard with mayonnaise; horseradish; Bearnaise; and even some bottled creamed salad dressings work well.
A tossed green salad and French bread complete the meal. Serves 6.
CHOCOLATE-PEANUT BUTTER FONDUE
This is a wonderful warm, rich dessert fondue that is perfect for children and adults alike; a delightful ending to a winter's evening.
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped into pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup chunky peanut butter
Suggested dippers: Pound cake, bananas, strawberries, apples, orange sections, pears, marshmallows, pretzels
In a small saucepan on the stove, combine chocolate, sugar, and milk. Heat over low flame, stirring constantly, until melted and blended. Stir in peanut butter and mix well. Add mixture to fondue pot and dip with a variety of items.
Serves about 6.