- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Fondue has returned in style and with flair. This popular dish of the 1950s and ‘60s has been rediscovered for joyful intimate entertaining.

Midwinter is an ideal time for a cheesefondue around a crackling fire, perhaps at a ski cabin. Or you might do a family hot pot meal in the Chinese tradition. Or invite guests for a chocolate fondue party, which is also fun for a bridal or baby shower.

What began as a simple Swiss peasant dish born of necessity has spawned countless variations to gain a prominent place in global dining. Besides the original cheese fondue and its variations, today’s repertoire encompasses vegetable, seafood and meat fondues cooked in broth, oil-based meat fondues and elegant dessert fondues.

It is a superb way to entertain a group of friends. It’s convivial, different and allows the hostess to be a partygoer, too.

Preparations are easily made in advance. Guests enjoy the spontaneity of the cooking done at the table. Plus, cleanup is minimal.

Party plans may encompass appetizer, entree or dessert parties. Or all three types of fondue can be featured at a single occasion. Another virtue of a fondue menu is that it is adaptable to many occasions throughout the day.

Today’s fondues also offer options to suit the trend to healthful dining. The cooking medium can be hot fat-free broth as a change from the traditional oil-based medium. And a fondue party can encompass both vegetarians and meat fanciers alike. The wide range of condiments and sauces available also allows for personal creativity in the menu.

I have had the fun of savoring fondues for decades. As I wrote “Fondue” (Chronicle Books for Williams-Sonoma), I drew on memories of savoring the original Swiss cheese and Emmentaler fondue on the slopes of Zermatt, as well as savoring shabu-shabu, boeuf bourguignon and other versions from other parts of the world. Recently, since premium chocolate has become so popular, I delight in chocolate fondue for a dessert party theme.

Cookware shops offer a wide selection of fondue pots. Ceramic and steel pots have been the longtime tradition.

Younger generations are reveling with the ease of plugging in a new electric pot for an intimate feast. Electric woks or electric cook pots are also suitable as cooking vessels.

Here are some tips to help you enjoy this happy custom.

• Select the right pot for the fondue you are making. There are many choices of fondue pots, and the varied styles are designed for different types of fondue.

• Thick ceramic or earthenware pots work best for cheese and chocolate fondues, which require low to moderate heat.

• Metal fondue pots — copper, stainless steel and cast iron — work best for both oil and broth-based fondues that require high heat.

• Fuel sources include denatured alcohol, solid-fuel burners and electric elements. Votive candles are useful for keeping chocolate fondue warm.

Fondue sets are also available with both a metal pot and a ceramic insert, making the set useful for cheese, dessert and oil- or broth-based fondues. Cast-iron pots with a porcelain glaze and pots with a water jacket suit all types of fondues.

Electric fondue pots with a thermostatic control are ideal for all types of fondues. Use a low setting around 150 degrees for dessert fondues; 170 degrees for cheese fondues; 350 to 375 degrees for oil fondues, and 350 degrees for broth fondues initially until the broth boils, then reduce to simmer.

Consider wise safety practices when setting up a fondue party:

• Make sure electrical cords are properly placed. Protect the table with a large heatproof surface marble, a wood plank or ceramic tiles between the fondue pot and the table.

• Be careful to not overfill the container with denatured alcohol, since it will expand and could overflow. Fondue forks should have heat-proof handles. Color-coded forks let each person keep track of a fork easily.

• Stir a cheese fondue with a wooden spoon or heat-proof spatula. Once a cheese fondue has achieved a smooth consistency, keep it warm. If it cools, it may toughen and be stringy upon reheating. Leftover cheese fondue is difficult to reheat smoothly, but a microwave is a help here.

• Use metal pots, such as copper, stainless steel or cast iron, for oil fondues or broth-based fondues. Use pure canola oil or peanut oil since these oils can handle high heat.

• With a cheese fondue, it is best if only one person dips at a time. With a meat fondue, several forks may rest in the pot, but it is best to not have more than six, since too many will cool the pot and keep food from searing quickly. An electric fondue has the advantage of quickly regulating the heat as the forks go into the pot.

For a menu built around the Tuscan cheese fondue, consider a salad with mache, sliced fennel and mandarin oranges or sliced Fuyu persimmons. For dippers, small crimini mushrooms, cooked baby artichoke hearts and red and gold cherry or grape tomatoes and bread sticks lend variety. Dessert may encompass pine nut biscotti and dried apricots and winter pears.

For a one-pot family dinner suitable for guests as well, offer the Chinese steamboat, utilizing chicken, pork or beef, or all three. A wide range of vegetables — bok choy, spinach, snow peas, celery, carrots, celery, mushrooms and asparagus — offers many healthful options. Condiments are easily accessible in your pantry, including soy sauce, chili oil, garlic and fresh ginger root. One special sauce, chili peanut sauce, is quick to mix.

A chocolate fondue can be a gala finale to a guest dinner, but it also makes a fun dessert party with close friends. Offer a selection of fresh diced pineapple, bananas, strawberries, mandarin oranges, angel food cake or tiny cream puffs filled with vanilla ice cream.

The dessert fondues can be enhanced with little bowls of special coatings to cloak the fruit or cake morsels once they are dipped. Chopped toasted almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, grated bittersweet or milk chocolate, praline and toasted coconut add a flourish.

Here are recipes for savoring fondue in festive party themes.

Tuscan cheese fondue

The renowned Italian cheeses intermingle in this zestful cheese fondue for dipping mushrooms, artichokes and bread sticks. The pesto yields an aromatic herb overtone that enhances vegetable dippers.

1½ cups pinot grigio or other dry white wine

2 large garlic cloves, minced

12 ounces (3 cups) Fontina cheese, shredded

4 ounces (1 cup) Asiago or Parmesan cheese, shredded

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 to 3 tablespoons commercial or homemade pesto sauce

Dippers: brown crimini mushrooms, halved; small

cooked artichoke hearts, halved; red or gold cherry tomatoes

Bread sticks, broken in pieces

In a fondue pot, heat wine and garlic until bubbles form. Toss cheeses with cornstarch and gradually add the cheeses, a handful at a time, to the pot, stirring until melted each time. Stir in pesto just before serving. Serve with mushrooms, artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes and bread sticks to dip into the sauce. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Chinese steamboat

This works well with an electric wok or electric fondue pot for cooking at the table. You can simplify the ingredients to suit your taste.

1½ to 2 pounds boneless chicken breast, pork loin, and/or beef, sliced very thin

MARINADE:

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon ginger juice (see note)

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tablespoon sesame oil

Dippers: 12 small, brown, crimini mushrooms or shiitake mushrooms, trimmed, halved if large

8 scallions, cut diagonally in 11/4-inch lengths

1 bunch bok choy, cut in 2-inch lengths

16 small spinach leaves

2 celery stalks, sliced diagonally

1/4 pound Chinese pea pods

½ pound asparagus tips, cut diagonally, optional

2 medium carrots, thinly sliced on the diagonal

16 ounces firm tofu, cut in 11/4-inch squares

8 ounces cellophane noodles, softened in hot water 10 minutes and drained

BROTH:

5 to 6 cups chicken broth

1 ½-inch piece fresh ginger root, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Finely chopped garlic, minced fresh ginger root, chilies, chopped scallion for garnish

Chili peanut sauce (recipe follows)

Soy sauce and chili oil for seasoning

First, assemble all ingredients that will be cooked: the marinade, broth and the condiments.

Season chicken and meat with salt and pepper to taste and place in a bowl with ginger juice, garlic and sesame oil. Let marinate at room temperature 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Arrange chicken and meat, mushrooms, scallion, bok choy, spinach, celery, pea pods, asparagus, carrots, tofu and noodles on a tray at the table. In an electric wok or fondue pot, heat chicken broth with ginger root and sesame oil. Bring just to a boil and simmer gently 3 to 4 minutes.

Provide each diner with chopsticks and set out a serrated ladle for easily lifting out the morsels to individual soup bowls. Cook ingredients in two or three batches in this fashion. Cook firmer vegetables first for 2 minutes, then add chicken, pork and-or beef and next the other vegetables. Cover and bring to a boil for one cooking.

Ladle into bowls, garnish and season with condiments, including chili peanut sauce and soy sauce and chili oil. When all vegetables and meats are eaten, pass drained noodles, heat through and ladle noodles and broth into bowls. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: Ginger juice is available in Asian markets, or make it by peeling fresh ginger root, then grating it, wrapping it in cheesecloth and squeezing it to extract the juice. For easier eating, cut the drained noodles into 3- or 4-inch lengths before adding them to the broth.

Variation: For a vegetarian fondue, omit the chicken, pork or beef and substitute vegetable broth for the chicken broth. Marinate the tofu in teriyaki sauce and cook as directed above.

CHILI PEANUT SAUCE:

6 tablespoons peanut butter

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar

2 teaspoons sugar

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/3 up hot water or chicken broth

1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro, optional

Chili oil (about 5 drops)

In a small bowl, combine peanut butter, soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, sugar and garlic, and whisk in the water or broth, blending until smooth. Stir in cilantro, if using, and chili oil to taste. If too thick, thin sauce to desired consistency with a tablespoon or two of additional water or broth. Keeps refrigerated for 10 days. Makes 1 cup.

Classic chocolate fondue

Remember to use low heat so the chocolate will not scorch. This makes a thick sauce; if desired, thin it with another tablespoon or two of cream.

10 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate

2/3 cup heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons rum, kirsch, Kahlua or cognac

Dippers: strawberries, banana chunks, mandarin orange segments, pineapple chunks, angel food cake or pound cake cubes or 1-inch cream puffs filled with vanilla ice cream and frozen hard

Cut chocolate into ½-inch pieces. Place chocolate, cream and rum, kirsch, Kahlua or cognac in a fondue pot. Place over low heat and stir until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Keep warm over low heat.

Spear strawberries, banana chunks, mandarin orange segments, pineapple chunks, angel food cake or pound cake cubes or 1-inch cream puffs filled with vanilla ice cream into the warm sauce. Makes 13/4 cups or 6 servings.

Chocolate peanut fondue

Peanut butter lovers adore this one.

6 ounces semisweet chocolate, cut in chunks

1/3 cup packed light brown sugar

½ cup milk

½ cup chunky peanut butter

Dippers: marshmallows, tangerine segments, banana slices, apple slices, pear slices, mango chunks and/or cubed angel food cake or pound cake

In medium saucepan, combine chocolate, brown sugar and milk. Heat over medium low heat until chocolate is melted, stirring constantly. Stir in peanut butter and cook, stirring, until heated through.

Transfer to a fondue pot and place over low heat. Serve with marshmallows, tangerine segments, banana slices, apple slices, pear slices, mango chunks and/or cubed angel food cake or pound cake. Makes 21/4 cups or 6 servings.

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